TRUMP TEACHES BIG LAW A LESSON

Sometimes, a client isn’t worth the billable hours it brings to the firm. But long ago, Upton Sinclair revealed why some big law firm partners don’t accept that truism: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Except when a court appoints an attorney for a defendant who can’t afford one, lawyers choose their clients. In most firms, partners “eat-what-they-kill.” The resulting culture creates short-term incentives that cause business development efforts to focus on a single question: How much revenue will the prospective client generate?

Sheri Dillon, William Nelson, and their firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, are teaching the profession an important lesson: such myopia is a mistake.

Sliding Down Trump’s Slippery Slope

In 2016, candidate Trump was pushing a flimsy “under audit” excuse for not releasing tax his returns. On March 7, 2016, Dillon and Nelson signed a letter confirming that, in fact, Trump’s tax returns for 2002 through 2008 were no longer under audit. However, the letter explained, his returns for 2009 forward “are continuations of prior, closed examinations.” Needless to say, Americans will never see those returns—at least, not because Trump releases them voluntarily. But Trump used Morgan Lewis to suit his immediate public relations needs.

In a Jan. 11, 2017 press conference, Dillon, Nelson and their firm took a more prominent role in Trump’s circus. They unveiled a plan to deal with Trump’s business conflicts of interest made a mockery of American presidential ethics. Attorneys were quick to condemn it. Subsequent events have demonstrated that the plan remains useless in preserving the integrity of the presidency.

By April, even reliable stalwart Trump defender Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) wanted to know what Trump was doing to implement his attorneys’ earlier public promises. On May 24, The New York Times reported the Trump Organization’s response: a slick brochure explaining why it was impractical to comply “fully and completely” with Sheri Dillon’s earlier assurance that Trump would donate to the US Treasury all profits from Trump hotels and similar businesses derived from foreign governments.

Recently, The Washington Post summarized just one of small slice of the ongoing scandal: “This is nothing Washington has ever seen. For the first time in presidential history, a profit-making venture [the Trump International Hotel in DC] touts the name of a U.S. president in its gold signage. And every cup of coffee served, every fundraiser scheduled, every filet mignon ordered feeds the revenue of the Trump family’s private business.”

“I Put Out a Letter”… (from somebody)

The most recent hit to the reputations of Sheri Dillon, William Nelson, and their firm came during Trump’s now infamous July 19, 2017 interview with The New York Times. Reporters asked him what would happen if special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation included Trump and Trump family finances unrelated to Russia. Would that be would a breach of Mueller’s charge?

“I would say yeah,” Trump answered. “I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t — I don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia. In fact, I put out a letter saying that I don’t make — from one of the most highly respected law firms, accounting firms.”

Trump’s last remark referred to the March 8, 2017 letter that Dillon and Nelson had signed. But he couldn’t even remember whether Morgan Lewis was a firm of attorneys or accountants.

Substantively, the March 8 letter had actually raised far more questions than it answered. It even seemed to rebut Trump’s prior denials of income from Russia. Dillon and Nelson stated that “with a few exceptions”—totaling about $100 million—Trump’s tax returns for the past 10 years “do not reflect” any “income from Russian sources,” “debt owed by you or [The Trump Organization] to Russian lenders,” “equity investments by Russian persons or entities,” or “equity or debt investments by you or [The Trump Organization] in Russian entities.”

Among notable omissions were: the definition of “Russian”; whether Russian funds flowed into Trump projects more than 10 years ago; whether money from other former Soviet-bloc countries made its way into Trump projects; and what, if anything, Morgan Lewis had done to determine whether individuals or entities from Russia, Ukraine, or other former Soviet-bloc countries used shell corporations for transactions involving Trump businesses.

And Then There’s This

Investigative reporters—who aren’t Trump’s lawyers—have discovered that, since the 1990’s, tens of millions of dollars from former Soviet-bloc countries have found their way into Trump projects as investments, construction financing, and condominium purchases. No one outside Trump’s immediate orbit—except, perhaps, Vladimir Putin—knows the full extent to which that money contributed to his current fortune.

