Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Should companies move their employment work to small and mid-sized law firms?


Last week, the Legal Intelligencer, as posted on Law.com, reported on the filing of a legal malpractice lawsuit by a nonprofit agency, the The Bair Foundation, against one of the world's largest law firms, Reed Smith. Now, you may ask yourself, why would the Ohio Employer's Law Blog care about a legal malpractice lawsuit filed in suburban Pittsburgh. The answer comes in two parts: 1) the underlying case was a religious discrimination case that was tried in federal court in Cleveland and resulted a nearly $200,000 jury verdict, and 2) the Bair foundation was charged $960,409 to defend the garden-variety discrimination case. According to the Law.com article:

The foundation said in the complaint that it was originally told the case would cost them $50,000. That was then upped to $112,000 during the case....

"In implementing its ambitious strategy of capturing global clients, which Reed Smith boasts results in 'a constant increase in revenue per partner,' it has acknowledged that comparatively small regional or local law firms can or perhaps should service smaller clients," the complaint stated. "This is so because such firms typically charge much lower fees than 'white shoe' international law firms like Reed Smith and are therefore more affordable to these smaller clients. However, Reed Smith has inexplicably continued to represent certain much smaller clients which lack substantial financial resources, such as Bair, a not-for-profit charitable foundation."

The foundation's [current] attorney, Bruce C. Fox of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel in Pittsburgh, said no explanation was ever given as to why the fees increased to nearly $1 million. He said his client was "badly taken advantage of."

Fox said he doesn't think large, international firms should represent clients like the Bair Foundation because of global law firms' economic models.

The lawsuit alleges inappropriate billing practices, including over-staffing the case, failing to adequately describe billing entries by subject matter or activity, and raising billing rates without notice.

The Bair Foundation's predicament illustrates two key trends to watch in the legal profession for 2008, as discussed in Robert Denney Associates' 19th Annual Report on What’s Hot and What's Not in the Legal Profession (hat tip to Tom Kane at The Legal Marketing Blog): Labor and Employment continues to be a hot practice area, and mid-size firms are thriving by "attracting clients faced with the high rates – and often poor service – of the large firms." KJK has 31 lawyers, so I have a stake in this discussion. That stake, however, does not change the fact that the small and mid-size firms have as much to offer, if not more, than the large institutional firms. It's not just a question of hourly rates, but also more economical staffing, increased efficiency, and better client communication, all with the same or better quality of legal work. My hope is that these issues cause companies of all sizes to consider small and mid-sized law firms the next time they are sued in an employment case.

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