Tail Wagging The Dog?

A comment from blog reader Moe Levine brings up a great point. I wish he wrote more. From the little he has written, I am betting he has first-hand experience to share. From his perspective, I am in denial to say that law firms are more a product of the people who create them than of the clients who walk their halls. Moe indicates that law firms, and in particular law firms that cater to business clients, will do whatever the client wants. Therefore, it is the clients that are the prime architects of what law firms “are” today.

Unfortunately, Moe’s experience is confirmed by my experience as well. I was employed by a medium-small firm whose vision was to expand. One of the practice areas they set their collective eye on was a business practice. Through personal relationships, this firm landed a large group of partners from an international law firm and along with them came a Fortune 10 (“Ten”, no typo) client. It was like having the Queen of England as a permanent house guest. The tail could and sure did wag the dog. In retrospect, it was the right client in terms of money and prestige, but it was the wrong client for the firm. It eventually was a factor in the dissolution of the firm. Things were said and done which should never have been done, all because the client called the shots.

Clients, especially ones pivotal to the firm’s strategy, do have the power to call the shots. I can’t see how any new structure for the delivery of legal services will take that out of the equation. But the structure of the firm should empower the attorney to “draw the line.” I am not in denial that the structures of law firms today do not empower attorneys to “draw the line”. I just don’t think that the status quo is inevitable or acceptable.

When other professionals are confronted with “clients calling the shots”, and they give in, there is a price to be paid. Doctors who prescribe antibiotics to patients who have viruses because the patients insist. The doctor knows they will recover and attribute the recovery to the antibiotics, even though the medicine is not the cause of the recovery. The price doctors pay is the knowledge that they have harmed the public by creating the possibility of a resistant bacterium, unrelated to the virus that caused the disease. The same is true for doctors who give in to those who want pain killers without an examination. These are moments when the doctor should and must be empowered to “draw the line” for the good of society. Doctors and attorneys share a similar public trust.

Money motivates for good and bad. Drawing the line is something we all must do. We can’t put ourselves in positions, economically or personally, that will motivate us to act on our lesser angels. The “structure” must be reexamined and reengineered to empower attorneys to “draw the line”. The consumers are not always right and need to know that they will be told so, across the board. They must have no opportunity to venue shop from attorney to attorney or doctor to doctor until they find one who has neither the support nor the clarity to “draw the line.”

Moe’s other point is that law firms are, unlike other business, “transparent” to the consumer by virtue of hourly billing in .1 increments. Here I can’t agree with Moe. Hourly billing in and of itself is neither an indicator of “transparency” to the consumer nor to the members of the firm. I am no stranger to the ubiquitous “pre-bill”. The use of pre-bills by their very nature is designed, in part, to offer billing attorney the opportunity to “mask” the reality of the firm’s actions.