But there are clues. In September 2008, Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference: “In terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia. There’s indeed a lot of money coming for new-builds and resale reflecting a trend in the Russian economy and, of course, the weak dollar versus the ruble.”

Trump’s Reward

The fact that Trump couldn’t recall whether Sheri Dillon, William Nelson, and their firm practiced law or accounting is the least of their problems now. Trump has elevated the Dillon/Nelson/Morgan Lewis letter to a new status: evidence that the Russia investigation is a hoax. Depending on how special counsel Robert Mueller proceeds, those involved in preparing and signing that letter may need lawyers, too.

Other prominent law firms appear to have learned from the Morgan Lewis experience. In June 2017, Michael Isikoff reported that when Trump sought to bolster his legal team, four of the nation’s leading firms refused:

“The concerns were, ‘The guy won’t pay and he won’t listen,’ said one lawyer close to the White House who is familiar with some of the discussions between the firms and the administration, as well as deliberations within the firms themselves.”

Even if Dillon, Nelson, and Morgan Lewis have hedged the “won’t pay” problem by requiring a big retainer from their famous client, it won’t compensate for the potential impact on their professional reputations. And like all nightmare clients, Trump couldn’t care less about that.

A DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

The Wall Street Journal’s front page headline tells only part of story: “Legal Fees Cross New Mark: $1500.” The February 9 article lists the range of partner hourly rates at some big firms: Proskauer Rose from $925 to $1475; Ropes & Gray from $895 to $1450; Kirkland & Ellis from $875 to $1445; and so on and so on and so on.

That’s great if you can get it, but most firms can’t. The 2016 Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor “State of the Legal Profession” tells a second part of the story: realization and collection rates have plummeted. How much a firm bills doesn’t matter; what it actually brings in the door does. In 2005, collections totaled 93 percent of standard rates. By the end of 2015, it was down to 83 percent.

The Music Stopped, Almost

Annual standard hourly rate increases have blunted the profit impact of declining collections, but trees stopped growing to the sky about ten years ago. Except in bankruptcy courts. That’s the third element of the story and the profession’s dirty little secret: one of the most lucrative big law practice areas has no client accountability for its fees. Even worse, the process facilitates pricing behavior that spills over into other practice areas.

Take the recent Journal article. Where did the reporters get the detailed hourly rates for the firms it identified? A note at the bottom of the chart reveals the answer: “Source: Bankruptcy court filings.” If managing partners exchanged their firms’ hourly rates privately, it would raise serious antitrust issues. But in bankruptcy, publicly filed fee petitions do all of that work for them.

It gets worse. In bankruptcy, no one forces attorneys into the discounting that produces the current 83 percent overall average collections rate. Remember the infamous “Churn that bill, baby” email involving DLA Piper a few years ago? That was a bankruptcy case. Traditional mechanisms of accountability are ineffective. Unlike a solvent corporate client, a company in trouble has little leverage in dealing with its outside counsel. Until it emerges from a Chapter 11 reorganization, the days of minimizing legal expenses to maximize shareholder value are suspended. If it winds up in Chapter 7 liquidation, those days are gone forever.

At the same, time, the lawyers handling the bankruptcy have little risk. They get paid ahead of everyone else. Lawyers for creditor committees are a theoretical check only. They, too, get paid first and the members of the exclusive club of big law firm attorneys reappear. Their roles may change — debtor’s counsel in one bankruptcy may be creditors’ attorney in another and the liquidating trustee’s lawyer in yet another. In none of those capacities is there any incentive to rock the long-term, “paid-in-full hourly rate” boat.

More Theoretical Accountability

The U.S. Trustee receives all attorneys’ fees petitions before courts approve them. The Trustee can object, but it doesn’t have sufficient resources to analyze detailed line item time and expense entries on the thousands of pages that firms submit. The Trustee issued new guidelines that became effective for cases filed after November 1, 2013. Perhaps they will make a difference. But in the end, they are still guidelines and the final decision on attorneys fees resides with the bankruptcy judge.

