With the economy variously in shambles or simply mediocre, many people are finding themselves in dire financial straits these days. If you are one of those people, debt could be your biggest concern. When it accumulates, it tends to hang over an individual’s head like a dark storm cloud waiting to burst. There are a few ways to escape that cloud, however, and one of them is hiring a good bankruptcy law firm to take on your case. Not all such firms are created equal, however, so you need to be careful when making your final decision. Here is the key to getting the most value from your lawyers.It isn’t hard to imagine that money is definitely an object for most people when they talk about hiring a bankruptcy law firm. If money was no object, then they wouldn’t be in the situation to begin with. Therefore, it only stands to reason that many people will choose an attorney based on price alone. This could be a major mistake, however. The way filing and other legal activities are done in this arena means certain fees and payments are nearly unavoidable.Most lawyers should be in the same ballpark when it comes to how much they are charging their clients. If you find one that is charging a drastically reduced fee from the competition, something is probably wrong. Either you are going to wind up paying that gap in money at some point down the road or you will not be getting the value you deserve. It is not uncommon to find unscrupulous people in every profession, and unfortunately some choose to put their Juris Doctorates to bad use by misleading or preying on people who are inexperienced with the law. Do your homework and avoid these unsavory characters whenever possible.So what is it that you should be getting from your bankruptcy law firm? In many area of life, that is a difficult question to answer. In this arena, however, it is a relatively simple one. All lawyers should be offering nearly the same package when they agree to take on your case. That package includes a full financial consultation, at which time they will analyze your financial situation and determine the best course of action. It should include preparing and filing the petition with the appropriate federal court. It should include being present at a meeting of the creditors and making any follow up appointments as necessary. If you are getting all of this for a standard price, you know you are getting good value from your attorneys.Keep in mind that every situation is different. Your situation might call for additional representation beyond that basic package. For instance, if you see litigation in your future, it is clearly going to cost quite a bit more than that initial fee. And if you do foresee this kind of proceeding, you’ll want to find a bankruptcy law firm that is experienced enough to go to battle for you in the trial arena.
In the last quarter of 2008 America faces economic challenges never imagined even a few months ago. How will businesses manage and survive the limitations on credit, demand and growth? How does the economic downturn impact lawyers and law firms which service the business community?It is an obvious fact that businesses can only look at modifying two revenue streams, income and expenses, in order to increase profitability. If income is down and not expected to increase markedly in the near term, clients of law firms will take the hatchet to expenses in order to survive. Legal fees will be under extreme scrutiny. Legal outsourcing, while still a nascent industry, is gaining momentum, being considered in more corporate boardrooms. As the pressures to outsource build, lawyers ponder whether they should embrace outsourcing legal work offshore or resist it. In the face of global economic challenges coupled with the increasing loss of American jobs why would a U.S. law firm want to even consider legal outsourcing? Are there valid reasons why targeted legal outsourcing should be considered by every U.S. law firm?Several weeks ago I received an email from a lawyer who was considering outsourcing some of the legal work of his law firm. Facing resistance and challenges from many in his law firm who wanted to maintain the status quo, he asked for my advice as to what he should tell his partners. Why should the firm outsource legal work offshore, a practice seen by some as adventuresome and risky, instead of staying the course, doing it “the way we have always done it.” I answered him with the top ten reasons why every law firm should consider selective legal outsourcing:1. PRUDENT, TARGETED OUTSOURCING WILL RESULT IN REDUCED LAW FIRM OVERHEADOutsourcing some legal work to qualified providers in India will result in significantly lower overhead to the outsourcing law firm. In assessing the comparative costs the law firm will be wise to carefully calculate the real costs of employing one lawyer or paralegal. Those costs include salary and bonus, health insurance, vacation and holiday pay, sick time expense, FICA, office space and equipment for the lawyer, paralegal and secretarial staff assigned to that lawyer, pension and profit sharing, auto and parking expense, CLE seminar costs, and other employment benefits such as disability and life insurance. The real annual cost of one lawyer earning a base annual salary of $150,000-$175,000 is more likely in the range of $250,000 to $300,000 per year. NONE of these customary expenses accrue to a law firm utilizing supplemental offshore legal providers.2. OUTSOURCING WILL ENHANCE LAW FIRM EFFICIENCIESSelective outsourcing will improve the efficiency of your law firm. Because Indian lawyers work while