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Mediocrity takes charge

Thanks for the great President's column in the April Bar Journal (“Escaping the billable hours trap”). To my knowledge, this is the first time a big-firm lawyer has been willing to openly discuss the many ways in which the billable hour system has degraded our profession. It’s also driving the more brilliant minds to switch to other fields, leaving the practice to be dominated by mediocre drudges.

Even if the column doesn’t make an immediate difference in the workplace, it’s a good start.

Paige Gold 
Los Angeles

Brains for rent

From an old guy, great article. We are no longer training lawyers, just billable technicians.

Hon. Duke D. Rouse
San Bernardino

Change needed fast

I always look forward to reading Jeff Bleich’s monthly column but, until this one, have never found myself shouting “Yes!” at the end. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said — except, perhaps, your statement that this is a challenge for “the next generation of lawyers.” The optimist in me sure hopes that change comes a lot sooner than that!

Beong-Soo Kim
Los Angeles

Why wait?

I agree that billable hours create an uneasy conflict between lawyers and clients, and share Mr. Bleich’s view that sometimes it appears as if there is a “perverse incentive” to keep litigating at all costs. But if measuring work in six-minute increments means less time with family, less time for pro bono work and less service to the community, then why do we have to wait for the next generation to bring about change? I challenge Mr. Bleich to be the leader of that change, now.

How? What can a one-term bar president do? Consider this: every time a national firm increases its salary for first-year lawyers, the other big firms quickly say “me too.” Why? Because they want to stay “competitive” and don’t want to be seen as not offering the type of compensation that would attract top legal talent.

Changing the billable hours trap works in the same fashion. What if Mr. Bleich’s firm, ranked third in the nation in The American Lawyer’s 2007 “A-List” survey, said we are abandoning billable hours and intend to bill clients not on the total number of hours worked, but based on other objective and subjective factors such as the type of case and result achieved. What if the firm that has been recognized as having the “Litigation Department of the Year” by The American Lawyer decided to have a paradigm shift in the way they measure compensation (not based on billable hours).

Wouldn’t the rest of the legal community sit up and take notice? Wouldn’t other large firms (competing for the same top legal talent) want to emulate that philosophy in order to “stay competitive?” 

Indeed, what if? Then, Mr. Bleich would be a catalyst for a change that he claims if unchanged is threatening the capacity of lawyers to serve the public effectively and may even be seen as a visionary leader that the State Bar has not seen in many generations.   

Leonid M. Zilberman
San Diego

Fairness yardstick

I wonder just what Mr. Bleich can suggest to replace hourly billing in matters that simply do not lend themselves to flat rate or contingency billing. I have used a hybrid arrangement on some occasions but that generally is not any more accurate than hourly billing. 

A contingency arrangement would be conducive to efforts to spend as little time as possible on a matter, particularly in a matter that may not progress as anticipated, even if it might harm the client. A flat rate could be a disaster if problems arose that were not anticipated or a disaster for the client if we start to bill, for example, like hospitals. The bottom line is that whatever fee arrangement is used, the fairness will be decided by the integrity of the particular firm or attorney. 

Finally, I note that Mr. Bleich is a member of one of the most expensive firms in the U.S. I do not begrudge his success but would like to see him offer a suggested solution that works for the vast majority of us less fortunate attorneys who bill at rates of mere mortals and nevertheless try to do the right thing. 

Lee A. Garry
Sherman Oaks

Work/life out of balance

The comments on billable hours perfectly sets forth the ethical dilemma encountered by many attorneys. More importantly, Mr. Bleich accurately described the impact of billables upon the younger generation of lawyers. Having known many new associates eagerly starting their high-paying jobs only to have them call a few months later miserable and disillusioned, I see the toll billable hours has had upon them. As one young lawyer recently told me when he left his high-paying firm position for a government job paying substantially less, “Now I get my life back!”

