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April 16, 2012 5:20 PM

When It Comes to Billing, Latest Rate Report Shows the Rich Keep Getting Richer

Posted by Sara Randazzo

Hourly rates just keep rising—and the best-paid lawyers are raising their rates faster than everyone else.

Those are two of the key findings contained in the 2012 Real Rate Report, an analysis of $7.6 billion in legal bills paid by corporations over a five-year period ending in December 2011. The report, released Monday, is the second such collaboration between TyMetrix, a company that manages and audits legal bills for corporate legal departments, and the Corporate Executive Board.

Many of the new rate report's findings echo those contained in the 2010 study, including the fact that rates keep going up, almost across the board, and that the cost of a given matter can vary dramatically depending on a law firm's size and location and its relationship with a particular client.

At the same time, this year's study shows that the legal sector is becoming increasingly bifurcated, with top firms raising rates faster than those at the bottom of the market and large firms charging a premium price based purely on their size.

"What it's really showing is that there's an increased premium being paid for experience and expertise," says Julie Peck, vice president of strategy and market development at TyMetrix. "Some parts of the lawyer market are able to raise rates much more quickly, and are more impervious to economic forces than others." 

To compile the current rate report, TyMetrix received permission from its clients to examine legal fees billed to 62 companies across 17 industries including energy, finance, retail, technology, insurance, and health care. The bills, which represent the amount actually paid by the companies in question rather than the amount initially charged, came from more than 4,000 firms in 84 metropolitan areas around the country. Every firm on the 2011 Am Law 100 is represented in the data.

The report's key data points include:

A Widening Gap: Hourly rates charged by lawyers in the legal sector's upper echelon grew faster between 2009 and 2011 than those charged by lawyers toiling on the lower rungs. Particularly striking was the jump in associate rates billed by those falling in the report's top quartile: 18 percent on average, to just over $600 per hour. Rates billed by top quartile partners, meanwhile, rose 8 percent, to just under $900 per hour. In the bottom quartile, associate rates rose 4 percent and partner rates rose 3 percent during the same period.

The Recession's (Minor) Toll: Even amid the economic downturn, the cost of an hour of a lawyer's time continued to rise faster than key measures of inflation. That said, the legal industry wasn't completely immune to the broader economy's slowdown. After rising 8.2 percent between 2007 and 2008, hourly rates rose just 2.3 percent in 2009. Law firms bounced back a bit last year, with rates climbing 5.1 percent, to an average of $530 an hour.

Location Counts: Not surprisingly, lawyers working in major metropolitan areas—where, as the rate report notes, rents are typically higher—are the priciest. An address in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington, D.C., alone adds about $161 to the hourly rate charged by an individual lawyer. Those six cities and Baltimore, Houston, Philadelphia, and San Jose are the ten U.S. markets with the highest hourly rates. With an average partner rate topping $700 per hour and average associate rate of more than $450 per hour, New York is the most expensive market in the country. The least expensive? Riverside, California, where the average partner bills at under $250 per hour and associates bill at just over $300 an hour. 

In the Minority: A small group of lawyers—12 percent—bucked the trend toward higher fees and actually  lowered rates between 2009 to 2011—and 3 percent trimmed rates by $50 or more per hour. (Most of those in the rate-cutting camp were based outside the big six markets identified above.) At the other end of the spectrum, 52 percent of lawyers increased rates by between $25 and $200 or more per hour. Another 18 percent increased rates by less than $25 per hour, and the final 18 percent held rates steady.

First-Year Blues: Even before the recession hit, clients balked at paying for what they considered on-the-job training for first-year associates. The latest rate report is likely to reinforce that reluctance, given its finding that using entry-level lawyers adds as much as 20 percent to the cost of a legal matter. The report offers evidence that firms may be accommodating clients on this front: The percentage of bills attributed to entry-level associates dropped from 7 percent in 2009 to 2.9 percent last year.

Ties That Bind: The more work one firm handles for a client—and the longer the client relationship extends—the higher the average rate the firm charges. For companies that paid one firm $10 million or more in a single year, the average hourly rate paid was $553 in 2011. By comparison, clients that limited their spending on an individual firm to $500,000 paid that firm an average of $319 per hour.

Four-Digit Frontier: Data has consistently shown that many lawyers hesitate to charge more than $1,000 an hour, and in 2011 just under 3 percent of the lawyers covered by the rate report had broken that barrier. Of those, the vast majority were working in the six main legal markets identified above and 60 percent of the time, they billed in increments of one hour or less.

Playing Favorites: Across all practice areas, 90 percent of lawyers charged different clients different rates for similar types of work. (The figure for mergers and acquisitions lawyers was 100 percent.) The differences from client to client can be extreme, and were even more pronounced in the current report than in the 2010 edition. Rates charged by intellectual property specialists, for instance, had a median variance of 23.1 percent, while lawyers doing commercial and contract work showed a 18.7 percent median difference.

Who's Doing What? A closer look at law firm bills for work performed on litigation and intellectual property assignments shows that the kind of timekeeper billing on a matter varies by practice type. On patent matters, the report shows, 47 percent of hours billed on average are attributed to paralegals, and 37 percent by partners. By comparison, paralegals account for just 8 percent of the work done on labor and employment litigation hours, while partners handle 45 percent.

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The Big Law law firm is a dinosaur - a dieing species. This kind of self-interested greed will ultimately kill the beast.

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