Lawyers and Light Bulbs: A Guide to Case Staffing

How many lawyers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three: One to do it, and two to sue him for malpractice.

While lawyers and lightbulbs may seem an innocuous (if not overtly humorous) topic, this valuable question should be asked by any who regularly engage with law firms for representation of their legal matters. Clients do not often realize that monitoring case staffing on their claims can result in valuable monetary benefits by tracking just not just how many, but which attorneys are working on the claims.

How many lawyers should it take to handle your claim?

The numerical answer to this second riddle will invariably change depending upon many factors, such as the subject-matter or area of law, difficultly or uniqueness of the case, and/or the law firm you select to represent your interests. The generic answer should always be “only as many as you need”.

Using his or her knowledge of the case at hand, the client should be able to form a general idea of its complexity, and from this identify any case staffing red flags. For example, in a standard workers’ compensation matter, case staffing of three partners, an associate, and two paralegals should give you pause. Because there are finite tasks that are often very repetitive with these types of matters, it would be surprising that this number of individuals is needed on the case.

Another sometimes unavoidable pitfall occurs when the attorney(s) assigned to a case change mid-way through. The new staff on the matter must spend a significant amount of time “getting up to speed” with the case – time for which the client is financially responsible. The client should, from the start, make clear to the law firm that he does not expect to be billed for this time.

Which attorneys should handle your claim?

A savvy client will also be aware of which types of attorneys or other time keepers are contributing to the case.  For example, a partner may charge a higher rate than an associate for his time, but because of experience may take half the time to complete the task.  Conversely, staffing only partners on a matter leaves no opportunity for an associate or even a paralegal to perform simple tasks such as completing form documents or drafting e-mail communications that do not require a high level or skill or expertise.

It is especially important to be aware of a case staffing when a Blended Rate Agreement is in effect.  A “Blended Rate Agreement” is a fee structure that averages or “blends” the billing rates of different attorney types so that no matter who works on the case, the rate remains the same (e.g. typically, Partner bills an hourly rate of $200, while Associate bills an hourly rate of $100, thus under a Blended Rate Agreement each attorney would bill at $150.).  While this may seem like a bargain, it all depends upon who is actually working on the case. It is in the law firm’s advantage to staff a majority of associates on a case; associates that normally charge $100/hour for their services are now allowed to bill an additional $50 per hour. Of course, this is not to the advantage of the client, whose “bargain” only exists if there are more partners working the case.

Be careful to avoid simply “counting” attorneys.  Consider the following scenario:  Client asks Law Firm to provide an attorney count by position for a particular case covered by a Blended Rate Agreement.  Law Firm reports that it has staffed four partners and one associate on the matter. However, a closer look at who is staffed compared to who is billing time reveals an important distinction. In our scenario above, the four partners have billed a total of 10 hours, while the associate performed the bulk share of 90 hours.

For legal departments with a large number of cases, hiring a legal spend management service to monitor the case staffing on each and every matter is a good way to keep an eye on how its firms are staffing cases. Some of Quovant’s existing clients require that their law firms bill only two attorneys (whether partner or associate) and one support staff per case, and are notified if the law firm does not follow this staffing structure.

Now that we know how many lawyers it should take to screw in a lightbulb, three seems a bit excessive for the simple task at hand. Keeping well-informed of how law firms are staffing your cases will contribute to serious savings – and that’s no joke.

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