American lawyers sleep, it will be like your law firm has a full time, fully staffed night shift. Some work can be assigned by a partner at 6 p.m. in the evening and the completed task on his desk when he arrives at the office the next morning. Litigation cases will move more rapidly through the court system with less need for extensions of time.3. OUTSOURCING WILL RESULT IN IMPROVED LAWYER MORALEAs a child not many of the sermons I heard from my pastor stuck with me. But one, when I was fourteen years of age still rings a bell. He said: “Ninety percent of any worthwhile endeavor is pack work, plugging, day in and day out. Only ten percent of our work tasks are necessarily fun and enjoyable.” I have always remembered that statement. In more than two decades as a trial lawyer I enjoyed strategizing and trying cases to juries. But I did not necessarily enjoy all of the trial and deposition preparation, research and briefing, document review, and other mundane essentials of the practice of law. A law firm which incorporates outsourcing into its practice will inevitably foster more contented lawyers who devote their time and energies to the more challenging, fun and rewarding parts of the practice of law. Only the “chore” legal work is outsourced with the “core” work staying onshore. This allows more time for client interaction and development by the firm’s lawyers.4. OUTSOURCING WILL RESULT IN OVERALL SAVINGS IN LEGAL FEES TO CLIENTSClients of law firms, particularly business clients, are searching far and wide for ways to cut their legal expenses. Many ask why they should pay, for example, $200 to $300 hourly for document review. Gone are the days when legal bills are simply paid without scrutiny. Likewise, the annual increases in hourly rates will not be well received by clients looking to cut costs. Wise law firms put the interests of their clients above their own. What is good for the client will ultimately be good for the law firm itself.5. THE RULES OF PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT REQUIRE OUTSOURCING CONSIDERATIONThe Rules of Professional Conduct of require that: a. “A lawyer should seek to achieve the lawful objectives of a client through reasonable permissible means.” (Rule 1.2) b. “A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions about the representation.” (Rule 1.4 b) c. “A lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to expedite litigation consistent with the interests of the client.” (Rule 3.2)A lawyer is required to explore and discuss with his client all reasonable means of accomplishing the client’s objectives. A lawyer is not permitted to charge an unreasonable or excessive fee. It would seem that a lawyer is arguably required to discuss selective outsourcing as a way of reducing the client’s ultimate fee obligation and furthering the interests of the client.6. OUTSOURCING “CHORE” LEGAL WORK PROMOTES CLIENT RETENTION AND DEVELOPMENTClients have long questioned ever-increasing legal fees for basic, “chore” legal work. However, they felt as if they had no alternative. They needed the legal representation and wanted good quality work. As there was not a significant degree of fee variance from law firm to law firm, clients tended to “stay put.” This trend is beginning to change as clients learn that they have options. Lawyers who outsource selectively are reporting a more contented, loyal client base. Clients who perceive that their lawyers are looking out for the entirety of the their interests, including fee costs, tend to remain committed to their existing law firms and even refer other clients (whose lawyers refuse to outsource).7. THE COMPETITION IS OUTSOURCINGIf your law firm is not outsourcing, be certain that your competition is. On August 21, 2007 Bloomberg. com reported that even long-established AMLAW 100 law firms like Jones Day and Kirkland & Ellis are outsourcing under pressure from clients.8. OUTSOURCING U.S. LAW FIRMS MAY CHARGE A REASONABLE SUPERVISORY FEEIt is reasonable and acceptable for U.S. law firms outsourcing legal work offshore to charge a reasonable supervisory fee in conjunction with outsourced legal work. It is axiomatic that a lawyer who outsources legal work, whether to an associate, contract lawyer or offshore provider, ultimately remains responsible to his client for the quality and timeliness of delivery of the legal product. If a lawyer assigns the research and writing of a brief to a junior associate, the assigning lawyer will not customarily submit the final work product to the court without review and supervision. So it is with offshore legal outsourcing. Published ethics opinions of the San Diego, New York and American Bar Associations indicate that a lawyer who outsources offshore may charge a reasonable supervisory fee.9. CLIENTS ARE INSISTING ON SELECTIVE OUTSOURCING TO ACHIEVE COST SAVINGSClients talk to one another. Executives of major companies golf and have lunch with one another. Corporate General Counsel attend meetings and CLE seminars, sharing information and ways to increase efficiencies and cut costs. They know about offshore outsourcing and the dramatic cost savings that can be achieved. It is unacceptable, therefore, to ignore legal outsourcing and, as one managing law firm partner told me, have “no appetite” for it.10. OUTSOURCING WILL HAPPEN.Doing nothing is not an option. Some are outsourcing. Many more are considering it, whether prompted by keen business sense or financial realities. Outsourcing is like a large, ominous wave a few miles offshore. It is preferable to surf the wave than wait to be engulfed, overwhelmed by its power and left wondering what happened.British economist Herbert Spencer is credited with originating the term “survival of the fittest” in the mid 19th century. Although also having application to biology, Spencer applied the concept of survival of the fittest to free market economics. In a free market, companies and businesses will do what is necessary to survive. If that means outsourcing some U.S. legal jobs for the greater good of survival of the entity itself, then so be it. The model of ever increasing salaries and expenses for law firms followed by even higher legal fees charged clients cannot sustain itself any longer. Legal outsourcing is here to stay. The wise will take notice, survive and flourish.
