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Why Biglaw Billing Is Like Brown M&M’s

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In the context of $201 million in legal fees,  a superfluous $1600 charge — for a fancy dinner and reading a newspaper article — is chump change, something that wouldn’t have registered a blip on the client’s radar screen but for this New York Post article.  Yet while the monetary value of the $1600 charge may not be great, the symbolic value is enormous because it stands for everything that’s wrong with the way that biglaw bills clients.

First, a bit of background.  A few days ago, the New York Post ran a story on the “legal billing blitz” stemming from Ground Zero worker lawsuits.  According to the report, firms like McDermott, Will and Emery and others hired to represent the City owned WTC Captive Insurance Company, ran up a “blizzard of charges” totaling $201 million, including items like:

$409: Call to Captive CEO and “read article in New York Post.”

$1,252: Dinner for eight at Giovanni Ristorante in Midtown after court hearing.

Frankly, if this firm represented me, I’d fire them.  Why?  First, because a lawyer who isn’t reading several dozen newspapers and blogs daily through a newsfeeder – and instead, reads these materials only when they’re billable – lacks curiosity and initiative — two traits I value in a lawyer.  And a law firm that would make clients pay for a lavish meal that the lawyers themselves could have readily afforded themselves has such a sense of entitlement that it’s willing to put its own interests before those of its clients.

Small actions often have big meaning.  Perhaps the best example of this is the popular (and true) story about the rock band Van Halen and its “no brown M&Ms” standard contract clause.   Under the terms of Van Halen’s contracts, venues hosting the band’s concerts were required to provide a bowl of M&Ms backstage, with all of the brown M&Ms removed. The “no brown M&M” clause was typically buried in a huge contract that contained pages and pages of other technical requirements that the band needed in place for its performance to run smoothly.

The ban on brown M&Ms wasn’t about the band members acting like divas, but rather, as explained by David Lee Roth, served an important function:

So when I walk backstage if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl…well, line check the entire production Guarnateed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the K guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threatened to just destroy the whole show.  Something like, literally, life-threatening.

A few brown M&Ms isn’t much in the greater scheme of things – but for Van Halen, they served as proof that show organizers couldn’t be trusted to follow directions.  Likewise, $1600 hardly amounts to anything when it’s buried in $201 million worth of law firm bills.  But it speaks volumes for the way that biglaw treats its clients.  Just like it took a single straw to break the camel’s back, or a single brown M&M to throw David Lee Roth of Van Halen into a rage, perhaps this $1600 charge will make big firm clients wake up and realize that large firms are so myopically focused on billing that they can’t even think for a non-billable second what those bills say about the firm, its values and its treatment of clients.

  • Great post, Carolyn!

    You would think that in this day and age, Big Law would get it. Sigh…..

    Jaimie B. Field, Esq.

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