This morning’s Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on a topic that has been near and dear to my heart for a while – the high rates charged by large law firms.
Earlier this year, one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious law firms, Debevoise & Plimpton, shuttered its Trusts & Estates practice area. D&P wasn’t the first large law firm to go this route – Weil, Gotshal & Manges closed its Trust & Estates practice area in 2011.
Surprised? Don’t be.
This is a simple matter of how the legal world works, and it’s one that I have had personal experience with. Large law firms are run like large companies – businesses with a focus on the bottom line. An $800 - $1,000 hourly rate is acceptable for corporate clients, but wealthy families and individuals balk at such fees. You don’t go into Trusts & Estates or Elder Law if your dream is to own a private jet and a third home in the South of France (assuming your second home is in the Hamptons). That’s what Mergers & Acquisitions law is for.
In a culture where the more hours billed the better, which by the way rewards inefficiency handsomely, I was constantly being exhorted to increase my billable hours. I left because, among other reasons, I found the idea of asking clients to pay huge hourly fees more suited to corporate representation did not fit with this highly personal and highly technical area of the law.
All of these firms have completely missed the bigger picture. The need for this area of the law is constant and steady. A high net-worth family needs their Estate Plans revised every few years. A second marriage requires planning to avoid family squabbles over money and property. Happy clients refer other clients with similar family and financial legal needs.
From where I sit, what this area of the law lacks in corporate extravagance it more than makes up for it in realistic legal fees and the personal reward of solving problems for clients who are, far more than any corporation, grateful for the help.
If you want to work with a lawyer who considers you in the same league as a big company, best of luck to you. In this practice, we like the idea of striking a balance of providing superior legal services, with a human touch and a fee structure that is appropriate for families.