“Musical Lawyers” refers to the common practice of rotating attorneys on and off ongoing matters in a fashion that has the effect (if not purpose) of inflating the bill. “Musical Lawyers” is a lot like “Musical Chairs,” except the number of eligible players increases during the course of the game, and the game may not end unless the client stops paying for it.
Clients obtain the most value for their legal dollar when the same high-quality lawyers handle matters from start to finish. This ideal is seldom realized, since law firms often rotate lawyers and other timekeepers on and off matters, thereby inflating the bills without providing corresponding value to their client. Firms will charge normal hourly rates while partners, associates, paralegals and even temporary employees learn the “file” and perform one or two discrete tasks. A month later, another timekeeper with similar skills will be brought on to learn the file, replacing a timekeeper who is rotated to another matter. The attorneys who are “permanently” on the case spend lots of billable time in internal conferences educating their incoming colleagues about the matter.
There are many reasons for high staff turnover on particular matters. Associates and paralegals leave large and medium-sized law firms at very high rates. Each year, large law firms have to absorb a new “class” of attorneys straight out of law school and find something for them to do. Lawyers generally dislike being stuck on the same large matter for an extended period of time. This leads many to lobby their firms to get off large matters, or matters not to their liking. Moreover, partners often lobby to get favored associates off the matters of other partners and on to their matters.
Clients should understand that administrative or political issues facing a law firm may justify a change in staff. Clients should not, however, have to pay to accommodate their law firm’s conveniences. Clients have a right to insist that they do not pay to bring a new lawyer “up to speed” where the staff turnover is for the law firm’s convenience.
To avoid paying for musical lawyers, clients should:
- Insist on being notified of any staff turnover (either departing or incoming) in advance. Specify this in the written retainer agreement if possible. If the retainer agreement is already signed, write a letter to your lawyer asking for notification.
- Retain the right to reject new staff. This is an excellent provision for billing guidelines and/or a retainer agreement.
- When receiving a bill, review the column of the itemized invoice that has timekeeper names or initials. Be alert to any new timekeepers.
- Consider asking your lawyer to staff fewer timekeepers on the matter. Law firms billing by the hour have an interest in creating an army of lawyers to tackle cases and transactions, but the vast majority of legal matters can be handled by one or two lawyers. The phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth” applies to legal services.
- Ask lead counsel why new staff is necessary or desirable. If the new lawyer has expertise that is necessary to solve a problem that has arisen in the matter, and an existing member of the team cannot replicate this expertise, approve the new lawyer and pay all reasonable fees associated with getting the new lawyer up to speed.
- Refuse to pay for a new lawyer if the lead lawyer cannot explain to your satisfaction why the new lawyer is necessary
- Pay for a new lawyer if the change is necessitated by staff turnover, attorney preferences, or the press of other law firm business. However, you need not pay for the new lawyer to learn the file or get up to speed. You should only pay for the new lawyer after he or she has learned enough about the case to carry out tasks efficiently.
- When a new lawyer is added to the team, watch for signs of excessive attorney “review” or excessive internal conferencing. The lawyer brought on to perform a discrete task does not necessarily need to review every piece of paper in the file. Nor does he typically need hours of background education from other lawyers on the team.
For better or for worse, constant staff turnover will be the norm on large or lengthy legal matters for the foreseeable future. Staff turnover is a major cause of client dissatisfaction and inflated bills. Clients who heed the tips in this article will go a long way towards obtaining value at a reasonable cost from their outside lawyers.