My perspective

20 Lies Oldlaw* Tell


OldLaw law firm pricing models

A Lie: a noun. a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.

Over the years we have all heard many tall stories, read PR releases, marketing puff, listened to lies, untruths, deceptions and falsehood told by Oldlaw lawyers and their advisors.

When I was part of Oldlaw I used to tell some of them myself. I would like to think I genuinely believed a lot of them were actually truths but maybe in reality I probably didn't want to know they were false beliefs.

You could also argue that many Oldlaw professionals today who continue to repeat these falsehoods, also do not understand they are deliberate untruths; especially if these are drummed into young professionals immediately they start in Oldlaw. However, in this age of greater and wider information, it is increasingly difficult in my opinion to accept that ignorance could still be a valid excuse.

Be that as it may I have met enough Oldlaw professionals over the last decade who I know that they know they are telling deliberate lies solely in order to justify a business model that handsomely rewards them on a number of levels, for perpetuating these lies.

This is a list of 20 lies I have assembled with a little help from my friends who have also encountered similar lies. Maybe there are some other lies that you can add to this list and if so, I would be grateful to hear from you. Maybe too you do not agree with me and you do not believe these are all lies. If the latter is the case, I would equally love to hear from you.

Lie #1
“The Billable Hour is accurate, transparent & ethical.”

Why it’s a lie. Might as well start with the MOAL (“Mother Of All Lies”). Sorry but no truth to this one at all. Like a certain commander-in-chief though, if you say it often enough others will believe it; and you might even believe it yourself. I’ve written an article directly on this subject. Take a look at “Time Billing is Accurate, Transparent and Ethical”.  

Lie #2
“We value soft skills (sic) as highly as we value hard skills (sic).”

Why it’s a lie. Whatever is meant by the terms “soft skills” and “hard skills” when Oldlaw says this; ask to look at their internal compensation & rewards. That tells you what skills they really value and it ain’t things termed “soft skills”.

Lie #3
“We value our “non-fee earners” (sic) as much as we value our “fee earners” (sic).”

Why it’s a lie. Really? Ask those in your firm that are not assigned an hourly rate what they think of this statement. If you are a “non-fee earner”, you are classified as a cost centre and you ought to feel pretty guilty about that.

Lie #4
“Our hourly rates are determined by way of a complex formula”.

Why it’s a lie. Ask any lawyer how their hourly rates are really calculated? They would not have a clue. That is because in reality, their hourly rates are based on reverse competition. Do I want my hourly rates to be the same, slightly more or slightly less than my competitors rates?

Lie #5
“Agreed prices are gimmicks - we handle things as efficiently as possible when we charge for our time.”

Why it’s a lie. Fake News! Oldlaw firms are far, far from the most efficient organisations on earth. Their business models are built on inefficiencies and they are financially rewarded for these inefficiencies.

Lie #6
“We have to turn over every rock and follow every path to assure our clients that they are well-represented.”

Why it’s a lie. Oldlaw lawyers who really don’t know what they are doing chase every rabbit down every burrow in the hope that something will be of value to their clients.

They are of course, financially rewarded for doing this. They also have to keep the utilization up for their employed lawyers. On the other hand good, specialised and experienced lawyers who price up front, know what they need to do to best represent their clients’ interests.

Lie #7
“Law is not a business.”

Why it’s a lie. Law per se may not be a business but private law firms are. If you are a lawyer and you are not interested in operating as a business, maybe join academia.

Lie #8
“We’d lose money if we charged less than our rack rates.”

Why it’s a lie. Oldlaw lawyers wouldn’t actually know because they have never tried genuine non time based pricing. Maybe if they lifted their heads from their timesheets once in a while and looked around at successful firms and organisations that do not retrospectively bill by time, they would see how false this statement actually is.

Lie #9
“We do fixed billing and only use the time recorded as a guide so we know our costs.”

