Law Practice Management

How In-House Counsel 'Value' Challenge is Changing One Law Firm

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Some law firm leaders are eying a potential paradigm shift in major-firm legal practice with dread. Others are stepping forward to embrace it.

Among the latter group is Gregg Melinson, the national marketing partner of Drinker Biddle & Reath. After the Association of Corporate Counsel issued its Value Challenge in 2008, the firm formed an internal task force to educate its lawyers about the issues ACC discussed in a written overview and determine how to address them.

So, as the economy began to nosedive last year and announcements of BigLaw layoffs and pay cuts as well as client pressure for lower fees and greater efficiency began to dominate legal news coverage, Drinker Biddle was prepared for this new law practice landscape, he tells the ABA Journal.

To help manage national litigation more efficiently, for example, Drinker Biddle can construct secure extranets for corporate clients that allow lawyers at different firms working on the same case to share research and information. Thus, if a judge makes a comment during a court hearing about what he or she wants to see happen in the case, an attorney who attended can alert others on the extranet about the concern, Melinson explains. A draft pleading or research memo can similarly be shared online among all counsel.

Other aspects of the firm’s changing approach to clients include a greater emphasis on attorney communication and training, increased willingness to explore alternative billing arrangements and an organized effort to have lawyers spend nonbillable time in client offices. Doing so offers an opportunity both to learn about the client’s operations and to get feedback about what the firm is doing right and what it needs to work on, he says.

“To me, the fundamental that makes this work is the rebuilding of relationships of trust,” Melinson tells the ABA Journal.

Under a traditional billable-hours structure, he says, there’s “just a fundamental misalignment of interests” as the law firm potentially benefits, at least in the short run, from spending more time on a case rather than handling it in most effective manner for the client. Now, however, the firm is working in partnership with clients to achieve mutually beneficial goals.

The firm is focusing on a revised compensation structure for associates that is still under development but is likely to be finalized later this year, Melinson says. (As discussed in earlier posts, Drinker Biddle has already announced a plan to reduce the starting salary for first-year associates in order to provide increased training and mentoring.)

While Drinker Biddle has never had a strictly lockstep compensation system, “we’re looking to get more flexible,” Melinson tells the ABA Journal.

There may initially be some discomfort among attorneys with having to adjust to a new way of doing things, he admits. However, the new regime also offers benefits to lawyers who want to get their work done efficiently and focus on their personal lives as well as their professional lives, he says. And, although incoming new associates are seeing a reduction in their starting salaries, providing greater value to clients may well bring not only increased job satisfaction but increased financial rewards for these attorneys in the long run.

“Times of great change are always a little uncomfortable and uncertain,” says Melinson. “But I think what awaits at the end of it is a better time to be a lawyer than when I came out of law school.”

Related earlier coverage: (2008): “In Brave New Post-Boom World, Corporate Clients Now Want Value” “Too Many Lawyers, Too Little Work: More Layoffs Are Likely, Expert Says” “Billable Hour Hullabaloo is ‘Overblown,’ Drinker Partner Says”

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