For an opinion on lawyers’ hourly rates we can turn to US federal judge Denny Chin, who set about lowering the fee of a global law firm acting in a receivership: ‘In this economy, with law firms going out of existence or laying off lawyers for lack of work, surely there would have been qualified law firms willing to perform these services at rates substantially lower than $850 or $950 per hour.’
The lawyer whose fees Chin slashed was a partner at Dewey & LeBoeuf – which dramatically collapsed four years later.
Headline (and ‘headline’) rates tell us little about what clients actually pay, how much work firms have on the go, or if their advice was valuable.
As this week’s feature on fees shows, the terrain is rather more complex than the ‘£1,000-an-hour’ news stories of recent vintage would suggest.
City lawyers are well remunerated, of course, but modern corporate counsel push hard on price. That price may be fixed (Slaughter and May acting for Vodafone), or the result of a Dutch auction (RBS), and instructions can now be divided between high- and low-cost centres. When clients are proactive in their demands, the legal market by necessity responds. The buyer has the power, but must exercise it.
Our largest businesses find they have a choice of hundreds of law firms. The legal market may have flaws, but a dearth of competition is not among them.