As hourly rates have increased to the $1500 level that the Journal highlights, courts have given their rubber stamps of approval to the trend. Rather than challenge the high rates that all firms charge, bankruptcy judges determine merely that they are “reasonable and customary” because, after all, comparable firms are charging them for comparable work. The circularity is as obvious as the resulting payday for the lawyers. Someday, media attention and popular outrage may force meaningful change that has yet to occur.

Worse Than It Seems

Considering the 83 percent collection rate in the context of the nearly 100 percent rate for bankruptcy lawyers yields an insight relevant to the fourth and final part of the larger big law firm story. In particular, the current 83 percent collection rate is deceptively high. If a firm’s average is 83 percent and its bankruptcy lawyers collect close to 100 percent, then firms with large bankruptcy practices have non-bankruptcy clients pushing some practice areas into deep concessions off standard rates.

Likewise, combining this fact with two conclusions from the Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report produces ominous implications for such firms:

— “Demand for law firm services…was essentially flat in 2015,” and

— Bankruptcy experienced the largest negative growth rate in demand by practice area.

Unless the country heads into a recession that few economists expect, the continuing reduction in bankruptcies will drive overall average collections dramatically lower. That’s bad news for big law firms with significant bankruptcy practices.

Back in 2011, an icon of the bankruptcy bar, the late Harvey Miller of Weil, Gotshal and Manges, defended his firm’s approach to legal fees: “The underlying principle is, if you can get it, get it.”

Miller isn’t around anymore, but his unfortunate credo for a noble profession survives — for now.

[NOTE: The trade paperback edition of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books) — complete with an extensive new AFTERWORD — will be released on March 8, 2016 and is now available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.]

LABOR DAY

Labor Day marks the end of summer. It’s also a time to reflect on our relationship with work. Lawyers should do that more often. In that regard, some big law leaders will find false comfort in their 2015 Am Law Midlevel Associates Survey ranking.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, “Rethinking Work,” Swarthmore College Professor Barry Schwartz suggests that the long-held belief that people “work to live” dates to Adam Smith’s 1776 statement in “Wealth of Nations”: “It is in the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can.”

Schwartz notes that Smith’s idea helped to shape the scientific management movement that created systems to minimize the need for skill and judgment. As a result, workers found their jobs less meaningful. Over generations, Smith’s words became a self-fulfilling prophecy as worker disengagement became pervasive.

“Rather than exploiting a fact about human nature,” Schwartz writes, “[Smith and his descendants] were creating a fact about human nature.”

The result has been a world in which managers structure tasks so that most workers will never satisfy aspirations essential for job satisfaction. Widespread workplace disengagement — afflicting more than two-thirds of all workers, according to the most recent Gallup poll — has become an accepted fact of life.

Lawyers Take Note

Schwartz’s observations start with those performing menial tasks: “Maybe you’re a call center employee who wants to help customers solve their problems — but you find out that all that matters is how quickly you terminate each call.”

“Or you’re a teacher who wants to educate kids — but you discover that only their test scores matter,” he continues.

And then he takes us to the legal profession: “Or you’re a corporate lawyer who wants to serve his client with care and professionalism — but you learn that racking up billable hours is all that really counts.”

More than Money

Many Americans — especially lawyers who make decent incomes — have the luxury of thinking beyond how they’ll pay for their next meal. But relative affluence is no excuse to avoid the implications of short-term thinking that has taken the legal profession and other noble pursuits to an unfortunate place.

You might think that short-term profit-maximizing managers would heed the studies demonstrating that worker disengagement has a financial cost. But in most big law firms, that hasn’t happened. There’s a reason: Those at the top of the pyramid make a lot of money on eat-what-you-kill business models. They can’t see beyond their own short-term self-interest — which takes them only to their retirement age.

Maintaining their wealth has also been a straightforward proposition: Pull up the ladder while increasing the income gap within equity partnerships. The doubling of big firm leverage ratios since 1985 means that it’s now twice as difficult to become an equity partner in an Am Law 50 firm. Top-to-bottom compensation spreads within most equity partnerships have exploded from three- or four-to-one in 1990 to more than 10-to-1 today. At some firms, it’s 20-to-1.

What Problem?

Then again, maybe things aren’t so bad after all. The most recent Am Law Survey of mid-level associates reports that overall satisfaction among third- through fifth-level associates is its highest in a decade. But here’s the underlying and problematic truth: Big law associates have adjusted to the new normal.

