Legal Budgeting: It's The New Black

Remember your days as a law firm associate when you were told the exact number of hours you must bill to receive a bonus? You focused your attention on the research memo, brief or closing binder at hand and only looked up to count up your weekly hours to make sure that you were hitting your billable quota. You didn’t pay attention to your receivables or whether the partner wrote off your time (you’d worry about those business-related matters later, perhaps during your 7th or 8th year of practice when you were up for partnership), because you knew that if you met that magical 2200 hours at the end of the year, your annual bonus was as good as deposited in the bank.

However, for corporate in-house counsel (and even those same law firm associates just one year later), those days are quickly fading into the rearview mirror. We are now entering the Golden Age of Legal Efficiency -- meaning that an attorney now needs equal expertise with Lexis, Westlaw and Excel.

Budgeting is a huge part of in-house counsel’s struggle for legal efficiency. There is no endless supply of revenue coming into the legal department; there are no bottomless pits of outside counsel spend. Every dollar is under a microscope these days; the ends must justify the means; and we all must do more with less – all points echoed in an article in Metropolitan Corporate Counsel magazine. This trend has had a notable effect on all facets of the legal profession: as an attorney or legal services provider, you better understand your client and know the actual cost of your services in order to survive this tightening of the belt.

Litigation is a great example of the legal-efficiency trend because it’s an enormous line item for many in-house departments. There is so much more data available to in-house counsel now that it has become relatively easy to break down costs and identify areas of savings throughout process, particularly in the discovery phase. The number of documents to review, processing costs, software platforms, attorneys’ review rates, hourly bill rates . . . these all are areas for significant cost savings. And when in-house counsel focuses on getting the work done properly and efficiently, it causes all of his or her partners/vendors to budget properly or risk losing the business. With everyone on the same page (or spreadsheet) and keeping an eye of the bottom line, it helps the client budget for future matters more accurately and to make prudent business decisions on every piece of litigation going forward.

The point is that there are many items that can now be budgeted that previously weren’t observed with a honed eye. You want to charge $200 per hour for your associates to conduct the review? That’s fine, but show me the actual benefit, don’t just pitch me on the law schools they attended. You want to use your preferred hosting company? OK, but give me the cost analysis. You want to handle our litigation moving forward? Give me detailed estimates on all the costs involved and explain to me how you’re going to make our process better and less expensive for the next case.

The emphasis on budgeting is by no means specific to discovery. Due diligence, trademark and copyright, contracts and employment matters, among others, are each just as conducive to scrutiny. It is no longer good enough to simply say, “Sure, we have great attorneys who can handle these cases” or “We can do that for one-third what you’re accustomed to paying.” The service providers who are differentiating themselves are the ones who demonstrate, “Yes, we have the experienced attorneys who can handle these cases. Here’s how many hours we expect it to take, here’s the data to back that up, and here’s what we can do to make it work for your budget.”

Transparency in budgeting and in project execution are here to stay. It is a much better starting point for many clients, or should I say the only starting point. I recently read an article where a senior partner at a large multinational firm in D.C. stated, “I’m not really interested in the business of the law,” explaining that as lawyers focus more on the bottom line their role as a trusted advisor diminishes in value. Well, in my opinion, it’s possible to do both – serve as a trusted advisor, while also recognizing and planning for the costs involved in the legal representation. And if you don’t believe me, just ask an in-house attorney – most of them have to do it every day.
 

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