It’s always inspiring to learn about a solo who snags a plum client in a well-publicized case. But the accomplishment is even sweeter when the solo beats out a major law firm that – get this – was willing to work for free.
Though this kind of scenario doesn’t occur as frequently as many solo boosters would have you believe, it does happen – and in fact, just did. Yesterday, the City of Harrisburg voted to retain Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania solo bankruptcy practitioner, Mark Schwartz to represent the City in filing for Chapter 9 restructuring, according to AmLaw Daily. Back in 2010, when the City first considered the Chapter 9, it interviewed a number of firms, including mega-firm Cravath to advise on a potential filing. But with rates ranging from $345 an hour for associates to $975 for the lead partner, Cravath’s fees proved too rich for the City, which had received lower priced bids from Pennsylvania firms. Undeterred, Cravath offered to handle the work pro bono and won the job.
But in the end, Cravath couldn’t keep the work. Instead the City council chose Schwartz, who agreed to reduce his $575/hr billing rate to $300/hr, because it wanted a lawyer who could focus solely on the bankruptcy and who was also familiar with Pennsylvania’s constitution and inner workings of the state government. Moreover, even though Cravath’s lawyers worked for free under its pro bono arrangements, the City was still required to pay costs, which amounted to a whopping $34,000. With expenses like that just for background research, the City probably figured that for the price of expense account meals and…(and, what else? What kind of project could run up $34,000 in costs unless it involved a month of international travel?), it could get a month’s worth of legal work out of Attorney Schwartz.
The timing of this story couldn’t have been better, as it comes at a time when I’ve had some doubts about solos’ ability to compete with big firms that will undercharge to get a client through the door. For example, as I noted in my column at The Xemplar, one AmLaw 100 firm has offered to handle incorporations for companies for $250 – which granted, is more than Legal Zoom, but probably far less than what an average priced solo would charge. The City of Harrisburg’s decision to hire Schwartz shows that there’s still a market for reasonably priced solos with bespoke talents. And also, when clients go with a big law firm that promises a free ride, they get what they pay for (second class status). As the City of Harrisburg learned, there’s no such thing as a free lunch – except the lunches that the Cravath partners feasted on, courtesy of the City.