Pricing In The Alternative

The “alternative” in an Alternative Fee Arrangement (AFA) can be defined as “affording a choice between two or more things…mutually exclusive so that if one is chosen the other must be rejected.”

In the arena of legal fees, the alternative is compared to the standard billable hour. One potential alternative is a fixed fee. For other AFAs, see this interesting article where Pat Lamb argues that the “real point” should be to “shift risk from the client to the firm,” among other things.

The questions to ask are: what is the goal? What is the incentive and who should have it? Who takes the risk? Who should benefit from taking that risk?

Blended rates and known budgets provide predictability. Is that the real issue for clients? Is the debate between low cost and predictability versus unknown budgetary costs, or does it involve the ability of the legal provider to use reproducible cost-effective services over time for the benefit of the client?

I would argue that these types of arrangements will have a short lifespan. After a certain period of time, all a fixed fee arrangement offers is what the cost is going to be, not how the work can be done more efficiently, for less money, more intuitively, or in a manner in which you can best meet your goals. It also encourages a law firm to use minimal staff or attorneys billing at the lowest hourly rate, which may or may not be in the best interest of a client. The lack of value will be exposed at some point.

The bottom line is to define the goals you are trying to achieve. Is it predictability? Cost savings? Particular expertise? Time reduction? Maximum manpower? All of the above?

This is the point I was attempting to make last week: it’s imperative to think how these arrangements can work for both parties, because if it’s tilted one way or the other, it’s not a great system. Someone loses. And there’s just not a great understanding in the marketplace of how these “alternatives” truly function or if value is really received.

So I like to look at what I know. I know my company’s costs of doing business. I have a pretty good idea how long it takes for attorneys to review a gigabyte of data on most software tools. I know a lot of different ways we can reduce the amount of data to review. I know how we create efficiencies throughout the discovery process. Knowing all of this, I feel very confident we can provide several different pricing options for our clients, whether it’s per document or per gigabyte (the ‘fixed fee’ options, more or less), by the hour, or some other structure. (Although I’m talking about discovery here, the same basic principles apply to different types of work that might see alternative fees, like contracts, employment matters, IP issues, etc.)

If I didn’t really know all of what we know about our business, well … I would be basing everything on a lot of subjective data. That’s simply not necessary in today's marketplace. But because we do have the objective data and we understand our capabilities and costs, the client gets a great work product at a low cost, achieves measurable efficiencies, and ultimately the predictability and consistency that are sought. That’s a win-win arrangement, which is a great goal to shoot for from the beginning.