Why it’s a lie. Another WL (“Whopper Lie”). Timesheets do not inform a law firm what their real costs are. Time is NOT a cost in Oldlaw - costs are costs. Fixed fee billing done this way is simply time billing in disguise. See Ron Baker’s article “Why Timesheets Focus Firm Leaders on the Wrong Things”.

Lie #10
“We benchmark to ensure our clients are satisfied with our performance; it is not a way to try and copy what other firms are doing.”

Why it’s a lie. Ah benchmarking - institutional copying on ice. Designed to ensure not only that firms all look the same but that they all are in a race to the middle. If you want to know what your client thinks of your performance why not ask them? And again, Ron Baker nails it in “Why Timesheets Focus Firm Leaders on the Wrong Things”.

Lie #11
“We are a full service law firm.”

Why it’s a lie. A false claim made by many Oldlaw firms for the last 30-40 years. There is no such thing as full service. It's a meaningless statement. What is the opposite of full service? Half service? If it is intended to indicate that the firm operates in all areas of law, that is even a greater whopper. Tim Williams shares his thoughts on this in his article, “There’s no such thing as full service”.

Lie #12
“We embrace and encourage diversity of thought from all partners and staff.”

Why it’s a lie. Of course you do. Provided the thoughts conform to your Oldlaw business model.

Lie #13
“Our clients want us to bill by time and see our timesheets”

Why it’s a lie. What person in their right mind would not prefer a fixed price for something over “how long is a piece of string?”

Most clients would prefer their legal provider did not bill them by time but instead gave them fixed fee(s) so they have more predictability and certainty over their legal spend.

Most Oldlaw firms however, are not confident nor competent in providing fixed fees and their clients know this so are forced to stick to the billable hour model. If you bill by time, of course they want to see your timesheets - because they do not trust you.

Lie #14
“We are collaborative.”

Why it’s a lie. Oldlaw PR work overtime on this statement at the moment because it is trendy to say you are a collaborative organisation. Lawyers by nature are not especially collaborative and like working in silos. Their internal measurements and rewards encourage this and are a disincentive to genuine collaboration. Anything that vaguely looks like collaboration is paid for by the client anyway. Cross selling is not collaboration. See this.

Lie #15
“Our firm is innovative.”

Why it’s a lie. Compared to….? Timesheets are HUGE innovation killers. Ask any genuine innovator and they will tell you innovation is not measured by time. To be fair, if you are in Oldlaw why invest in technology or an innovative idea to make things happen quicker when you still bill by time?

Lie #16
“You cannot run a successful law firm without recording time.”

Why it’s a lie. OK Oldlaw, so you might not accept the theory or the logic that there is a better way of practicing your craft that does not mandate billing by time nor recording time but it’s a lie to say it cannot be done.

Tell that to McKinsey; it doesn’t do timesheets. There are many, many lawyers all over the world that do not bill by time nor record their time. Lawyers are meant to accept empirical evidence, but I guess only if it advances their own case. 

Lie #17
“We sell time.”

Why it’s a lie. Do you really? I don’t think so and if you won’t believe me, after you finish reading this, pick up the phone to your best client and ask them what they buy from you? I can guarantee they will not say “time”. Isn’t it about time you stop selling something your clients don’t buy?

Lie #18
“Our firm values are:

  • we all work as a team,
  • we strive for excellence in everything we do,
  • we are totally customer centric,
  • we are innovative,
  • we are ethical,
  • we are authentic,
  • we have fun”

Why it’s a lie. You really value all these behaviours? Yeah right. Here’s what Denise Lee Yohn had to say about this in her article “Ban These 5 Words From Your Corporate Values Statement”.

Lie #19
“We have to bill by time in litigation in order to recover some of our client’s costs if we win.”

Why it’s a lie. Tell that to the law firms that undertake litigation but do not bill by time. Even if a scale applies, your file notes and other records will enable you to recover on behalf of your client, and some jurisdictions specifically allow recovery by reference to a non-hourly based fee arrangement.

Lie #20
"None of the above are lies."

OldLaw pricing models


* I define Oldlaw as any lawyer or law firm that principally operates their business model by leveraging people x time x hourly rate.

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