Thirty-one percent of Am Law Survey respondents said they didn’t know what they’d be doing in five years. Only 14 percent expected to make non-equity partner by then. They see the future and have reconciled themselves to the harsh reality that their firms have no place for them in it.

No one feels sorry for big firm associates earning six-figure incomes, but perhaps someone should. As Professor Schwartz observes, work is about much more than the money. In that respect, he offers suggestions that few large firms will adopt: “giving employees more of a say in how they do their jobs… making sure we offer them opportunities to learn and grow… encouraging them to suggest improvements to the work process and listening to what they say.”

I’ll add one specially applicable to big law firms: Provide meaningful career paths that reward talent and don’t make advancement dependent upon the application of arbitrary short-term metrics, such as leverage ratios, billable hours, and client billings.

What’s the Mission?

Schwartz’s suggestions are a sharp contrast to the way most big law firm partners operate. They exclude their young attorneys from firm decision-making processes (other than recruiting new blood to the ranks of those who will leave within five years of their arrival). Compensation structures reward partners who hoard clients rather than mentor and develop talent for the eventual transition of firm business to the next generation. The behavior of partners and the processes of the firm discourage dissent.

“But most important,” Schwartz concludes, “we need to emphasize the ways in which an employee’s work makes other people’s lives at least a little bit better.”

Compare that to the dominant message that most big law firm leaders convey to their associates and fellow partners: We need to emphasize the ways in which an attorney’s work makes current equity partners wealthier.

Law firm leaders can develop solutions, or they can perpetuate the problem. It all starts from the top.

FEED YOUR BRAIN

It’s August. Vacation time. But how many people — especially hard-driving attorneys — are taking real vacations? Distressingly few, I suspect.

Many people who think they’re taking time off are kidding themselves. They are simply moving their work venues to a sandy beach or resort swimming pool. In a recent New York Times article, “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain,” research scientist Daniel J. Levitin observes that essential revitalization of the brain comes only when a person enjoys a complete break from the daily demands of a job.

Previously, I’ve written about the myth of multitasking — the fallacy that the human mind can perform several tasks simultaneously. I’ve also discussed scientific studies proving that we underestimate the extent to which distractions — moving back and forth between tasks — undermine our productivity. Today we add another insight into how brains work and the implications for everyday life.

Two Roads; Different Destinations

Levitin’s research shows that our minds switch between two dominant “modes of attention.” One is a task-positive network, which engages when we focus on a specific activity, undistracted by anything else. In contrast, the brain’s task-negative network is akin to daydreaming. The mind wanders but, in doing so, achieves its greatest moments of insight.

Importantly, when one network is working, the other is not. Likewise, constantly moving back and forth between networks — as multi-taskers mistakenly think they can — is inefficient. It wastes mental energy.

Lawyers and Vacations

The relationship of the two networks to most attorneys’ lives is obvious. The billable hour regime that dominates today’s delivery of legal services rewards task-positive behavior. More time spent on an activity means more revenue for the law firm. Devising ways to keep attorneys engaged so that the hourly meter is always running — day, night, weekends, and during so-called vacations — becomes a key institutional objective unto itself.

Meanwhile, every minute that the brain spends in the task-positive mode is a minute that can never be available to the task-negative network. Vacations are supposed to be a task-negative period. But engaging in task-positive behavior during such times makes that impossible. It also interferes with the brain’s ability to recharge itself.

Levitin concludes, “If we can train ourselves to take regular vacations — true vacations without work…we will be in a more powerful position to start solving some of the world’s big problems. And to be happier and well rested while we’re doing it.”

Another Reason to Make Vacations Real

When I was 14 years old, we took our first family vacation. With my three younger siblings and me in the back seat of the first new car my father ever owned — a 1968 Oldsmobile 98 sedan — we drove from our hometown of Minneapolis to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

In those days, the things that keep the brain’s task-positive network engaged outside the office didn’t exist. No cellphones, laptops, or internet. With our task-negative networks free to roam, a simple road trip to see Mt. Rushmore became an unforgettable experience that remains a cherished memory.

