ABA Section of Business Law
By Molly Thomas
Bye bye billable?
Is it time to say goodbye to the billable hour? No, not quite yet, but prepare to say hello to a few alternatives, reports the Wall Street Journal Law Blog. The billable hour's critics have long complained that paying by the hour can promote inefficiency and lead to sometimes surprising paydays. New technologies that can more accurately track hourly work have aided some companies in promoting alternative forms of billing. Cisco, for example, allocates a majority of their annual legal budget (70-75 percent, work estimated to be valued at $125 million) to firms at a fixed rate, primarily Morgan Lewis for litigation and Fenwick & West for corporate and securities work. Other companies have followed Cisco's example on a lesser scale, and some smaller firms have been proponents of alternative billing for years. And, the Law Blog reports, "Some regional and boutique firms are using alternative billing as a way to get a toe-hold with blue chip clients." But for now, the billable hour still reigns as king, especially in high-stakes and antitrust cases, with alternative forms of billing deemed more appropriate for routine and recurring issues.
Outsourcing, the right way
The growing outsourcing trend has reached the legal community, and with no indication that this trend will cease, some local bar associations have released opinions aimed at keeping lawyers informed of the ethical issues. The National Law Journal reports that the Los Angeles County Bar Association, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, and the San Diego County Bar Association have set forward guidelines for law firms and lawyers considering outsourcing. As offshore legal services companies grow, concerns include clients' expectations and confidentiality, fees charged, contractual provisions, conflicts of interest, and, above all, that lawyers effectively and ethically supervise any outsourced work being done.
Why do more women want out?
"I would not encourage my daughters to enter the legal profession," remarked a female lawyer, a quotation included in a report which presented further troubling findings for women in the legal profession, despite what might seem like recent indicators otherwise. Produced by the MIT Workplace Center in collaboration with various bar associations, "Women Lawyers and Obstacles to Leadership" echoes other recent reports' findings, while providing more specific demographics and statistics, reports the Boston Globe. Basically, despite the fact that more women are graduating from law school and the gender gap is narrowing when it comes to hiring, retention rates continue to slip dangerously lower before women make partner, which means fewer women in leadership positions such as law firm managers and, ultimately, law professors and judges. The crux of the issue seems to revolve around the "cultural reality" that women remain the primary caregivers in families with children. Just a sampling of the report's findings: only 17 percent of law firm partners are women; of associates who leave the partnership track, 46 percent of women leave the legal profession completely, while less than one-third of men do so. While flexible-hour policies do exist, they seem to be elusive. Former president of the Women's Bar Association, Pamela E. Berman, sees consequences broader than the legal profession. Berman remarked, "If we don't reverse this trend, we will not only not have a greater representation of women on the bench and in academic institutions, but we'll actually see regression."
Law firm initiative saves lives
After Texas State Senator Frank Madla and two members of his family were killed in a home fire last December in San Antonio, Texas law firm Wayne Wright LLP began the initiative "Smoke Alarms in Every Home." To date, the initiative has distributed 60,000 detectors to 21 cities. The firm doesn't have an estimate of cost, because to them, "the cost doesn't really matter. We do it as long as we can," says Wyatt Wright, son of Wayne Wright LLP's founder. Most recently, reports the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, the firm has partnered with the city of Seguin's fire department to ensure that every home in Seguin has a smoke detector. Wright credits the efforts of that city's fire department, members of which will be installing the free fire detectors on Saturdays, ensuring proper installation, and providing other fire safety advice for the community. Smoke detectors can double an individual's chances of surviving a residential fire, something this firm is taking seriously.
Popular and promising: Lawyer-scientists
A new trend in law students: science students? It's true, reports Maryclaire Dale of the Associated Press; more students than ever are making the transition from the research lab to the courtroom, drawn out of the lab by a hot niche in law: technology, and specifically, patents. Challenging existing patents and protecting old ones has become more prevalent, with the U.S. Patent Office estimating 450,000 patent applications this year versus 350,000 five years ago. Further, the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted more than a dozen patent cases and their recent ruling on the "obviousness" question signals the possibility of patent reform. But what also may be popular with science-turned-law students are the bigger paychecks and job security, with careers in academia apparently less certain and less fiscally promising.
Law firms pay to work for free
Paying for pro bono work? The equation seems a little off, but, apparently, it's business as usual for some firms looking to represent certain public-interest groups, reports The Wall Street Journal. Donations can range from $20,000 to $1 million, and while firms certainly don't mind charitable giving, donations as a requirement for desirable pro bono cases can rub some the wrong way. However, a strong pro bono program can be a powerful recruiting tool, as young lawyers are often looking for a firm that provides opportunities for giving back. And, of course, it's all looking up for public-interest organizations such as Lawyers Without Borders and Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, who provide the kind of pro bono work that elite law firms are competing for, such as cases for asylum, while less desirable cases such as those concerning welfare, divorce, and landlord-tenant matters are far less likely to gain competition for elite representation.
Gen Y: A whole new world
A whole new kind of young professional is emerging. Post-baby boomer, post-Generation X, Generation Y is rushing in. Born multitaskers, bred on technology, plugged into the global community (and their iPods!), and therefore perhaps less traditionally interpersonally skilled, this generation of young men and women is entering the workforce and forcing a brief but profound face-to-face with the nearly 80 million baby boomers on the edge of retirement, reports Law.com. Some forward-thinking firms are revamping their approach to recruiting and adjusting for these young associates, focusing especially on mentoring and coaching, which Gen Y seems to crave and respond well to, and Generation X seems able and willing to provide. Some restructuring of the business model is necessary: Generation Y seems to prioritize life outside of the office as well, meaning fewer billable hours and alternative career tracks, perhaps something they've learned to value from their hardworking baby boomer and Gen X predecessors.