When I started my law firm a year ago, I had some major anxiety built up and a healthy dose of hostility toward 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 base, but who do so 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 sheet. Most of the lawyers work, one way or the other, for themselves or with a small group of people. Inevitably, they have autonomy to make decisions for themselves.
When you’re in a large firm, or when you’re in a small firm that’s 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, real services will become available to more individuals and businesses. Instead of spending $1,000 and getting virtually nothing in return, Clients will be able to spend a thousand dollars and feel like they’ve received tremendous value for their money.
The importance of process is in the area of quality control. If a process for handling a particular activity is documented, you’re 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 mission critical information is available to every member of the team. Technology can ensure that knowledge is captured and leveraged moving forward. And technology, while not free, can be obtained at a cost point which is achievable to the vast number of attorneys who are practicing.
The problem is there are too few, in the legal services market, who thinks much about these things. Technology is great but too few firms spend time making sure that technology increases quality and reduces costs. 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 item and turn it into a three minute item, but still charge the client for a twenty minute item. I would guess the majority of firms leverage the explosions in e-mail to simply create more and more 12 minute billing events which they can pass on to the client.
Of course, there will be a great divide between those firms which use technology to increase billing and those that use technology 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.