My dad wasn’t a lawyer. He was a trucker — an over-the-road driver who had an interesting run-in with Jimmy Hoffa in the early 1960s and eventually moved himself up to a desk job. Except for the South Dakota trip, we didn’t take two-week vacations because he’d convinced his employer to pay him double for staying on the job instead. It was an understandable decision. Even with my mother working full-time, making ends meet was a continuing challenge.

How to Measure Costs and Benefits

In the end, the financial boost from two weeks of “double-pay” each year made only a temporary difference to our family. Most of today’s lawyers are working for a more subtle form of “double pay”: more billable hours usually translate into higher compensation. But is the marginal return worth the sacrifice? What’s a person’s leisure time worth?

My father’s calculation was incomplete. He failed to consider his own need for time off and the benefits accruing to an entire family as it spent task-negative time together. Attorneys are especially prone to making the same mistake. Technology conspires with institutional incentives to make it easy. If you want to become a better thinker and a more productive lawyer, take a vacation — a real one.

My next post will be in September.

THE ILLUSION OF LEISURE TIME

Back in January, newspaper headlines reported a dramatic development in investment banking. Bank of America Merrill Lynch and others announced a reprieve from 80-hour workweeks.

According to the New York TimesGoldman Sachs “instructed junior bankers to stay out of the office on Saturdays.” A Goldman task force recommended that analysts be able to take weekends off whenever possible. Likewise, JP Morgan Chase gave its analysts the option of taking one protected weekend — Saturday and Sunday — each month.

“It’s a generational shift,” a former analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch told the Times in January. “Does it really make sense for me to do something I really don’t love and don’t really care about, working 90 hours a week? It really doesn’t make sense. Banks are starting to realize that.”

The Fine Print

There was only one problem with the noble rhetoric that accompanied such trailblazing initiatives: At most of these places, individual employee workloads didn’t change. Recently, one analyst complained to the Times that taking advantage of the new JP Morgan Chase “protected weekend” policy requires an employee to schedule it four weeks in advance.

Likewise, a junior banker at Deutsche Bank commented on the net effect of taking Saturdays off: “If you have 80 hours of work to do in a week, you’re going to have 80 hours of work to do in a week, regardless of whether you’re working Saturdays or not. That work is going to be pushed to Sundays or Friday nights.”

How About Lawyers?

An online comment to the recent Times article observed:

“I work for a major NY law firm. I have worked every day since New Year’s Eve, and billed over 900 hours in 3 months. Setting aside one day a week as ‘sacred’ would be nice, but as these bankers point out, the workload just shifts to other days. The attrition and burnout rate is insane but as long as law school and MBAs cost $100K+, there will be people to fill these roles.”

As the legal profession morphed from a profession to a business, managing partners in many big law firms have become investment banker wannabes. In light of the financial sector’s contribution to the country’s most recent economic collapse, one might reasonably ask why that is still true. The answer is money.

To that end, law firms adopted investment banking-type metrics to maximize partner profits. For example, leverage is the numerical ratio of the firm’s non-owners (consisting of associates, counsel, and income partners) to its owners (equity partners). Goldman Sachs has always had relatively few partners and a stunning leverage ratio.

As most big law firms have played follow-the-investment-banking-leader, overall leverage for the Am Law 50 has doubled since 1985 — from 1.76 to 3.52. In other words, it’s twice as difficult to become an equity partner as it was for those who now run such places. Are their children that much less qualified than they were?

Billables

Likewise, law firms use another business-type metric — billable hours — as a measure of productivity. But billables aren’t an output; they’re an input to achieve client results. Adding time to complete a project without regard to its impact on the outcome is anathema to any consideration of true productivity. A firm’s billable hours might reveal something about utilization, but that’s about it.

Imposing mandatory minimum billables as a prerequisite for an associate’s bonus does accomplishes this feat: Early in his or her career, every young attorney begins to live with the enduring ethical conflict that Scott Turow wrote about seven years ago in “The Billable Hour Must Die.” Specifically, the billable hour fee system pits an attorney’s financial self-interest against the client’s.

