Don’t Trust Your Lawyer’s Billing?

That’s how the Viewabill post,, in VentureBeat began. Even if viewabill is a reliable software product encouraging billing transparency, I can’t help wondering why a client would even consider using a law firm that can’t be trusted to render an honest and accurate account. Of all the trusted advisor relationships that of attorney-client should be held in the highest regard. My gut feeling though is that more and more clients believe they are being treated unfairly. The recent much publicized email writings of DLA Piper associates suggesting that bills were being padded no doubt contributes to this belief. Some may also remember when Hillary Clinton’s Rose Law Firm partner Webster Hubbell went to jail for billing fraud. And even before this, author John Grisham offered a character portrayal in one of his first novels of a young associate who kept a client file open on his desk merely for billing purposes. When the 40ish lawyer was asked his age, he replied “why?” “Because your billing records indicate you must be 190 or so,” goes the joke and therein lies the problem.

It’s not so much the honesty, dishonesty or transparency of lawyer billing, but rather that lawyers are still billing by the hour. Ever since Abraham Lincoln purportedly said “a Lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade,” the hourly rate has been the gold standard measuring legal services. Unfortunately, the time part is an erroneous measurement. It assumes that all lawyers are of similar age, background and expertise and therefore work at the same speed and will achieve the same result. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a value to legal service that is quite a bit more than just toting up hours. A lawyer’s true value added is measured by the client. It is in a sense market driven. A lawyer listens to the client and makes an assessment taking account of the client’s desired outcome tempered by the facts and law. It is this ability that is a lawyer’s true stock in trade. While technology exists that certainly makes it much easier today for a lawyer to research, write a brief and draft a will or contract, no amount of technology can substitute for a lawyer’s sound legal judgment. The value of that judgment is a fair price that a lawyer should charge and a client should be willing to pay.