The system of hourly billing by lawyers has come under scrutiny for some time, and whilst this might not be a new phenomenon, the increased move towards fixed fees and what this might mean for the sector, certainly is.
Although few clients and firms are openly admitting that fixed fees are on the increase, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest so. And whilst I have no expectation in my mind that the legal sector will suddenly abandon hourly rates, I suspect that the argument for doing so will gain pace. After all, at a time of economic uncertainty, coupled with the impending Legal Services Act, the need for greater openness and fairness by all professionals is certainly a factor.
If this is the case, the deeply embedded macho culture within so many City law firms of long hours and very little work/life balance may very well see a change. And there may consequently be welcome developments regarding the issue of diversity and gender inequality within the profession on the back of it. Time and time again I have read of the pledges made by firms about increasing female representation but is this really just cosmetic? I suspect so. However, if there is a move towards fixed fees we could see the landscape changing.
As it currently stands, the long hours put in by so many professionals is seen as part and parcel of the job – to succeed in a City firm this is simply a requirement. Some don’t mind this, in fact some quite enjoy it, others, women and men alike are often left with the choice of climbing the career ladder or putting their family and personal lives first. If the latter, promotion to partner for example, is simply not an option. There is a clear need to eradicate the macho culture so inherent and open up possibilities to different types of lawyers who are often left with no choice but to exit the City if they want this career progression.
If fixed fees do become a normal requirement for clients, the environment may very well change. If lawyers cannot bill their clients for late nights working in the office, surely the necessity and drive to do so will ease. But more importantly the law firms themselves will have the option and ability to both retain a wider and more diverse range of talent and professionals will see progression within City firms as a reality, not just a pipe dream.
It’s all very well taking about diversity but I suspect the driving force behind this will ultimately be economic factors. And it will be this, if anything, that makes any real impact on the City law firm environment.