The front-page news item ‘Fixed fees popular with clients’ (10 October) is another swipe at the traditional hourly charge-out rate. This is not the first and won’t be the last.
Obviously clients prefer fixed fees; the reality is that it is not practicable to charge most non-routine legal work on a fixed-fee basis. Who knows at the outset what additional issues will be uncovered when reviewing a client’s documentation, or how the other party might respond in litigation, or how long parties will take to reach an acceptable agreement in negotiations? Whether these tasks take hours or months cannot be known when taking on a piece of work. I see solicitors working for a fixed fee but failing to spot key issues or rushing the matter, rather than taking the time needed to do a thorough job and achieve the best result.
Clients are firmly in the driving seat when it comes to the more complex work undertaken by solicitors: clients determine the direction of travel and regulate the pace of negotiations. Charging on a time-spent basis is often the only option which is fair to the lawyer and to the client. The real opportunity ‘to cement a better client relationship from the start’ is by lawyers using their experience to give accurate estimates of fees likely to be incurred at various stages before work is undertaken and based on what is known at the time. Lawyers are always accountable to their clients and have to be transparent in the way they have spent their time, by providing detailed time breakdowns with no place to hide.
My experience in partnership and employment work is that clients will ‘wholeheartedly recommend their lawyer’ not because of a fixed fee but because their lawyer has helped them succeed in achieving desired outcomes by adopting a supportive, responsive and professional approach, while ensuring clarity and transparency with regard to fees. Against these measures of success, there is no need to depart from the traditional hourly charge-out rate.
Keeping clients happy is the only way in which a lawyer can build a successful practice. That is the real incentive for lawyers to do their job as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Ronnie Fox, Fox, London EC3