A possible upside to the recent economic downturn is that many previously accepted business models are being revealed as in need of substantial reinvention or even total elimination. The billable hour/leverage law firm model for legal services is one of these increasingly maligned business models, and is now appearing to be in danger of ending up in the dustbin of history. Specifically, even those who benefit handsomely from the billable hour, such as the Cravath firm’s many $800 per hour lawyers, now realize the fundamental irrationality of charging a client for time spent instead of value provided. This alone should signal that change is in the air.Notwithstanding the growing conversation about the need for alternative client service models, I fear that the majority of IP law firms will either try to ignore the desire for change or will respond by offering only incremental modifications to their existing methods of providing legal services to their clients. As someone with considerable experience dealing with IP lawyers, I believe that, unfortunately, the conservative nature of most IP attorneys means that IP firms will likely lag behind in client service innovations. Thus, I am of the opinion that many prestigious and historically highly profitable IP law firms will in the foreseeable future cease to exist.I reach this conclusion as a result of various salient experiences. In one of these, several years ago, I approached a managing partner of a well-known IP law firm with suggestions of how to decrease the number of attorney hours expended on client matters. At that time, the firm was beginning to experience considerable push back from clients about the cost of routine legal services. I noted to the managing partner that he could lower the cost non-substantive e.g., administrative client IP matters, by assigning such tasks to lower billing paralegals. His response to this idea: “If paralegals did the work, what would the 1st and 2nd year associates do?”Of course, the central premise of the managing partner’s response was that in order to keep the gears of the firm’s billable hour/leverage partner model turning smoothly, he needed to keep the young associates busy billing by the hour. The existing paradigm of his law firm required that it keep hiring associates to increase partner leverage and ensure that they efficiently billed clients by the hour, with a significant portion of each associate’s billed time directly going into the partner’s pockets. Left out of this business model was whether the clients’ best interests were properly served by the model that best served the law firm’s partnership.Clearly, this law firm was not well managed, which might serve as an excuse for the managing partner’s self-serving perspective on client IP legal services. However, my experience as a corporate buyer of IP legal services further revealed that that the billable hour/leverage partner business model was an arrangement that frequently ut the client–which was now me–after the law firm’s interests.As an in-house counsel spending several $100K’s per year for legal services at a number of respected IP firms, I consistently felt that when I called outside counsel for assistance the first thought that popped into the lawyer’s mind was “So glad she called–I wonder how much work this call is going to lead to?” More often than not, I got the sense that my outside IP lawyers viewed my legal concerns as problems for them to solve on a per hour basis, not as issues that might affect the profits of the company for which I worked. The difference is subtle, but critical: the context of the former is lawyer as a service provider, whereas the latter is lawyer as a business partner.Against these experiences, I was not surprised at what I heard recently when discussing my feelings about the billable hour/leverage model with a partner friend at one of the top IP specialty law firms in the US. This partner echoed my sentiments about the need for innovation in IP client services. However, she also indicated that most of her firm’s partners do not recognize that there is a problem with the way they currently provide IP legal services to their clients. As she told it, many of her more senior partners have been living well on the billable hour/leverage model, so they currently see little need to modify their behavior. My partner friend nonetheless realizes that her law firm is critically ill and is likely to soon experience something akin to sudden cardiac arrest. Sadly, she is not a member of her law firm’s management and, since there is no upper level recognition that change is needed, it would serve little purpose for her to raise her concerns to those partners who could effect change (and would probably not be politically expedient for her to do so).The failure of these currently well-compensated IP law firm partners to recognize the