NLJ Billing Survey: $1,000 Per Hour Isn't Rare Anymore

Nominal billing levels rise, but discounts ease blow.

, The National Law Journal

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"What this means, of course, is that — on average — law firms are collecting only 83.5 cents for every $1.00 of standard time they record," the Georgetown report reads. "To understand the full impact, one need only consider that at the end of 2007, the collected realization rate was at the 92 percent level."

In other words, law firms set rates with the understanding that they aren't likely to collect the full amount, said Mark Medice, who oversees the Peer Monitor Index. That index gauges the strength of the legal market according to economic indicators including demand for legal services, productivity, rates and expenses. "Firms start out with the idea of, 'I want to achieve a certain rate, but it's likely that my client will ask for discounts whether or not I increase my rate,' " Medice said.

Indeed, firms bill nearly all hourly work at discounts ranging from 5 percent to 20 percent off standard rates, said Peter Zeughauser, a consultant with the Zeughauser Group. Discounts can run as high as 50 percent for matters billed under a hybrid system, wherein a law firm can earn a premium for keeping costs under a set level or for obtaining a certain outcome, he added. "Most firms have gone to a two-tier system, with what is essentially an aspirational rate that they occasionally get and a lower rate that they actually budget for," he said.

Most of the discounting happens at the front end, when firms and clients negotiate rates, Medice said. But additional discounting happens at the billing and collections stages. Handling alternative fee arrangements and discounts has become so complex that more than half of the law firms on the Am Law 100 — NLJ affiliate The American Lawyer's ranking of firms by gross revenue — have created new positions for pricing directors, Zeughauser said.

THE ROLE OF GEOGRAPHY

Unsurprisingly, rates vary by location. Firms with their largest office in New York had the highest average partner and associate billing rates, at $882 and $502, respectively. Similarly, TyMetrix has reported that more than 25 percent of partners at large New York firms charge $1,000 per hour or more for contracts and commercial work.

Washington was the next priciest city on our survey, with partners charging an average $748 and associates $429. Partners charge an average $691 in Chicago and associates $427. In Los Angeles, partners charge an average $665 while the average associate rate is $401.

Pricing also depends heavily on practice area, Zeughauser and Medice said. Bet-the-company patent litigation and white-collar litigation largely remain at premium prices, while practices including labor and employment have come under huge pressure to reduce prices.

"If there was a way for law firms to hold rates, they would do it. They recognize how sensitive clients are to price increases," Zeughauser said. But declining profit margins — due in part to higher technology costs and the expensive lateral hiring market — mean that firms simply lack the option to keep rates flat, he said.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.

Clarification: This article has been modified since first published to note that the data cited were compiled by ALM Legal Intelligence, the research arm of the NLJ's parent, ALM Media LLC.

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