Despite the inertia, white-shoe law firms are showing increasing flexibility, both in fee structures and the types of freebies they offer to clients.
A partner at a prominent Am Law 100 firm who asked not to be identified says, "I'm always willing to engage in billing that is sensitive to the needs and constraints of the client. If you're willing to be sensitive, you'll come up with better solutions."
Another who spoke on the record, Robert Bodian, managing partner of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, told me, "Around the margins, I see a lot of proactive thinking about how to assist the client relationship. We try to provide more value, and be a part of the client's life and business."
One way that firmseven firms that stand steadfast against such heresies as flat rates and incentivesgo beyond the hourly bill is by offering more freebies than ever. Instead of charging for such services as continuing legal education classes, they'll invite the legal department in for free sessions. Dance says there's an added bonus to this practice: Departments can tap into insights that their firms glean from working with other clients.
They'll also partner with their clients for "soft" work like legal pro bono programs, something that legal departments were loath to get involved in (for reasons ranging from a lack of insurance coverage to a shortage of resources). Eugene Assaf, a Washington, D.C.based partner at Kirkland & Ellis, touts the benefits of this kind of partnership. "There's a tremendous intellectual energy when clients and their firms work together," he says, adding: "We have to remember we're a profession. You want to be dedicated to the craft."
Many partners I spoke to for this essay told me that in the past three years they haven't always hit the bill button when a close client calls. And the firms are more willing to package commodity work for a flat fee. "The old days of the 1970s, when a client picked up the phone and then got billed," says Assaf, "just wasn't healthy for the professionor the clients."
Bodian also says his firm puts together what he calls a menu for his clients. "It's a good starting point," he says. Clients "can have an understanding of rates and how they apply" to particular matters. "Hard times have made us figure out ways we can add value to a company."
Several outside counsel interviewed for this article also say that the crisis has resulted in a new honestythat sometimes it's even better for them to turn down work that they're not comfortable doing. Says Jeffrey Stone, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery in Chicago: "A challenge for a firm my size is to do everything we can to assure the best provision of serviceseven if it means recommending someone else."
In the end, then, in maybe a perverse way, the downturn has led to closer legal departmentoutside counsel relationships. Stone, for his part, says the crisis has led firms to do whatever they can to hold on to clients. "When lawyers see collapses like Dewey's," he says, referring to this year's messy demise of megafirm Dewey & LeBoeuf, "it creates a natural tendency to guard your relationships closely."
This article originally appeared in Corporate Counsel under the headline “You Say You Want an Evolution?.”