Calls are continuing for alternatives to the billable hour, writes Angela Priestley, but do Australian lawyers have the capacity to manage alternative pricing arrangements?
There's no doubt that fixed fee and alternative pricing arrangements can present some inherent risks for law firms. In traditional law firms, where timesheets have long been the order of the day, changing the course of billing methods is no easy feat and it would be a tough challenge for lawyers to shift their mindset from six minute increments to reguarly deploying leaps of faith by scoping out with a client just how much their legal services are worth.
The answer, according to Liz Harris, a cost consultant with Allocatur Consulting, may well lie in seriously investing in a lawyer's project management skills.
She believes a better capacity for project management would provide lawyers with an increased sophistication to manage their budgets, to plan their matters, and forecast the extent of the legal work involved, while also negotiating with clients a fair pricing structure or fixed fee.
While a handful of large Australian law firms have undertaken some basic training with their lawyers, Harris is adamant that we are yet to see anything of substance demonstrating a true project management focus to emerge in Australia.
But internationally, the call for better lawyers to boast better project management skills is being heard. At Canadian firm McCarthy Tetrault, senior management is chasing what they label as better "cost predictability" by developing the project management capacity of their lawyers.
Canadian news outlet, the National Post, reports that the firm has also launched a technology solution to assist in better understanding the costs behind large pieces of litigation or a transaction. The software will assist lawyers in better project managing matters by assisting in their planning and estimating through project management templates each of the firm's lawyers can work through with their clients.
Meanwhile, US firm Dechert LLP is currently rolling out an initiative across the firm to train every associate and partner in project management skills. The Legal Intelligencer reports that the firm will bring a consultant on board to direct the training with a goal of better managing client concerns regarding costs, while also retaining a promise to provide alternative fee arrangements.
And it seems that the firms heeding the call for better project management appear to be lapping up the benefits. UK firm Eversheds noted via a press release late last year that it successfully negotiated a two-year deal with Tyco due to the focus the firm has placed on project management and metrics - as well as its fixed-fee arrangements .
Still, great lawyers don't necessarily make great business minds, nor negotiators or even forward planners. Can we really expect them to package all these things into one and make great project managers?
With some investment in tools, techniques and training - like at McCarthy Tetrault - it may well be possible.