Again, possibly true, but unlikely. I will visit your firm's office to conduct the audit. You are welcome to demonstrate how your firm is different.
In general, I don't believe lawyers are intentionally inefficient. The audit presumes pure motives. The audit, however, also presumes ignorance. The lawyers billing the time don't know they are being inefficient; nor do the lawyers reviewing the bills recognize the inefficiencies. The willingness to cut wasted time is implicated only after waste is identified.
Further, parsing bills is hard. Regardless of the guidelines or task-code requirements, lawyers bill time in large clusters and undifferentiated chunks. It is genuinely difficult to say how long a particular assignment should have taken.
Timekeeper: I worked on X from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a few breaks for coffee, internet, etc. So 5.2 [hours]. Billing partner: She did a good job, but 5.2 seems a little long. So 4.9 [hours]. Client: I have no idea whether that particular task should taken .9, 4.9, or 9 hours. But the overall bill seems in line with the matter. So I'll approve it.
Isn't an alternative fee structure the better mechanism to align incentives and place the onus on law firms to address these systemic inefficiencies?
Probably. But the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. And, for the moment, the billable hour remains dominant. Personally, I have encountered difficulties, internally and externally, in moving toward alternative fees.
In addition, even in an alternative fee environment, I would still be concerned with the technology-related efficiency of my outside counsel. The problem with incentives is that they work. Alternative fees incent outside counsel to cut costs, which for lawyers means reducing labor. There are beneficial (productivity enhancing) and harmful (productivity decreasing) approaches to reducing labor. Especially at the outset of the relationship, an identifiable bent towards technological proficiency would give me more confidence that a particular firm is taking the proper approach to achieving profits under an alternative fee structure.
Further, the costs of inefficiency are cognitive, not just monetary. Despite the many blessings of caffeinating, there are very few human beings who are as sharp in the first ten hours or 10 of work as they were in the first two. Billed or not, losing several lawyer hours to drudgery is likely to affect overall quality.
How much can you really learn from a sample size of one associate?
Considerably more than I can learn from a sample size of zero. If anything, auditing a single associate should skew the results in the firm's favor. They get to select their best, most technologically proficient associate. But even if the associate is an outlier, I still gain insight into the firm's technology, training, and processes.