Why Use of “Blended Rates” May Actually Increase Legal Costs

For the non-business readers of this blog, “blended rates” are negotiated rates with a law firm that involve blending or averaging partner and associate hourly billing rates of a law firm.  Insurance companies are big users of blended rates.

The way blended rats work is simple. If the partner’s hourly rate is $400 an hour and the associate’s hourly rate is $300, a blended rate might be $350. But whether you can save by using blended rates in a particular case actually will depend on the type of case.  For example, if the case is complex and heavy partner involvement is anticipated, you can save on legal costs.

But if a case is the type of case where both the partner and associate are expected to work an equal amount of hours, there will be no cost savings. And if the case is the type that the associate does most of the work, then you will wind up paying more in legal costs than if you just paid the firm’s regular hourly billing rates. And frankly, the situation where associates do most of the work describes most of the blended rate cases I see.

But even in a complex case where ordinarily you might expect the partner to do more of the work, paying blended rates may actually disincentivize the partner from doing more of the work.  More often than not, the partner will choose to work on those cases where the hourly billing rates are higher and look to delegate as much work as possible on those cases where the parther’s billing rates are lower.  (Remember that year end bonuses are at stake.)

In a complex case where an associate does more of the work than the partner, it may look you are saving even more than anticipated on legal costs. But in a sense, this is a false savings.  If the partner may not doing some of the work that the partner should have been doing, the quality of the work and potentially the overall results in the case may suffer.  And if the associates are doing most of the work in a blended rate case, all that has been done is to give the associates a raise in their hourly billing rate.

I would suspect that any company that wanted to seriously study the issue would find that not only do blended rates not save on legal costs, they may actually lead to increased legal costs. If this is so, why use blended rates?

A few years ago, while working for an insurer that was a big user of blended rates, I presented the litigation manager with some information I had collected on the company’s use of blended rates in some typical cases which showed that the company was spending more on legal costs using blended rates. He said it confirmed what he had thought all along. But he doubted it would dissuade his V.P. of Claims from continuing to use blended rates as he had convinced the company president that a big way to keep legal costs down was to negotiate blended rates. So he thought it unlikely that the V.P. of Claims was going to admit to his boss that he had been wrong all this time about the use of blended rates.

So call it vanity or pride, I do know that there are some companies where keeping hourly rates under a certain dollar figure is the paramount concern. But where saving on legal costs is the primary reason for using blended rates, blended rates may not actually produce the anticipates savings on legal costs. And as noted, blended rate cases may in fact incentivize a partner to do less rather than more work.

But if a company is bound and determined to negotiate blended rates, two things must be done to ensure that the blended rates negotiated for are actually going to save on legal costs. The first thing to do is to determine on a case by case basis if a case is the type that heavy involvement by the partner is anticipated.  If it is, then this case is a good candidate for using blended rates.

The second step that needs to be taken is the harder step. And that step is to manage the law firm work done in a matter to the expectation that the partner will actually spend the majority of the time on the case.  And this is where I find most companies falling short. But unless a company is willing to take this critical step it is more likely than not that use of blended rates will actually result in increased legal costs.

COVID-19 Insurance Coverage Update

In a prior post, I predicted that “if history is any guide, policyholders may win most of the coverage cases” for COVID-19 related claims. I stated that my “prediction is based on the insurance industry’s experience in litigating various policy issues for environmental claims coverage 30 years ago.”

Apparently, I was prescient in my likening the COVID coverage claims wars to the environmental coverage claims wars. For in reading news accounts, it appears that policyholder coverage attorneys are doing their best to link COIV-19 claims to environmental claims by likening COVID-19 clean-up or property damage claims to pollution clean-up or property damage claims or COVID-19 exposure claims to exposures to asbestos fibers or exposure to toxic vapors or fumes. Continue reading

Whether a $1,000 an Hour for a Lawyer is Reasonable Depends on Whether You Need a Cadillac Escalade or a Honda Civic

“[T]he Court’s review of Sheppard Mullin’s bills suggests that the Beastie Boys opted to pay for, and received, the Cadillac Escalade, not the Honda Civic.” Beastie Boys v. Monster Energy Co., 112 F. Supp. 3d 31  (Dist. Court, SD New York 2015).

A D.C. lawyer recently asked me if I thought $1,000 an hour for a lawyer was reasonable. Being a lawyer myself, I gave him a lawyerly answer that “it depends.”

I’ve written posts before in this blog about $1,000 and even $2,000 an hour lawyers.  As I stated in one of those prior posts, an “expert” who consults on litigation management issues with corporations (who are the ones who mainly hire the $1,000 and $2,000 an hour lawyers) told me that lower rates are actually viewed as a negative by large corporations. Apparently very good $500 an hour lawyers are not looked at in the same favorable way that mediocre $1,000 lawyers are simply based upon their hourly billing rates. Continue reading

Why Insureds May Win COVID-19 Claims Coverage Cases.

Media reports are that many businesses and non-profits are looking to their insurers for “business interruption” and other coverages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At first blush, it would appear that these claims for coverage face an uphill battle based upon what might be termed clear policy language (specially manuscripted policies notwithstanding).