Finding a way for young lawyers to have work/life balance before they become frustrated is critical to the health of our profession. Work/life balance is not only an important issue for this generation, but a quality of life issue that all of us should strive for. Partners need to step back and ask themselves: Was it worth the sacrifice in their life to work as many hours as they did to get to where they are now?

Rod Fong
San Francisco

Audacity of change

I think Jeff Bleich is spot on, and, at the risk of being audacious, it is certainly worth hoping for some incremental change away from this model. 

Eric MacMichael
San Francisco

Never looked back

I started my own firm in 2000 due to the high demand for billable hours in my field, which is workers’ compensation defense. The average billing requirement is 3,000 hours per year in the workers’ compensation defense firms. When I would bill 250 hours per month, one of the partners asked me if I was playing golf.

That is when I walked away and never went back. Since I run my own shop, my quality of life is better since I am not chained to the requirements of the big firms. I have a young associate who has a family life and does not work every weekend, unheard of in our field. Mr. Bleich barely touched on the damage that billable hours actually does to the young lawyers with families and children, who are the ones who really suffer from what our profession requires.

Sharon Renzi

Better than the alternative

The article displays a lack of being in touch, or an understanding of how law is actually practiced in California. Mr. Bleich should be made aware that a large share of attorney representation provided to people “needing access to legal help” is done by contingency fee lawyers, whether that be in personal injury, workers’ compensation, social security disability, etc. — so billable hours is not even a consideration. The remainder of the legal needs of this category of client is typically provided by solo attorneys or a small law office.

Such attorneys are for the most part keenly aware and sensitive to the financial ability of their clients to pay legal fees in order to avoid time-consuming collection problems, and to best preserve positive client relations. Toward this end, attorney fees are frequently adjusted downward; or it has become almost standard practice for routine cases to be accepted on an agreed flat fee basis from the outset.

So what is the problem? Unless Mr. Bleich can come up with a better way, billable hours are a convenient management and information tool with which to organize, monitor and control an office. This is above and beyond its utility for the billing of attorney fees. In any event, it is certainly better than Mr. Bleich’s implicit suggestion of sending a bill to a client with an undocumented and unexplained dollar amount “picked out of the air,” followed by the solitary statement “for services rendered.” Let me assure you, no client I have ever had would find that acceptable.

Jim Murphy
Wilkes-Barre, Penn.

The good old days

Wishful thinking is for today’s billable hour system returning to the good old days — honest pay for an honest day’s work.

Mel Lee
San Francisco

Let them resign

Re: “Board tightens disciplinary resignation rules” (April). I believe refusing to accept a “resignation with charges pending” from lawyers is not a wise policy. The purpose of the State Bar discipline system is (or should be) to improve the quality of legal services provided to society. A lawyer who is resigning will, by definition, not be providing legal services to society. Prosecuting that individual will simply waste resources.

If these individuals have embezzled client funds, committed any other crime, or if they illegally begin practicing law after resignation, then they will be prosecuted in the criminal system. There is simply no good policy reason for the State Bar to “beat a dead horse.”

Our bar dues are high enough. I don’t think we should be paying more dues to pay for prosecution of individuals who are leaving law practice.

Saman Taherian

A no vote

The April Bar Journal mentions that the bar is considering making mandatory electronic dues payment. No details are given. While I support the use of the Internet for routine bar functions, I cannot support a bar rule that mandates electronic payments to the bar.

Bar members should have the choice if they wish to use electronic means to make payments. Some of us choose not to make electronic payments in other areas of our lives, and the bar should not force us to do so just to maintain bar membership.

Terrance Mahurin

No health benefits

Having just read “New member benefits at CalBar Connect” (April), I was struck by the omission of the single most important benefit of all: Group Health Insurance. The value of this benefit would easily outweigh all the other benefits combined.

As a sole practitioner, I, like so many others, have no access to the affordable rates that a group our size could negotiate, and consequently pay through the nose to provide myself and my family with health insurance. If the State Bar is truly interested in providing our members with “benefits,” why has Group Health Insurance been forgotten?

John Brantley
Playa del Rey

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