The billable hour is dying a slow but inexorable death. The Great Recession drastically reduced legal budgets for both individuals and businesses, and things have never quite been the same since. Clients expect their lawyers to do more for less, and lawyers have no choice but to adapt. This is the new normal: clients are extremely careful about cutting and controlling costs, want complete transparency in pricing, and demand predictability to avoid runaway bills. They want to be sure that their lawyers have incentives to achieve efficiency.
Hence the trouble with the billable hour. Despite all the rationales and justifications for time-based billing—many of which have some merit—there’s no denying the fact that billing for time doesn’t reward efficiency. It fails to align the incentives of the lawyer with the client’s budget and, too often, with the client’s needs.
For decades, however, one set of lawyers has been intently innovating to improve efficiency: legal plan attorneys. They don’t charge for their time when working on matters covered in a legal plan; they are paid a flat, low monthly rate. Which means that efficiency isn’t a choice: it’s essential to their bottom line. Any wasted effort represents time and attention that could be used to accommodate additional subscribers.
And yet, these attorneys can’t cut corners — they must provide the best representation of which they’re capable. This is not only a professional and ethical imperative, but also a financial one. Referrals from plan clients constitute much of legal plan attorneys’ new business. Failure to provide outstanding service would jeopardize that pipeline.
We asked some plan attorneys at LegalShield, a leading provider of prepaid legal services, for their advice on how all lawyers can deliver high-quality service more efficiently. Here are some of their answers:
1. Handle Communications in Batches
Phone calls and emails can be disruptive when you are working on matters that require deep concentration and attention to detail. By setting aside blocks of time to respond to phone calls and emails in batches, you free up parts of your day to fully engage in your other work.
2. Calibrate Your Effort to What’s at Stake
Although this seems like common sense, clients are often alarmed at their attorneys’ tendency to engage in “overkill” on small matters. If you bill for your time, the decision to trim where you can without compromising quality may cost you a little money in the short term. But in the long run, it will earn you the loyalty of clients who appreciate that you don’t run up their bills, and who refer their friends accordingly.
3. Use Checklists and Other Set Procedures to Handle Routine Work
When you’ve been trained as a tailor, you tend to want to tailor-make each piece of clothing, even when an off-the-rack option would do. The same is true of trained lawyers; we tend to be dismissive of one-size-fits-all legal solutions, often with good reason. But to maximize our efficiency, we must develop standard processes to handle our most common, basic, routine, and repetitive legal tasks. Checklists are remarkably simple and effective tools. Not only do they save time, but they also consistently produce a higher quality work. Of course, it is important to be careful and correct when first deciding whether a matter is in fact routine or requires a custom solution.
4. Leverage Nonlawyers Effectively
The most efficient and cost-effective firms are those that have mastered the art and science of allocating work between attorneys and other staff. Knowing which matters must be handled directly by an attorney, versus those which can merely be supervised by one, can make a major impact in a client’s bill. It can also free up attorneys to engage in higher-level work that commands a premium.
5. Keep Customer Service at the Forefront of Everything You Do
Among the many downsides of having dissatisfied clients is the staggering amount of time it can take to resolve their complaints. All that time you spend on the back-and-forth is time you could instead be spending doing substantive work. That’s why you should strive to stop client complaints before they start by keeping customer service at the forefront of every client interaction. If you make it part of your daily routine, it doesn’t take much time to assess you’re client’s satisfaction level and react accordingly. But if you wait until a problem spirals out of control, it’s often a different story.
In an era where pricing pressure on attorneys is mounting, we can learn from lawyers whose bottom line truly depends on their efficiency. Legal plan attorneys, who by the very nature of their business model must maximize efficiency, have much to teach us about making the most of the limited hours in our workday.