A recent post from Susan Cartier Liebel over at Build a Solo Practice, LLC (entitled The Cockroach of the Legal Profession—The Billable Hour) has spurred me to comment on the continuing viability of the billable hour as it relates to appellate practice.
In my previous life as a big-firm lawyer, the billable hour was ingrained in the very fabric of my being. Every aspect of my days (and sometimes my nights) was measured in 6-minute increments. Since opening my own shop last year, I have come to believe that appellate law is particularly well suited to alternative fee structures and have offered some different fee alternatives to my clients.
Certain features of appellate practice make breaking away from the billable hour possible, depending on the point at which the appellate lawyer becomes involved. In a pure appeal situation—when the trial court has signed an appealable interlocutory order or final judgment—the universe of facts and information is limited by a finite record, sharply restricting the number of curve balls your opponent can legitimately throw your way. In this situation, based on the length of the trial, the volume of the underlying pleadings, and the issues involved, it is possible to estimate the time that will be required to handle the appeal and come up with a flat fee proposal that makes sense for both the lawyer and the client.
In the right situation, a contingent fee may be a possibility. This alternative makes the most sense when a client has obtained a significant judgment and the other side is taking an appeal. However, a reverse contingent fee may be suitable when appealing a large monetary judgment. In that instance, appellate counsel would be paid based on the savings obtained from the original judgment amount.
The billable hour is often criticized for encouraging lawyers to generate revenue by churning files and for providing little or no direct reward for good performance. Yet, we seem to have difficulty parting with the billable hour as the standard for measuring our worth. By offering other options (including hybrid billable-alternative structures), appellate counsel can assure clients that they are adding value to the case while (hopefully) increasing their own bottom line.