Last week, we made an obscure reference to the fact that some of the nation's largest law firms have opted to raise the starting base salaries of their new associates from $160,000 per year to $180,000 per year. While many law school graduates come roaring out of the chute with a Mt. Everest of debt and an ant-hill's worth of job prospects (the result of what has been, for a number of years, a law school shell game), the nation's largest law firms still fight over the top students from the elite law schools, and for those lucky few, the pickings are rich and the competition is fierce. Apparently, the brain trusts that maneuver our private practice Titanics between the icebergs of fatal hubris and a wised-up corporate clientele decided that the time had come to butter their babies' biscuits with more moolah. Like lemmings, where a few go, the rest will surely follow.
Who would have thought that the initial push-back from clients would have come from a sector of the economy not known for being the first to any "space" but the feeding trough: big banks?
Bank of America Corp.’s top lawyer recently sent an email to a group of law firms calling the increases in associate lawyer pay unjustified, making it clear the bank wouldn’t help firms absorb the cost.
“While we respect the firms’ judgment about what best serves their long-term competitive interests, we are aware of no market-driven basis for such an increase and do not expect to bear the costs of the firms’ decisions,” David Leitch, Bank of America’s global general counsel, wrote in the email, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
A Bank of America spokesman declined to comment.
The linked article from The Wall Street Journal discussed other aspects of standard big law firm business practices that have annoyed clients. Among those is training inexperienced lawyers on the client's tab by billing them at rates that give clients sticker shock.
The chief litigation officer for a Fortune 100 company said $180,000 for a first-year isn’t justified, pointing by way of comparison to a lawyer in the company’s litigation department with 20 years of experience who doesn’t make that much money. “Why would we ever think a first-year associate is worth that?” the lawyer said, adding that they recently denied a firm’s request to charge $400 an hour for a first-year.
In the normal course of a lawyer's career, she or he should become much more efficient as she or he becomes more experienced. In addition to paying an hourly rate that seems excessive, the clients may also pay for more hours that it will take the "newbie" to complete the task. Apparently, the "chief litigation officer" who was cited thinks that it's the law firm's job to bear the cost of training the new lawyers until such time as their experience level permits them to deliver "value" for the buck(s) charged. If the firm wants to pay a new lawyer 15 grand a month, that's its business. If the firm expects to pass that cost along to the client, it appears that Bank of America and other large purchasers of Big Law legal services are saying "fuggedaboutit.!"
The article also discusses ways in which big banks and other businesses have been working in recent years to staunch the bleeding of outside legal costs. This discussion might be of interest to community and regional banks, as well. In addition to trimming the number of firms used, the clients have explored alternatives to traditional hourly billing.
Historically, law firms charged their clients in only one way: by the hour. While many in-house lawyers grumbled about the arrangements, saying they encouraged inefficiency and led to eye-popping bills, they mostly paid them.
But within the last decade or so, companies have pushed back. They now routinely demand “flat-fee” arrangements for a single piece of work, like a lawsuit or a transaction. And many have stopped paying for photocopies and legal research, items that were once rubber-stamped.
In-house lawyers have also ramped-up their resistance to paying for the most junior lawyers, often saying they won’t pay for first- and second-year lawyers even if they are staffed on assignments. Such lawyers, the thinking goes, are too often billed out at hundreds an hour to perform relatively menial tasks, like reviewing documents.
As another large corporate general counsel puts it, what ultimately matters is the "value" delivered by the lawyer to the client. Is the result and/or the advice worth what the client pays for it? Regardless of a lawyer's hourly rate or law firm compensation, when the client gets the monthly bill, does he or she think they have been "well served" by that lawyer? Obviously, that's a business judgment call; however, if the sentiments expressed in the linked article are any indication, many business clients are going to be appraising the "value" of inexperienced, but highly paid, lawyers with a critical eye, especially regarding first year lawyers who may be billing at an hourly rate commensurate with that of a lawyer in a smaller firm with, literally, decades more experience in the subject matter.