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Do law departments want the same things from law firms as law students want?

By contributing author Jane DiRenzo Pigott, R3 Group LLC

“Law Student Building a Better Legal Profession” (“BBLP”), recently strongly indicated what they find important in an organization at which they will practice law:

1. demographic,
2. billable hours expectations and averages, and
3. pro bono participation.

BBLP ranked law firms in six legal markets: Boston, Chicago, New York City, Northern California, Southern California and Washington (DC) based upon information listed on the form filed by each firm with the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). BBLP encourages “those choosing between firms – students deciding who to work for after graduation, corporate clients deciding who to hire, and universities deciding who to allow on campus for interviews – to exercise their market power and engage only with the firms that demonstrate a genuine commitment to their issues.”

Immediately you understand this assertion with regard to diversity numbers as many corporate legal departments focus on it when deciding which law firm to use for a matter, but does the BBLP “report card” assist with this inquiry? The granularity of the report card, which grades each firm separately based on the percents of partners and associates who are women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and LGBT attorneys, is probably overkill when it comes to diversity information that is useful to in-house counsel concerned with that issue as they make hiring decisions.

Moreover, do in-house legal departments care about billable hours or pro bono participation at the law firms that they hire or are considering hiring? BBLP makes the case that they should for the following reasons:

– working long hours negatively impacts judgment,
– inefficiency is encouraged by large billable hour requirements,
– hourly billing does not allow clients predictability in their legal expenses, and
– billable hours demands do not encourage quick resolution of legal matters so the profit motive of a law firm may be at odds with the client’s best interests or desires.

Given the much publicized material increases in associate starting salaries, law firms will need to cover the larger expense with higher billable hours and for higher rates. Should corporate legal departments be tracking the billable hour expectations of their outside legal service providers? Are clients better served by firms with lower billable hour requirements?

BBLP obviously invested much time and effort in this initial report card endeavor. Feedback from in-house legal departments could help them hone their efforts and become a source of valuable information that could be useful when choosing between firms.