Why the Billable Hour Endures

, The Am Law Daily


The billable hour regime thrives because some clients think it serves them well. In theory, they may be correct; in practice, those clients are kidding themselves.

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What's being said

  • Transaction7

    One of the few adjunct professors when I was at Vanderbilt Law ('64) always said he could never figure out how to convince a client that every hour of a lawyer's time was worth the same to the client.

    A young state district judge, whose father had been the senior managing partner at a prestigious firm and lead counsel on a large bank anchor client, complained at the Dallas Bar Assn. when I was on the Professional Economics and Advisory Legal Ethics Opinions committees, about green associates charging huge numbers of hours, at fees higher than his dad had ever charged, for drafting documents clearly copied verbatim from State Bar and other form books, yielding doubly excessive fees, in simple collection matters even for defaults or against pro se defendants. One of those forms was later held abusive and the rules were changed to limit the number of interrogatories etc.

    I'm a little rusty on fees in big cities but have more knowledge and experience on both sides of the bankruptcy docket and could not help noticing that the fees cited in bankruptcy cases are comparable to fees ALM sites have reported for Boies and Ted Olson in Supreme Court cases.

    I went solo after a few years, and was an early adopter of some practices, word processing, etc., and often drafted on the computer and had my secretary check it for anything spell check didn't catch because I have an uncorrectable vision problem that makes prooofreading impossible though I read rapidly, but can type as fast as most secretaries, faster than I can do a decent job of dictating. The fun problem was sorting out what to charge at lawyer and what to charge at secretarial-paralegal rates.

    My all time "favorite" bill, which I was engaged to review, etc., in preparation for a possible malpractice, violation of confidences, etc, suit, was from a high-dollar divorce case in which the other side's contract called for high but normal hourly fees plus a contingency fee on everything recovered, ethically questionable in family law for reasons this case illustrated. One entry that particularly cuaght notice was 0.7 hour for a name partner and an associate for mailing a certified letter at the post office.

    I didn't solicit any clients from the firm I left but did happily take on one good small business client who, having been told that I had been locked up, discovered that lie and that they new of my new office,
    and who I discovered that they had not only padded his bill outrageously, including over $900 for allegedly negotiating a definition of the word "reasonable," which the Supreme Court of Texas noted cannot be defined further, in a shopping center lease, impossible, including billing for a lot of alleged work of mine that I knew neither I nor anyone else had ever done.
    There have been some staple pieces of legal work that I could bill at typical hourly rates, then around $100.00 per hour, years ago, or flat rates, and still efectively make $750.00 per hour.

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