On What Lawyers Really Do

customer-service2Client service is not a class taught in law schools, but don’t forget that client service is at the heart of what we do as lawyers. Our mandate as attorneys is to zealously (and ethically, of course) represent our clients. So whatever area of the law you are in or going into, don’t forget that you are less a litigator, for example, than a service provider. After all, no client, no case to litigate, or will to draft, or deal to do.

Truth be told, it’s not easy to keep client service in mind.  We think of ourselves as practitioners of the law–and we are–and we often want to do things in the way we see as “right” or interesting or novel. When I say “right” I’m talking about your professional opinion about the way things ought to be done, not an ethical or moral rectitude. But sometimes our clients don’t want or need things done the way you or I think they ought to be done. Sometimes clients want interesting or novel thinking, and sometimes they don’t. That’s when it can be difficult to remember that your job is to serve your client and not simply to practice law by your own lights.

Consider a poignant example. I recently sat in a room with one of my company’s outside counsel who is handling a large litigation for us.  She enjoyed telling me the story about defending one of her first big cases in which damages to her client could have been in the range of several tens of millions of dollars. The case settled for closer to ten million, and her client celebrated the result. She thought the client had gone insane: who celebrates losing ten million dollars, and not clearing their good name in court to boot?  But her feelings demonstrate the disconnect between a then-less-seasoned attorney and her client. She wanted to try the case and score a “win”; the client wanted to minimize risk and expense, and believed that settling the case for a fraction of the potential damages was the way to achieve that goal.  She did not have a good understanding of her client’s view of the world, nor of her client’s goals at the time.  If she had, she would have celebrated the “win” with the client rather than doubting the client’s sanity.

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Rumors of the Death of the Billable Hour Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

2666304350_62fd7514eeOr so it seems to me.  Lately, there has been a variety of articles proclaiming the death, or impending death, of the billable hour.  So goes the argument: Billable hours misalign incentives between lawyers and their clients; law firms and lawyers have faced increasing pressure over recent years to redefine their business model and move away from the billable hour, at least in part; and in this economy clients have the motivation, the leverage, and the moxy to demand alternative billing arrangements from their lawyers.

In theory, this may be true, and perhaps large clients (as in those who spend enormous sums of money with their law firms on an annual basis) have put some of this theory into practice.  But I’m not so convinced that the billable hour has earned its demise quite yet.  For one thing I work as in house counsel at a Fortune 1000 company and I see very few alternative billing arrangements.  (For another, I used to work at a big law firm that also saw few alternative billing arrangements.)  That is due in part to our own taste for risk.  After all, alternative billing arrangements must incentivize both parties, meaning the client may end up paying more for a given set of services than it otherwise would have under a billable hour system.

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