The market of legal services is experiencing unprecedented and profound changes. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of alternative legal service providers (ALSPs), and a rapid increase in the use of Artificial Intelligence. We now even have legal chatbots and robot lawyers, and some of them are offering free legal services. The legal consumers are embracing these changes: in a recent survey in the UK, seven out of ten respondents would prefer to use a robot lawyer to a human one! This should not come as a surprise, and the culprit can easily be found: Billable hours are one of the main reasons legal consumers are reluctant to consult a lawyer.
In the past, we have written about the death of the billable hour. With the current evolutions in the legal market, that demise is more imminent than before. And there are plenty of good reasons to kill it off, and to start focusing on Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs).
So, what are Alternative Fee Arrangements? There is not standard definition, but basically any arrangement where the client is not charged by the hour is an Alternative Fee Arrangement. (There is debate about whether volume discounts are an Alternative Fee Arrangement or not, but that discussion is largely academic).
There are different types of Alternative Fee Arrangements. In the article on the death of the billable hour, we payed attention to:
- capped fees,
- fixed and flat fees,
- contingency agreements (where payment depends on the result),
- holdback (payment in phases and dependent on whether certain conditions are met),
- blended fees (lowering the cost of billable hours by delegating),
- cost-plus model (cost plus reasonable profit), and
- subscription billing (where the client pays a recurring fee to take care of its legal business).
Why opt for Alternative Fee Arrangements? All the arguments in favour of AFAs are the arguments against the billable hour.
From the point of view of the legal consumer, billable hours undoubtedly offer a lousy consumer experience. First, there is a fundamental double uncertainty: the client does not know in advance how much it will cost to address his or her legal issue, and if litigation is involved does not know what the end result will be. So the legal consumer is expected to commit to paying an undefined amount of money for an unknown result.
There also is the factor that being charged by the hour is always perceived as expensive. And the fact that the client is being charged for everything, including communications does not really make sense. Imagine you have a computer or car problem, have it fixed, and when you receive the bill, you are also charged for phone calls and consultations, on top of the actual repairs.
For lawyers, too, billable hours have negative side-effects that affect the overall productivity of a law practice. As you constantly have to keep track of everything you do, it necessitates a lot of extra administration. A survey published a year ago revealed that only 29 % of the time a lawyer spends working is billable, and that the rest was mainly administration, as well as some time spent on acquiring new cases. Add to that, as mentioned above, that the fact that clients are being charged for communications can easily become an obstacle for clear and essential communications.
Recent progress in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and process automation further illustrates that charging by the hour becomes less and less meaningful. How much time are you going to charge, e.g., for a contract that is compiled or reviewed by an AI system in seconds? Or what about eDiscovery, where computers can scan thousands of documents in minutes for relevant information, where it would take days to do the same manually?
In short, as the legal market is changing, the demand for Alternative Fee Arrangements is only expected to grow. In future articles, we will have a closer look at some of these Alternative Fee Arrangements.