Alston and Bird: “You get what you pay for.” A frank response to an unprofessional, nasty comment

Today, a partner at the 60th largest law firm in the world ($550 million a year in revenue) nastily attacked an advertisement made by Rowland Legal. The advertisement noted that I was publicly disclosing my hourly rate, at (almost assuredly) well below market $70 an hour, as well as a base price for a flat fee will of $300 (judging by personal anecdotes, $300 is also far below market rate, but it is impossible to say for sure because law firms virtually never post prices online). We also offered a free will to an EMT, both because I was copying a marketing device I had seen from another law firm, and because I have a soft spot for EMTs from the days when I had epileptic seizures. EMTs are the best people around.

Anyway, so a New York City corporate mergers and acquisitions attorney, whom I’ve never met, or heard of, and I would think would be doing something else on a Friday morning besides Facebooking (working for clients?), snidely attacked Rowland Legal’s ad with the statement, “yeah, you get what you pay for.”

Mark Fletcher McElreath comment

We could have just deleted the comment, but I had to admit, I was more interested that my fifteen-dollar Facebook ad was getting trolled by a partner at a law firm netting $550 million a year. (I must admit I am now sold on Facebook ads.)

I also thought that it deserved a response about business models—why are my services cheap? Do clients know where their money is going? Do the lawyers?

I applied to only two law schools, Berkeley and UGA, and was accepted to both. UGA offered a full scholarship, an excellent education, and proximity to my family and friends, so the choice was easy. Many law grads complain of “golden handcuffs” and graduating with $200,000 in law school debt, because those at private schools in expensive cities have little choice but to join an extremely large law firm, where they have to accrue at least 1800 billable hours a year. They receive a $100,000 salary alongside (that’s around $55 per billable hour, if you want to skip grabbing the calculator). When you hire a big law firm, a lot of the work gets passed down to these associates, and they are billed out at $150 an hour and up. The difference between what the associate is making and the bill is going toward the firm’s overhead. Big law firm offices are not cheap. Their conference tables can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Rowland Legal does not have a conference table.

In fact, it does not even currently have an office—I usually travel to clients’ homes when I do their estate planning. It is convenient for the client, all of their vital documents are already there, and a stressful conversation is not in a foreign office building.

Even though my hourly rate is only $70, by the hour, I actually get paid more than friends I have spoken to at large law firms, because I can take home almost all of what I bill (or they’re being modest about bonuses).

Fortunately, Alston and Bird does not give their partners blogs. As far as I know. If they do, Rowland Legal might show up on it shortly.

Fortunately, Alston and Bird does not give their partners blogs. As far as I know. If they do, Rowland Legal might show up on it shortly.

For large law firms, price competition from smaller shops (recently enabled by technology) is a grave cause for concern. Back when I was an associate at another small law firm, we were able to successfully litigate against Deutsche Bank, the world’s second largest bank. We had an enormous amount of evidence to go through, but document service vendors, who primarily service large law firms, were quoting fees $20,000 and up to make the evidence searchable. With a few hours of downloading publicly licensed software and a little scripting, we were able to accomplish our goal, for free. It made me wonder which law firms were daft enough to spend that much money on something they could easily get for nothing, and if their clients knew how much was getting wasted. At Rowland Legal, through technology, my office can consist of a web site, a cell phone, and wherever I’m sitting.  Perhaps large law firms are concerned that if Oz’s curtain is ever pulled back, clients would discover they could get better service for less and abandon big law en masse. Solid cherry conference tables do not write contracts and litigation filings. People like me do.

This, I think, answers the snide remark from our New York M&A partner: yes, you do get what you pay for. But do you know what you’re actually paying for, and if you did, would you keep paying?

Perhaps what makes his acidic comment the most obnoxious is that estate lawyers frequently say that virtually everyone should have a will, but it would be ridiculous to say that virtually everyone has $1,500 sitting around for one (or two, for a couple). I can undercut other firms, provide more face time, more attention, and more follow-up, precisely because of my low overhead. I am proud of what I do. I am proud of the fact that I can make legal services available to a lot of people who could not afford legal services before. People who once had to use online software or forms from office supply stores can now talk one-on-one with an attorney. Even if a client does not hire me, they can use my prices to drive down those of other lawyers. That’s better for the public.

Who do you think pays for this? Photo credit: Kate Sheets

Who do you think pays for this? Do you know what percentage of your bill goes to it? Photo credit: Kate Sheets

I can do all this because I attended a public school, I did not buy a condo straight out of law school, I did not rent space in a 100 story building, and I did not buy a solid cherry conference table with hand cut inlays. (I do, however, own a $400 alligator belt—we all have our vices.)

Friends ask me how business is going in an economy that, they hear, is tough for lawyers. They keep hearing about massive layoffs at large law firms. Rowland Legal has had a wonderful year. Literally every client in Rowland Legal’s first year had a satisfactory resolution to their problem, they were all very satisfied with the price, and they either pledged to hire us again or have already done so for another matter.

For lawyers who embrace capitalism, where technology has made economies of scale available to even the smallest firms, the new economy is full of opportunity—as well as potential new clients who have grown disillusioned with the reality behind Oz’s big law curtain, and the pricing culture large law firms propagated. Clients are growing wise to the fact that they are paying a lot of money for an office tower and M&A partners with multi-million dollar salaries playing on Facebook. I expect attacks like this to continue against firms like mine (I’m hoping they at least do their clients the favor of turning their $350 per hour clock off while they do it) because firms like mine are only going to undercut them more as technology turns their business models into relics.

Rowland Legal is doing what few firms will. Our hourly billing statements are available online, 24/7, as they are updated. Our prices are posted online. And at the end of the day, you get what you really need, which is a talented lawyer, without the gilding. I know people are almost anxious to pay more than $70 an hour, (and if you feel like simply donating the money to me afterward, you certainly can), but you deserve more, and you deserve to pay less for it. You deserve a culture where hiring a lawyer is within the same economic reach as an accountant or a mechanic. You deserve a new kind of law firm. Rowland Legal has and continues to prove what clients get for their money—it’s time for other firms to do the same.