Not Your Father’s Law Firm

For high-end law firm Bickel & Brewer, saving clients money through efficiency is a top priority. A decade ago, the firm—which counts major corporations among its clients—opened a subsidiary business in India where employees including Indian lawyers handle electronic document management and even legal research. About the same time, the firm created an in-house consulting group of financial analysts, engineers, and computer experts to handle certain aspects of cases faster and better than lawyers are trained to do.

Three years ago, Bickel & Brewer, which has offices in New York and Dallas, tookanother cost-saving step for clients: it launched its own in-house investigative unit, a team of former FBI agents and other experienced investigators who interview witnesses and gather other information critical to the resolution of a case.

Not only do these specialists get better results in certain tasks such as finding or analyzing evidence, but they do it faster. In fact, the firm’s reliance on its in-houseteams can cut clients’ legal fees in half, says William A. Brewer III, who co-founded thefirm and is considered one of the nation’s top law firm innovators.

“Firms that don’t use in-house investigators and business professionals who can better retrieve information for you are using the least-efficient business model,” says Brewer.

Brewer is a strong advocate of getting rid of the hourly billing system for charging clients, even in cases where he represents the defendant. “I think the first thing a client should look for is a firm willing to try innovative billing system, where the lawyer takes a portion of the award when the client achieves the result they desire,” he says. Most firms continue to rely on hourly billing, which encourages delay and inefficiency, Brewer and other critics note. While contingency-fee arrangements are forbidden in some matters such as divorces, alternatives to hourly billing should be offered to clients in most other matters, Brewer says, so that lawyers have the incentive to achieve an excellent result asefficiently as possible.

It isn’t just powerhouse law firms whose clients can benefit from new ways of providing services, Brewer says—every lawyer today should be aware of new technologies, new billing methods, and other innovations if they want to provide the best results for the people they serve.

“Firms that don’t use in-house investigators and business professionals who can better retrieve information for you are using the least-efficient business model” — William A. Brewer III

David Perecman, of Perecman & Fanning, PLLC, in New York City, agrees. Over 20 years ago, he was among the first wave of lawyers to institute an electronic databasefor case management such as organizing documents and staying on top of courtdates and other critical appointments. “It was an immediate boon to my practice,” he says. “It made me a far more effective lawyer.”

What should you look for in a law firm to be certain you’re getting the most bang foryour legal buck?

• Electronic Database—can any firm today operate by the old paper file system? Theanswer is, some do—although not very well, of course. “This is the single most effective and helpful tool for attorneys running a law firm,” Perecman says. “It streamlines and organizes everything in the office. If you need something pertaining to a case, you simplybring it up on the computer and all the information is there.”

• Skilled Use of the Internet—Perecman insists the internet is an essential tool for lawyers. “When I’m going to be cross-examining a witness, I Google them. Once it a while, I’ll come up with something interesting,” he says. “I found out a doctor I wasgoing to be cross-examining had gone to Notre Dame as an undergrad. I kept looking,and found out he was a member of the Fighting Irish club here in New York. I kept looking and found out that the [defense attorney] was a member, too. It didn’t go over too well with the jury when it came out that the attorney and his witness were buddies. ‘You’re old buddies, you’re Fighting Irish, you’re really loyal, right?’ Poor doctor didn’t know where to hide.”

• A Firm Website—the existence of a firm website is no guarantee the firm is competent.It may just mean they’re excellent at marketing or web design. However, firms should have a website so clients can see the kinds of cases they handle, read the attorney’s biographies, and get a sense of the style of the firm. Perecman advises. “That tells youthat it’s a firm that goes to trial. In my kind of practice, if you don’t try cases, you’re nothreat. And if you’re no threat, clients aren’t getting everything they should.”

• An Office Manager—every law firm with more than four or five lawyers should havean office manager to handle administrative tasks, personnel, and other matters thatlawyers are usually too busy to do. “Otherwise, the place will run amok,” Perecman says.

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Not Your Father’s Law Firm