Friday, June 15, 2012

You Don't Need Big Box Firms for Big-Time Representation

The Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association (WBBA) is a trade group for life sciences in Washington. As a Life Sciences attorney, I often attend their trade events and meet people who are involved with pharmaceutical studies and various bio-technology projects. They are usually represented by one of the large firms here in Seattle.

The people I meet in the life sciences industry complain to me about the cost of their legal fees; they make a phone call to their attorney, and they're charged $400 an hour. I'm not really sure why or how these big firms have a monopoly on the life sciences, but it seems as if there is a perception out there that big law firms are better-equipped to handle cases. They are bigger, after all, and better-staffed. Their fees are hefty – but surely you get what you pay for.

This is an unfortunate misconception – one that costs a lot of money.

Many attorneys who now work as solo practitioners or for small firms trained at a major law firm. It is indeed possible to attain high-quality legal representation at a big firm. But is a big firm the only place you can find this level of competent representation?  If you choose to go a different route, will you be sacrificing quality? The answer is unequivocally “no” – and it's important to understand this, particularly if you don't have a corporation paying your legal fees.

The fact of the matter is that big firms are expensive – and they simply don't have to be. Their high costs are often a result of inefficiency and a certain approach to billing practices. In litigation, for example, the big firms tend to issue the absolute maximum number of interrogatories and requests for production and admission. The goal is to bring in as much information as possible, but retrieving and assimilating all that information takes time and costs money, which is then billed to clients. Perhaps this isn't a pressing issue when the client is Google or Microsoft, but what about individuals paying their own legal fees?

Whether it's a contract or a litigation dispute, the most cost-effective approach is to try to narrow down what's actually relevant and draft language that reflects what needs to be said in clear language, omitting the superfluous. For those of us in solo practices, part of the reasoning for this approach is practical: we are busy, and we don't have the time or the staff to do unnecessary work.  
Many solo practitioners and small firms are staffed with attorneys who trained at large firms and provide excellent services at reasonable prices. 

For me, however, working as a solo practitioner also plays into my belief about the way I want to practice law. I don't believe in billing time just to bill time. It is my objective to do exactly what my clients want me to do – no more and obviously no less. I don't take action unless my client has approved it. When my clients receive my bill, they fully understand exactly what it is they're paying for.

Essentially, I believe in making things as clear as possible for my clients in the area of contracts and other transactions, using clear, understandable language. It is inappropriate, in my mind, to use 30 pages of complicated and archaic legal-speak to say what could be said simply and clearly in three pages. This is my approach in all matters.

Legal representation can be efficient, excellent and economical. It is possible to have all three. A smaller firm or a solo attorney can provide clients with the same level of service they would receive at a larger firm, and making this choice can bring the added bonus of a considerably smaller price tag.

If you are looking for an attorney, I recommend you contact your local bar association. Most Bar Associations, including the King County Bar Association and the Snohomish County Bar Association, have lawyer referral services.