In the middle of an otherwise good article in The Legal Intelligencer about the creative solutions local biglaw firms (Eckert Seamans, Ballard Spahr, Fox Rothschild) have taken to the shrinking supply of corporate legal work is this absurdity:

In response to the current economy and a clear shift to a buyer’s market, firms are moving from the pyramid model of a few partners at the top and hoards of associates at the bottom to a diamond shape in which several senior associates and junior partners make up the bulk in the middle in an effort to maximize value for the client.

When you bill by the hour, the last thing you want to do is "maximize value for the client." It translates directly into "minimize profit for the law firm."

And that’s what’s so wrong with the "leverage" model, which is built on hourly billing: just like a "cost-reimbursement" (aka "cost-plus") contract, it creates a disincentive towards productivity, which is why the government has moved away from them. The incentive is to continually add resources — particularly resources with a big spread between billing to client and cost to firm, like junior associates — up until the very highest point tolerated by the client, and then to keep the matter going as long as possible.

Fact is, even when business is modest, junior associates at corporate law firms are very profitable. A top-of-the-market junior associate making $150,000 annually plus bonus will still, after bonus, benefits, malpractice insurance premium, and even ‘lost opportunity’ costs like office space, still need only bill a modest 1,750 hours annually at an abysmal $150/hour to return a substantial profit. Keep in mind that’s a low rate for an associate working nowhere near the 2,000 hours most firms expect these days. Most do much better, frequently returning 30% profit margins or better on the firm’s expenses on them.

The problem now is that businesses are unwilling to let firms overwork cases like before, leaving the hours available for the junior associates uncertain. The firm can no longer "make work" for them.

So, what to do? Simply removing the excess capacity is one solution, but it won’t generate the same profits as before.

Hence the interest in alternative fee arrangements like fixed billing and the unique methods for dealing with first year associates. Particular credit goes out to those who, looking back to the history of the profession, have restored the "apprenticeship" model, which is likely fairer to clients and more useful for associates. (I’ve known many biglaw associates who, for their first year, learned absolutely nothing as they did "document review," often nothing more than unnecessary checks for attorney-client privilege among thousands of banal, irrelevant documents.)

There will always be a market for companies like, say, Comcast, hiring an armada to repel a legal invasion. We’re not talking about them.

The million-dollar profit-per-partner question for everyone else, for the lawyers who represent companies with "only" millions in annual revenue is: who in biglaw can go from a culture of excess to a culture of frugality? Adopt the ‘lean and mean’ approach that contingent fee firms have been doing for years, thereby earning their profits the way most businesses do, through improve productivity?

Who, and how quickly?