Alternative Fee Arrangements Need Precise Understanding

There’s little question Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs) have gained in popularity in recent years, and that interest seems to only be increasing. In a recent survey of in-house attorneys we conducted in Atlanta, 46% of those who planned to implement new strategies in 2010 said they planned to use AFAs. After all, what in-house department wouldn’t want cost certainty in a time when most are being asked to reduce costs?

However, it’s a difficult matter to pin down and price properly. Today’s post from the 3 Geeks and a Law Blog says it very well: you have to understand what goes into your costs before you can manage or reduce them, and thus create a valuable proposition for both you and your clients. And therein lies the rub.

For many matters, there are way too many variables to be able to create a fixed cost forecast that benefits both you and the client. That’s a terrifying predicament for a law firm to be in and roll out on a pricing platform to a client. But is that really the issue? I agree with the 3 Geeks post: many lawyers just don’t understand how these arrangements can (or do) work, and I’d add there’s a question whether they should even be pursued at all if that’s the starting point of the discussion.

I have previously worked on these types of arrangements prior to joining Counsel On Call, in particular, data mapping and record retention projects– two areas in which we had a pretty good understanding of the time it took to create the work product necessary to implement. And ultimately our clients understood and appreciated the certainty of the fixed cost. But the interesting thing was that when we would initially provide the fixed fee amount, our clients would sometimes balk, shocked at the total amount staring them in the face. But then when we broke it down on an hourly rate basis and they realized they were getting a significant discount, they were all for it. (It would often go like this: Us: “The cost is $75,000 for the work on a flat fee basis.” Client: “That much?!??! Are you kidding?” Us: “OK, tell you what, we’ll do it for $250 per hour and it should take at least 300 hours.” Client: “Great! Let’s do that!”)

So for many, certainty outweighs cost, even though they think it’s the opposite. Many law firms cater to that notion, which allows them an easy way out when trying to determine actual costs and value. It’s pretty simple to estimate how long certain projects will take, and then multiply that number by an hourly rate, provide a small discount and come up with an “alternative” fee; but that’s not really very creative and doesn’t truly solve the cost/value challenges the client is facing. In fact, one can argue that deriving a flat fee from this foundation actually de-incentivizes a law firm; it’s going to get paid that amount no matter the quality of the work or how long it takes to complete. That being said, a strong case can be made that AFAs should be incentive-based as a core feature, and we know several clients who are utilizing those types of models. When everyone has a skin in the game, priorities become a lot more transparent. Value is, at a minimum, more apparent in that model.

At Counsel On Call and especially in my role in the E-Discovery Division, it’s pretty simple: We have to understand all of the costs of a typical project and how to make the work product better and operate more efficiently. If we don’t do that, it’s not going to matter how we package our costs because we wouldn’t be providing value to our clients. You have to take care of the former to be able to create options for the latter.

(I'd also be remiss if I didn't at least mention Patrick J. Lamb at Valorem, who posts often on the subject of AFAs.) 
 

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