As someone who has practiced law for more than two decades, it occurred to me recently how bewildering it must be for a client to decide between hiring a lawyer who charges $250 an hour, $500 an hour, or even $750 an hour or more. Does the price alone indicate the quality of services to be received? Spoiler alert: the answer is no.
Even in places outside New York and L.A., such as in Nashville where I am based, the legal landscape offers a spectrum of options. From freshly-minted “Big Law” associates, whose firms charge $400 or more per hour for their services, all the way to grizzled veterans willing to do the work for $200 an hour because they “love the law” while envisioning a final breath at their desks, the options abound. You can also enlist attorneys commanding over $500 an hour who might take several days to respond to a single email or those who have yet to set foot in front of an actual jury.
While this may strike some as unsettling, it is not hyperbole. I recall attending a deposition training seminar about 20 years ago in Chicago where I encountered lawyers/students hailing from larger cities like New York who had never conducted a deposition in their seven years of practice. These eager lawyers anxious to learn how to take a deposition stood on the cusp of partnership within their firms; yet, they hadn’t even begun to master a fundamental pretrial skill. Today, because of fewer trials and less on-the-job mentoring, I can assure you the practical experience gap has worsened.
While this phenomenon might exist in other professions, law appears to be somewhat of an outlier in that there is generally a lack of direct correlation between billing rates and the quality of service or experience a client ultimately receives. In fact, I would propose there is almost an inverse relationship between billing rates and jury trial experience if one considers that many lower-paid insurance defense trial attorneys have considerably more trial experience than very high-rate litigators. In other words, sometimes fee levels align with legal services and experience, but frequently they do not. Various explanations exist for this lack of correlation, and while I harbor my own theories, the bottom line remains: clients often struggle to determine whether a higher price equates to top-tier quality. (Please note that I’m not singling out for criticism large firms with higher fees any more than I am smaller firms with comparatively modest rates who may have fewer resources. Competent and less-competent professionals populate organizations of all sizes.)
So, if the market price is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the quality of legal services one should expect to receive, what is a prospective client to do? From my vantage point, here’s what I’d do:
Do your research and do it right. Here’s a dirty little secret: The “top lawyer” accolades and wall plaques are really great and personally I feel good and humbled when I am bestowed with such honors, but, honestly, they don’t necessarily mean all that much in reality. Instead of relying on slick marketing, talk to people who know the industry and who you trust. Don’t just hire the biggest firm at the highest price. Conversely, I would caution against hiring the “lowest bidder.” Don’t assume you are getting a “deal” because you have hired the attorney or firm that quoted you the very lowest billing rate. Low rates can still turn into high cumulative fees, and end results may certainly vary. “Do your research” sounds trite, but it bears emphasis because people spend untold hours researching which iPhone model, 4K TV or car to buy. On the other hand, they likely don’t spend nearly the same amount of time researching a professional that may cost them more than $100,000 in fees to pursue or defend their lawsuit.
There’s a tired saying in the law industry: “clients hire lawyers, not law firms.” And yet…there is a nugget of truth in that cliché. For instance, say you need a product liability trial lawyer or business law litigator. There are national organizations, such as PLAC and ALFA International, that are made up of top-notch product lawyers and business litigators. These lawyers talk to each other. My mother who was married to my lawyer father for nearly 40 years before he passed (and who also had four children including me who are all lawyers) used to say that no one likes to gossip more than lawyers. Lawyers love their “war stories,” and they know very well their counterparts in other states and cities. Whatever the best marketing folks and wall plaques say, other lawyers know who to call for lawyer-to-lawyer advice and know who will get the job done. They also know who won’t get the job done, who won’t call or email them back or who will pass on the work to someone else. You get the idea. Now, to be clear, lawyers won’t often bad mouth another lawyer to you, an unknown client, but, in some subtle ways, they will likely steer you in a different direction. And, keep in mind, most of these lawyers don’t even know exactly what their counterparts charge in other states. They just know these lawyers by their work product, their responsiveness, and their reputation.
So, do yourself a favor before plopping down a $15,000 retainer and agreeing to pay $750 an hour for legal services. Do some research before hiring the lawyer who quotes you the “best deal,” and talk to people who know. Trust me, there are plenty of lawyers out there willing to have a conversation.