ABA Journal

The New Normal

‘We Don’t Do Commodity Work’ and Other Definitions

By Patrick J. Lamb

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Patrick Lamb

Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, and Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group. Paul and Pat spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. We hope you will join their discussions.

The other day, my 12-year-old daughter told me she was getting a tattoo. Sensing that the idea was not winning me over, she looked at me and said, “jk.” Fortunately, with four kids between 12 and 15, I hear a lot of text-speak, so I knew she meant “just kidding.” For the record, she wasn’t kidding, but my pretending to believe her is part of the détente we’ve reached. LOL.

The moral of the story, of course, is that, these days, you’ve got to understand the lingo. Unfortunately, in the new normal, the new value world, it’s not that easy. I saw a report the other day that 73 percent of fees paid in 2009 were “alternatives” to the billable hour. That staggering figure was reached because discounted hourly rates were counted as alternatives to the hourly rate. This nuance is why law firm marketing directors earn the big bucks. Take something, label it something else, and presto!

For me, it was the same feeling I get watching those survivor shows on the Discovery Channel. Through the magic of TV, watching people eat stuff that would turn my stomach in real life seems, well, normal. It’s only when I step back and realize that the idea of actually eating cooked bugs makes me want to heave that reality sets in. I finally realize that the hanging shelter really is comfortable only for contortionists, and just because I don’t see the bugs eating people alive doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Reality simply doesn’t work the way it appears on television. Or the way law firm marketing people help you imagine it.

Perhaps there is no greater cry in the land heard than when someone suggests law firms do “commodity” work. Close your eyes and picture a managing partner looking like John Houseman in his Professor Kingsfield role, staring down his patrician nose at a senior associate saying, “Hart, here is $50. I don’t carry anything smaller. Go buy a phone and text your mother. Tell her that you will be coming home because you think those endless document reviews are commodity work.” They really do think like that in those firms. It’s not commodity work, it’s highly customized work repeated over and over again. Each turn of the wheel by the running rat is really a custom turn. And because they label it custom, it is.

We need to spend some time developing a shared language in the value world. But today’s lesson is that you can’t listen to what THEY say. I’ve written a book on alternative fees and the new normal (look here), but I don’t want you to accept what Paul or I say in this blog at face value either. Our point is to challenge the status quo, to share the changes that we see occurring and to make you want to think think about them.

At this point, I have to digress for a quick confession. I have only written graffiti on a wall once. It was in law school. Someone had scrawled “Blindly question authority” on a stall wall. I took a magic marker and wrote, “says who.” It was a liberating moment. I hope my small act of vandalism helps inspire some to join us on our critical look at that status quo and discussion about how things must change. It will be liberating.

Patrick Lamb is a founding member of Valorem Law Group. Valorem represents corporate clients in business disputes, and is at the forefront of helping clients solve their business disputes and coping with pressures to reduce legal spend using non-traditional approaches, including use of non-hourly fee structures, coordination with LPOs or contract lawyers, joint venturing with other firms and implementation of project management tools to handle lawsuits or portfolios of litigation.

Pat is the author of the the recently published book Alternative Fee Arrangements: Value Fees and the Changing Legal Market (2010). He also blogs at In Search Of Perfect Client Service.

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