The Unmeasured Costs

Using billables as a distorted gauge of productivity also eats away at lawyers’ lives. Economists analyzing the enormous gains in worker productivity since the 1990s cite technology as a key contributor. But they ignore an insidious aspect of that surge: Technology has facilitated a massive conversion of leisure time to working hours — after dinner, after the kids are in bed, weekends, and while on what some people still call a vacation, but isn’t.

Here’s one way to test that hypothesis: The next time you’re away from the office, see how long you can go without checking your smartphone. Now imagine a time when that technological marvel didn’t exist. Welcome to 1998.

When you return to 2014, read messages, and return missed calls, be sure to bill the time.

ANOTHER COMMENDABLE CONDUCT AWARD

Big law bankruptcy attorneys may have finally killed their golden goose. We’ll never know if less hubris and more thought might have prevented the U.S. Trustee from releasing new attorney compensation guidelines that surely have prominent members of that bar squirming. Those guidelines earn my latest “Commendable Conduct Award.” Starting November 1, we’ll see how many judges have the courage to apply them.

Restraint in the race to $1,000 an hour billing rates to maximize short-term profits might have served practitioners better in the long run. Likewise, more discretion in responding to media inquiries about the lucrative bankruptcy law world might have been wiser than Weil, Gotshal & Manges partner Harvey Miller’s stunning comment to the Wall Street Journal in 2011: “The underlying principle is, if you can get it, get it.”

Flying Under the Radar

The bankruptcy practice in big firms is unique because there’s no real client putting the usual counter-pressure on attorneys seeking to enhance their personal wealth. It’s the billable hour regime at its worst.

Outside bankruptcy, corporate clients everywhere are pushing back on big law firms’ hourly rate increases, refusing to pay for high-priced first-year associates, demanding budgets, scrutinizing attorney activities, and generally seeking greater economy in the delivery of outside legal services. Bankruptcy attorneys have little comparable accountability. They simply set their rates, decide what tasks to perform, and assign manpower as they see fit.

Hello and Good-bye

Unlike corporate clients who dangle the prospect of long-term relationships and future business to encourage their outside attorneys to be more efficient, bankruptcy practitioners have a series of one-shot engagements. When the current proceeding is over, their bankruptcy “client” of the moment disappears, never to return.

Bankruptcy petitions are also vehicles for law firm oligopolists to share pricing information. When most senior big firm bankruptcy partners request $1,000 an hour, it becomes the reasonable and customary rate. But even more remarkable are the $400 an hour and up rates that they can often get for junior associates — the same ones who add so little value that real clients refuse to pay for them at all.

Theoretical Oversight

The U.S. Trustee reviews fee petitions. But to date, those efforts have amounted to quibbling over obviously suspect expenses, such as $500 hotel rooms when cheaper accommodations were available or taking limos when taxis were a reasonable alternative.

Likewise, attorneys representing competing interests in the bankrupt’s estate — creditors, for example — can object to the fees of other attorneys in the proceeding. But none has any incentive to rock the lucrative hourly rate boat in which they all sit. Bankruptcy judges have the final word on attorneys’ fees petitions and they routinely rubber-stamp them.

Now It’s Becoming Real

When the U.S. Trustee first proposed the new guidelines, big firm bankruptcy lawyers throughout the country united in opposition. The most strident objections were to the idea that firms should reveal hourly rates for comparable non-bankruptcy associates and partners working for real clients.

Were firms worried about providing data that would allow the U.S. Trustee and supervising courts to compare hourly rates sought in bankruptcy with those resulting from a market that is at least somewhat more competitive? Soon, we’ll find out.

The new forms accompanying the guidelines require, among other things, that firms reveal the “blended hourly rates” of their personnel in 10 different categories ranging from equity partners to paralegals. In addition to the blended rates sought in the fee petition, firms also must disclose their firmwide (or, in some cases, office wide) blended rates for each category.

A Step on the Road to Transparency

The new guidelines aren’t perfect and attorneys will manipulate them. Budgets are optional. Hourly “step rate” increases are automatic as attorneys gain seniority. Attorney categories are too broad, with a single category for all equity partners and with associates grouped into categories covering three years. An especially large loophole allows firms to report either the “billed” or “collected” comparable hourly rate. (Real clients request discounts from standard hourly rates, and they often get them.)