shifting winds of their client’s acceptance of their billing practices–the fundamental basis of their law firm’s business model–mirrors the response of entrenched interests throughout history to innovations that did not mesh with their existing business model paradigm. Moreover, the inability of many IP law firms to recognize the climate for change leads me to believe that many of these venerated law firms will soon meet the fate of buggy whip manufacturers if they do not innovate in the manner by which they provide legal services to their clients.Playing out this analogy, buggy whip manufacturers met their demise because they thought they were in the buggy whip business when they were actually in the transportation business. When buggy whips became obsolete, so did these formerly prosperous manufacturers. Notably, buggy whip manufacturers possessed the ability to change and thrive in the new world of the automobile. They already held strong business relationships with the buggy manufacturers that became the first automobile companies. They also employed skilled craftsmen who could have turned their efforts to making leather seat covers or other aspects of the automobile. These buggy whip manufacturers needed only to accept that they needed to ride the wave of innovation occurring at that time and reinvent themselves as suppliers to automobile manufacturers instead of buggy makers.Like buggy whip manufacturers, I believe that many lawyers have become so entrenched in the law firm business that they have effectively forgotten that they are first legal services providers. As people charged with ensuring the continued vitality of the business, law firm lawyers often become primarily fee generators in that the fees are obtained from billing clients by the hour for legal services. Care and feeding of the law firm and its partners by ensuring constant creation of billable hours therefore often takes precedence over the legal needs of clients. Also analogous to buggy whip manufactures, IP lawyers working in law firms have the ability to change to prevent obsolescence. Indeed, these lawyers possess the requisite skills to continue practicing their craft outside of the existing paradigm of the law firm. Still further akin to buggy whip manufacturers, lawyers also have the existing relationships with customers i.e., clients, which gives them a valuable head start over newcomers who wish to enter the IP legal service arena using innovative, but unfamiliar, client service models.Using the well-known picture of obsolescence presented by buggy whip manufacturers more than 100 years ago, I believe that IP lawyers who recognize that they must embrace innovation in the way they provide IP legal services to clients will be poised for success when their clients decide that the time for change has arrived. On the other hand, lawyers who believe they are in the IP law firm business will invariably be left behind when innovations in client service enter the marketplace that render the law firm business model obsolete.IP lawyers should not expect that they will be able to predict when their clients will demand change. As with the customers of buggy whip manufacturers, law firm clients will not serve their IP counsel with notice warning prior to taking their business to lawyers who provide them with innovative, and more client-centric, service models. To the contrary, when clients are finally presented with acceptable alternatives, they will naturally migrate to the innovation that best meets their business needs. The result will be that one day, these currently successful IP lawyers will likely wake up to realize that they are losing their clients in droves to lawyers who succeeded in developing and introducing an innovative client service model to the world. And, as most lawyers will tell you, once a client is gone, they are likely gone forever.Not only will clients fail to announce that they intend to leave their law firm before they do so, they also will not tell their lawyers how you can serve them better. Why should they–they are not in the business of providing legal services. Accordingly, mutually beneficial client service innovations must be generated by and because of lawyer action. But, because of their inherently conservative nature, I believe that many IP lawyers may fail to realize that innovation is critical until it is too late to preserve their client base.Some might contend that complaints about the billable hour model have abounded for many years, but no major changes have occurred to date, thus indicating that most clients may be all bluster and no action. While it is certainly true that clients exerted no real pressure on lawyers for change in the past, circumstances are markedly different today than before. Disruptive innovation is rocketing through society, and many formerly solid business models, such as newspapers and recorded music, are now teetering on the cusp of demise as a result.The signals are there that law IP firms that rely on the billable hour/leverage model appear poised to experience significant stress from clients and critics in the near future. Those relying on this model for their livelihood would be well-served to look for innovative ways to address this changing environment. In short, those who think that the billable hour/leverage law firm model will escape the transformative business innovations of the current era are merely “whistling past the graveyard.” IP law firms, as well as other types of law firms, must innovate now and innovate big or I fear they will suffer the fate of the buggy whip makers.