I had my house painted a few years back by a very capable painter and his small crew. He gave me a quote for the job and, at the time, it seemed like a lot of money — I mean a LOT of money. But my painter knew generally how long the job would take, the cost of renting the equipment he would need, and the materials he would have to buy.

I sometimes imagine what it would have been like if my painter billed for his work like most lawyers (including, regrettably, me on occassion) bill for their work. If I had paid my painter and his crew by the hour, I suspect that the initial time estimate would have been optimistically low and the hours actually billed would have been unexepectedly high.

My painter would have strived for perfection with every brush stroke, even when better than adequate would have certainly been good enough. And his crew would have embraced the business model by putting in a lot of hours — showing up early and leaving late, in order to score the boss’s appreciation and financial rewards. The job would have taken longer, wouldn’t have looked any better when completed, and would have cost EVEN MORE.

Thankfully, that is not how painters work. And when I can help it, that’s not how I work either.

I do my best to give my client’s a firm quote on every discrete project that I undertake. Sometimes this means I quote a very big and seemingly scary number. I’m sure that I lose potential clients because they think the work can be done cheaper elsewhere. I’m also sure, though, that most of those that tried something different were ultimately in for a big surprise when an initially low “estimate” turned into a bill significantly bigger than they imagined.

Don’t believe me? I recommend that you read The Tyranny of the Billable Hour, a short op-ed piece that appeared in The New York Times last week. Here’s my favorite quote:

“THAT bill shall know no limits,” wrote one DLA Piper lawyer to another in 2010 in what the firm is now calling “unfortunate banter” between associates about work for a client.

The article goes on to criticize the billable hour, and concludes with this:

There’s a way out of the mess. But it requires clients to press harder for alternative fee arrangements, courts to back away from policies that embed the billable hour, law firm leaders to stop rewarding excessive associate hours and senior partners to consider the deleterious consequences of their myopic focus on short-term profit-maximizing behavior.

Indeed, there is a way of this mess. Think seriously about hiring a lawyer that embraces an alternative to the billable hour — a lawyer like me, who prefers a fixed fee that rewards efficient and timely work.

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