Even so, the U.S. Trustee deserves credit for moving a dark corner of the profession from opacity to translucence. Free market devotees — of which big law has many — should embrace the changes. So far, big firm partners have resisted them vehemently.

The governing principle for too much of the large law firm world has become “if you can get it, get it.” Perhaps many of those espousing that view are about to “get it” in a much different way than they have in the past.

WHY THE BILLABLE HOUR ENDURES

Last month, I wrote a New York Times op-ed discussing the billable hour regime and its unfortunate consequences for the legal profession. The piece generated a lot of response, most of which supported my themes. Readers generally agreed that the system rewards unproductive behavior, invites abuse, and pits attorneys’ financial self-interest against their clients’ goals.

Defending the billable hour

Even so, the Times published a responsive letter to the editor from the general counsel of Veolia Transportation — “the largest private sector operator of multiple modes of transit in North America,” according to its website — who defended hourly billing. He noted that alternatives to the billable hour “have not caught on because they do not allow the client the same opportunity to see the work as it is being done, evaluate its worth, and challenge when appropriate the relationship of time, task and cost.”

Theoretically, he has a point. In fact, the billable hour system arose from a desire for greater transparency. Before it gained widespread use, clients typically received a bill that included a single line: “For services rendered.” When today’s senior partners entered the profession, firms kept track of their time but didn’t impose mandatory minimum billable hour requirements. In fact, a 1958 ABA pamphlet recommended that attorneys maintain better time records and strive to bill clients 1,300 hours a year.

Unfortunately, transparency gave way to short-term profit-maximizing behavior that distorted the billable hour into an internal law firm measure of “productivity.” Quantity of time billed became more important than the quality or effectiveness of effort expended. Today’s required annual minimum hours typically run close to 2,000 — and most associates understand that enhancing their prospects for advancement requires many more.

Transparency yields to abuse

In theory, Veolia’s general counsel is correct about the billable hour’s transparency. But in practice, few clients are well-positioned to challenge “the relationship of time, task and cost.” For a complex case, what motions should be filed and how much time should their preparation take? How many witness depositions are needed? And of what length? What’s the right level of staffing to maximize the chances for success?

Some in-house counsel possess the sophistication to provide meaningful answers to these and other questions that underlie any effort to assess the relationship of hourly fees to “time, task and cost.” But most don’t. They trust their lawyers to do the right thing under an incentive structure that pushes those lawyers in the opposite direction.

Bankruptcy as a poster child

Embarrassing reports of billing deceit are rare. But the real problem isn’t such well-publicized abuses. Rather, it’s the cultural impact of the incentive structure. In most large law firms, one practice area is particularly revealing: big bankruptcy cases.

Large numbers of bodies billed at enormous hourly rates get thrown into such matters. All of the activity shows up in detailed time records accompanying massive fee petitions that courts routinely approve. Like the U.S. Trustee’s office that also reviews such filings, courts lack the resources to provide meaningful scrutiny of “time, task and cost.”

Petitions seeking hourly rates of $700 for associates and $1,000 for partners routinely go unchallenged, as do the listed activities that consume these attorneys’ time. Last year, when the U.S. Trustee proposed that firms disclose whether they charge higher hourly rates for the same attorneys performing non-bankruptcy work, the profession united in opposition.

The moral

The billable hour regime endures because, like the general counsel of Veolia, clients think they have it under control. But that requires a leap of faith as outside lawyers resolve the ongoing dilemma of a system that pits fiduciary responsibility to a client against the attorneys’ financial self-interest. With law firms obsessing over current year profits and partners seeking to maximize personal books of business to preserve their own positions in an eat-what-you-kill world of frenetic lateral partner movement, that dilemma becomes profound.

As for the billable hour’s impact on other aspects of the profession’s culture, another Times letter to the editor offered this: “Appearing before St. Peter, a young law firm associate asked why he was being taken at age 29. Taken aback, St. Peter said the associate’s billable hours made the associate appear to be 95.”