But it would be premature for the insurance industry to declare victory on the coverage issues. For if history is any guide, policyholders may win most of the coverage cases.

Mr prediction is based on the insurance industry’s experience in litigating various policy issues for environmental claims coverage 30 years ago. As a former Director of Environmental Claim for two insurers during the environmental claims coverage wars, I witnessed first hand how clear and otherwise unambiguous policy language did not save the insurance industry by and large from having to provide coverage for environmental claims and their massive clean-up costs. Continue reading

It’s Deja Vu All Over Again As COVID-19 Presents Law Firms With Same Financial Issues Faced During The Great Recession

With almost daily report of law firm layoffs and/or reductions in compensation, it looks like the COVIS-19 pandemic is going to have the same effect on the financial health of the legal industry as did the Great Recession in 2007-2009.  And if what happened in the Great Recession is any indicator, law firm clients will need to scrutinize more closely their legal bills.

One reason for closer scrutiny is because of what happened in the Great Recession with regards to staffing cuts. In the Great Recession, the support staff rather than attorneys bore the brunt of law firm cutbacks. This was because law firms were reluctant to let go of the attorney talent they worked so hard to attract and invested so much to develop. So the only other place to turn for savings in a labor intensive business is to support staff.

As I have blogged about before, cutting back support staff and increasing the ratio of attorneys to support staff will save law firms money. But, it also almost invariably means increased costs for law firm clients. Continue reading

How To Discuss Fee Bill Issues With Your Lawyer – Part IV: The Nuclear Option

[This is the fourth and final post in a series of posts on how to discuss and resolve fee bill disputes with your lawyer. If you have not done so already, it is a good idea to read the first three posts in this series.]

Invariably, whenever I write a post about a lawyer getting disciplined for an ethics violation involving fee billing, I will get emails. Mostly from individuals with comments or questions about lawyer discipline. And so it was that after my post about an lawyer who got a six month suspension for overbilling, I received emails from individuals with questions on the disciplinary process for lawyers.

Some of the most frequent questions I am asked are how to go about filing a complaint (and if a lawyer is needed to file the complaint), will the disciplinary agency get my money back or get my lawyer to answer my questions (or do whatever it is they want the lawyer to do), and can my lawyer retaliate against me (or file a suit against me for slander) if my complaint is dismissed? So with this the fourth and final post in this series, I would like to answer these questions and share the basics of filing a disciplinary complaint against a lawyer. Continue reading

How To Discuss Fee Bill Issues With Your Lawyer – Part III

[This is the third post in a series on how to discuss fee bill disputes with your lawyer. If you have not done so already, it is a good idea to read the first two posts in this series as they detail steps that should be taken before getting to the point where the additional steps outlined in the post should be considered.]

In my last post in this series, I ended with the assumption that communications with your lawyer and/or the firm’s managing partner or other partners in the firm failed to resolve the billing issues.  In this post I will discuss what additional steps may be taken to resolve the billing issues once direct communication has not worked or has broken down. Continue reading

Overbilling Lawyer Gets Support From Her Overbilled Clients

Making the rounds of legal publications last month was a story about an attorney in MA who was suspended for 6 months for overbilling her clients by 450 hours. According to the facts set out in IN RE: DOREEN ZANKOWSKI , the attorney claimed to have worked an incredible 3,893 hours in one year. This included 3,173 billable and 720 non-billable hours.

And according the Opinion, in addition to inflating her own hours, the time billed to clients by associates who worked under her was also inflated. However, there was no word in the Opinion as to what was done with the associates who were aware that their time was being inflated.

In reading the unusually long 42 page Opinion, something strange caught my eye.

[A full copy of this post is available to clients of legalbillaudit.com. To obtain a copy, please contact clientservices@legalbillaudit.com.]

Googling To Find Out If Your Attorney Uses Form Documents

In a prior blog post entitled “The ‘Does Anyone Have A Form That I Could Use’ Practice Section,” I poked gentle fun at a state bar practice section I belong to because most of the posts on the section listserve were from attorneys asking other attorneys if anyone had a particular form document that the inquiring attorney could use. Due to the volume of such requests, I had found it both amusing as well as telling that an awful lot of what attorneys do in most any practice area has to do with using forms.

And it seems that you no longer have to ask a fellow attorney for a form. You can just Google the name of a Motion or other type of legal document and you often will find a form. I have done this countless number times when reviewing legal bills from attorneys throughout the U.S.

Recently I had occasion to look up a Notice of Motion and Motion to Compel Testimony and Production of Documents in California. I suspected that the document the attorney billed 2 hours to prepare was a form document. So I Googled it, and sure enough I was taken to a form document. This form document not only had the basic form Notice and Motion, but it also had the argument for the attorney to use in support of the Motion including the supporting case authority. Comparing the attorney’s Motion with the form Motion, I could see that 90% of what was in the attorney’s Motion was in the form Motion. And the 10% the attorney had added did not take 2 hours. Continue reading