April 2002

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Just Say No!

Okay, just give me a second to climb up to my little bully pulpit . I don’t know how I can be more clear: It is time to break the professionally naive and personally devastating habit of charging for a lawyer’s services strictly on the basis of how long it takes to do something. Period.

Would you pay more for a craftsman who took twice as long to build a cabinet identical in every way to the work of a more efficient, equally talented carpenter? Would your firm be pleased to lay down more money for a reception-area painting because it took the artist a terribly long time to paint it? In each instance, wouldn’t you rather set the price based on the quality and value of the thing itself?

Here’s the point: A lawyer’s clients frequently feel the same way. Sure, there are lots of times when the value really is in the hours. When the scope of the work is unclear or unfolding. When the only way to rationally set the fee for applying your experience, perspective and creativity is to base the fee on time spent. But, for the most part, it works out much better for everyone involved if the fee is connected to the value to the client, rather than to your time. A flat rate, to name just one alternative fee-setting method, allows your client to anticipate cost—and it opens the door for you to be as efficient as you can be. (And, incidentally, you will quickly see how to profit from the efficiencies of technology and reuse of your best practices!)

But it’s time to stop talking and to start doing something. If you can make alternatives to the billable hour work for you and your clients, you can—without question—become more competitive, leverage your technology investment and enhance relationships with your clients. And you will certainly improve your quality of life.

So check out this issue’s suite of articles on the theory and practice of various fee-setting methods. Experiment. Get feedback. Make mistakes. Learn from them. Compare notes. Get better at pricing your services.

It’s time to break the habit.

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton,