Alternative Fee Arrangements: Smart Law Firms Profit, Smart Law Departments Know It

Law firms are resilient – one of the most tenacious businesses that exist.

Never mind the (almost) static, partner-centric organizational structure. They’re slow to adopt new technology when compared to businesses in other industries. They often have the reputation of holding onto tradition and responding slowly to new experiences or trends.

What other profession is so well known for charging at an hourly rate – a set-up that essentially rewards lawyers for spending more time (as opposed to only necessary time) on cases?

However, as corporate legal departments strive to drive down costs and minimize risks, an opponent to the hourly bill is steadily growing in popularity and is now (ok, I’m just going to say it) a mainstream practice for many law firms. The common perception is that alternative fee arrangements (AFAs) (think flat-rates or project- or value-based fees) give corporate legal departments a distinct edge when it comes to saving money and puts law firms at a significant (monetary) disadvantage.

That might not be the case.

As billing models change, resilient law firms are adapting. They’re surviving and thriving when it comes to AFAs.

Why are law firms benefiting from AFAs? Because most of them have the experience and (most importantly) the data to reinforce their AFA negotiations. The result is that law firms make more money using AFAs; not less. Counterintuitive? Read our next post.

State of the Nation

That AFAs are gaining more ground in the bout of in-house vs. outside counsel is no surprise to anyone. And, as is usually the case, the battle to keep law department costs down is fueling the movement.

A survey from the BTI Consulting Group cites that corporate legal budgets were expected to decrease 4.3 percent in 2010. This means that corporate legal departments needed to get the same amount (or more) of work done with less money and resources.

According to Fulbright’s 7th Annual Litigation Trends Survey Report, 52 percent of the U.S. corporate legal departments surveyed are using AFAs. One in six of the corporate counsel that responded estimate that AFAs account for 50 percent or more of their billings. Among all respondents using AFAs, fixed fees, conditional/contingent fees, blended rates and capped fees are the most widely used AFA variants.

And the practice is growing. The survey stated that four out of 10 U.S. respondents expect to increase their use of alternative fees and with large companies leading the way and that a majority of U.S. respondents see AFAs – and more stringent cost control measures – as becoming fixtures in the market.

To sum it all up, cost controls demand innovative thinking. As corporate legal embraces AFAs, law firms have to anticipate, adapt to and profit from these arrangements.

And they are.

Corporate legal departments are also embracing it. Read Mark Herrmann’s article – Inside Straight: Alternative Fee Agreements for Beginners in Above the Law to see how your legal department can benefit from project or value-based billing arrangements. Mr. Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon.

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