The billable hour isn’t dead, but as more corporate counsel demand alternative fee arrangements with their outside law firms, the folks at Suffolk Law School are already thinking about its failing health.
Next year, the Boston-based law school will begin offering an online certificate program in Legal Innovation and Technology that aims to prepare industry professionals for an era when billing on an hourly basis is no longer the norm.
“What we’re really trying to do is expose people to new concepts and engage people in a new kind of issue spotting,” said Suffolk’s Dean Andrew Perlman. “If they’re involved in the delivery of legal services, we want them to say, ‘I think there is a better, faster, more efficient way.’”
Open to all legal professionals including lawyers, paralegals, and operations specialists, completion of the program requires finishing six courses that touch on legal operations, technology, design, project management, business, and a history of the profession in the 21st century.
Each 10-week course costs $3,000 individually; completing the entire program costs $15,000.
Under Perlman, Suffolk Law School has been involved in many of the changes sweeping the legal industry, from bringing the legal outsourcing company Integreon onto its campus so that students can gain paid experience on large scale document review and due diligence review projects to studying whether it makes sense to accept GRE scores rather than LSAT scores from its applicants.
Perlman said the law school has long offered its J.D. candidates a suite of courses related to legal technology and innovation, which consistently attracted interest from professionals already working. Citing Microsoft’s announcement earlier this year that its legal department is hoping to move 90 percent of its work onto an alternative fee basis, Perlman said he saw a need for legal professionals to retrain themselves.
“We’re seeing an evolution not a revolution,” he said. “What the certificate program is trying to do is help people as the evolution takes place.”
One of the instructors in the online certificate program, Lucy Basli, assistant general counsel of Microsoft, said she wants to give students an overview that will touch on legal project management, managing legal outsourcing companies, the client-law firm relationship, and trends in corporate law departments.
“We’re developing a data science team,” said Basli, about one of the changes happening at Microsoft, explaining that by analyzing legal spend the company is gaining insights into how to best use its resources.
The company made a splash earlier this year when it disclosed it is already billing 55 to 60 percent of its work on an alternative fee basis — meaning something other than an hourly basis — and plans to shift 90 percent of its portfolio within two years.
“I think folks now understand that it’s something that is here to stay and something that’s growing,” David Howard, the deputy general counsel at Microsoft who is spearheading the company’s change, said at the time of the announcement.
Still, Microsoft remains an outlier: More than 72 percent of work is billed on an hourly basis, despite a 96 percent satisfaction rate with alternative fee arrangements, according to a survey of 318 corporate counsel in the U.S. released last month by Norton Rose.
Another instructor for Suffolk’s program, Catherine Alman MacDonagh said that regardless of what billing methods are used, she aims to teach better ways to conduct legal work. MacDonagh founded the Legal Lean Sigma Institute, which offers consulting on process improvement.
“It’s also about uncovering where we have developed best practices, and harnessing them and making sure that everyone is employing them,” said MacDonagh.
Perlman said he believes any legal professional — from a Big Law partner to an associate to a sole practitioner and on and on — would benefit from the course, although they may each take different ideas away.
“Our goal is not necessarily to make people experts in using a particular platform or technology,” he said. “What we really want the certificate to signify is somebody has been exposed to the ways legal services can be delivered, a way that’s better, cheaper, faster.”
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