Thursday, May 5, 2016
Lawyers traditionally bill a specified hourly rate for the time they spend working on a case. This ideally incentivizes lawyers to work hard and improve outcomes for their clients, and it provides clients transparency with respect to lawyer effort.
However, an hourly rate can reduce the predictability of costs for clients. Some clients worry that hourly rates might encourage inefficient over-work. As a result, some have shifted toward fixed-fee arrangements for their legal services, in which lawyers are paid a flat fee for completion of a task, regardless of how much time it takes to complete.
Preliminary results from empirical research that will be presented at this years’ American Law & Economics Association Conference suggest that a fixed-fee approach to compensating lawyers reduces lawyers’ efforts to assist clients and leads to worse outcomes for clients.
Two separate studies by two groups of researchers using similar research designs with different data sets both come to substantially the same conclusions. (Benjamin Schwall, High-Powered Attorney Incentives: A Look at the New Indigent Defense System in South Carolina and Amanda Y. Agan, Matthew Freedman & Emily Owens, Counsel Quality and Client Match Effects).
One potential obstacle in assessing the effects of different billing practices is reverse causation. Better lawyers may normally be able to bill by the hour because they are better and have more power to negotiate, not because billing by the hour makes them better.
The studies control for differences in lawyer quality by looking at the same lawyers (lawyer fixed effects) sometimes as court–appointed attorneys paid a flat fee and sometimes as attorneys billing by the hour. Schwall’s paper exploits changes in how South Carolina compensates its public defenders, while Agan, Freedman & Owen focus on random assignment of criminal defense counsel in Texas. The studies also attempt to control for differences in the type of case and defendant characteristics. The research designs for causal inference appear to be rigorous, and the results seem intuitive and plausible.
While the context of these studies is the criminal justice system, it would be surprising if the conclusions did not also hold true in civil litigation or in transactional practice. A lawyer on a fixed-fee is likely to be more willing to concede important points to bring a case or transaction to a speedy conclusion than one who can bill by the hour and be compensated for his or her extra efforts. Sophisticated clients may be better able to monitor their attorneys than indigent defendants and criminal courts, but clients probably cannot eliminate agency costs (If they could, an hourly rate would make at least as much sense as a fixed-fee).
Assuming the preliminary results of these studies hold, the incentive problems created by fixed fee arrangements may be an opportunity for shrewd business people or plaintiffs lawyers to target counterparties or defendants. If the businessperson pays his own lawyers by the hour to negotiate opposite lawyers on a fixed-fee, the reward could be contracts with lopsided terms in his favor. Plaintiffs’ lawyers may similarly expect civil defense lawyers on fixed-fee arrangements to advocate a swift settlement on terms relatively favorable to plaintiffs.
Lawyers are likely to know which clients use fixed fee arrangements because such clients often have an RFP process in which law firms bid for their work.