When I started my law firm a year ago, I had some major anxiety built up and a healthy dose hostility towards the hourly billing system. The further I get into my practice I realize that there are gains to be made in both productivity and process. Obviously, there are lots of lawyers who bill on an hourly basis, but who do so both ethically and professionally. There are many lawyers around the country who eat time all the time. There are many attorneys who view client relationships as far more important than their daily billing fee. Most of those lawyers work, one way or another, for themselves or with only a small group of people. Inevitably, they have an autonomy to make decisions for themselves.
When you are in a large firm, or when you are in a small firm that is dominated by one or two hourly billing dictators, you simply don't have the luxury to use your own discretion.
But, I digress. The point of this post is to acknowledge that there are tremendous efficiencies to be gained within the legal services market which will inevitably deliver higher quality services to clients at lower costs. By lowering costs, legal services will become available to more individuals and businesses. Instead of spending $1000 and getting virtually nothing in return, clients will be able to spend $1000 and feel like they received tremendous value for their money.
The importance of process is in the area of quality control. If the process for handling a particular activity is documented, you are drastically reducing not only the amount of time which that activity takes but the possibility that an error will occur. We are working hard to document internal processes this year so that we can plug and play people into those processes.
While process has a positive impact on productivity, it is the Internet and technology which offers the greatest possibility for revolution within legal services. Technology can put teams of people together regardless of where they are located. Technology can make sure that all mission critical information is available to every member of the team, including the client. Technology can insure that knowledge is captured and leveraged moving forward. Technology, while not free, can be obtained at a cost point which achievable to the vast number of attorneys who are practicing.
The problem is that there are too few in the legal services market who think much about these things. Technology is great but too few firms spend time making sure that technology increases quality and reduces cost as we have noted previously, technology can be used for evil as well as good. No one questions that some firms use technology to take a fifteen minute item and turn it into a three minute item but still charge the client for a twenty minute item. But, I would guess that the majority of firms leverage the explosion of email to simply create more and more twelve minute billing events that they can pass onto the client.
Of course, there will be a great divide between those firms that use technology to increase billing and those that use it to revolutionize legal services. There is no doubt in my mind as to which approach will dominate the market five to ten years from now.