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April 24, 2013

Are blended rates alternative fee arrangements?

Blended rates are 100% hourly arrangements, in which a single middle rate is charged for senior lawyers who normally charge more and junior lawyers who normally charge less. Whether the client or the firm benefits from this arrangement depends on the actual numbers in a particular situation.

For example, consider a case that is expected to require 100 hours of senior time at an average of $500 per hour ($50,000) and 100 hours of junior time at $300 per hour ($30,000), for a total of $80,000. A firm might offer a blended rate of $350 per hour, which reduces the predicted cost of the matter to $70,000 ($350 times 200 hours).

But now suppose that once the matter is underway, the firm discovers that almost all the work could actually be performed by more junior lawyers. If the senior lawyers only need to spend 20 hours supervising the matter (which would have cost $10,000 at the original rate of $500 times 20 hours), and junior lawyers put in the other 180 hours (which would have cost $54,000 at $300 times 180 hours), the client who pays the blended rate will actually pay more ($70,000) at the blended rate than they would have at the non-discounted rate ($64,000).

Now you could argue that it’s still a win-win, because if the firm had not offered blended rates, senior lawyers would have delivered 100 hours out of the 200. The client won by paying $70,000 instead of $80,000, and the firm won by charging $70,000 instead of $64,000.

From a marketing perspective, that is a terrible argument. In essence, it implies that senior people never should have been doing the work in the first place and the client must agree to be overcharged a little in order to avoid being overcharged a lot.

Blended rates invite gamesmanship, as individual lawyers may be tempted to manipulate predictions to maximize profit. And they encourage the use of more junior level lawyers, even when it may not be to the client’s benefit. Here’s how the general counsel at Marriott International described his unhappiness with his blended rate experience:

The law firm only assigned to the matter those lawyers whose regular hourly rate was at or below the blended rate, and more senior lawyers were unwilling to engage in significant supervision.

We will leave it to others to argue about whether blended rates are a good thing or a bad thing. In this context, what is important is that there is a philosophical difference between two types of alternative fee arrangement (AFA) definitions: narrow and broad. Our LegalBizDev Survey of Alternative Fee Arrangements used the narrow definition which reserves the term AFAs for fees that are fully or partly non-hourly. In contrast, when ALM published its AFA survey last year (Speaking Different Languages: Alternative Fee Arrangements for Law Firms and Legal Departments) they used the broad definition which includes blended rates.

People feel very strongly about which definition should be used. When members of our Advisory Board reviewed a draft of my book Legal Project Management, Pricing, and Alternative Fee Arrangements, some said that we made a mistake and that blended rates should be considered AFAs. Others said we made the opposite mistake and needed to be much more forceful in explaining that “blended rates are not alternative fee arrangements and are no different than discounting.”

The fact that two conflicting definitions of AFAs are in wide use adds considerable confusion to an area that was already confusing enough. If a firm claims that 50% of its work is performed on an alternative fee basis, that could mean that they are moving away from the billable hour (under the narrow definition), or it could mean that they are engaging in some creative hourly rate discounting (under the broad definition).

Some have a vested interest in maintaining this confusion. Announcing that a firm offers 50% of its work on an alternative fee basis sounds much more thoughtful and less desperate than saying, “Half the time, we have to slash our hourly rates because we need the business.” 

 

This post was adapted from my book Legal Project Management, Pricing, and Alternative Fee Arrangements.

 

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