This article originally ran in The Legal Intelligencer on June 21, 2018
Kevin Dooley Kent of Conrad O’Brien: Kent has emerged within the firm and legal profession as a leader in developing and regularly using alternative fee arrangements. In the last four to five years, Conrad O’Brien has expanded its use of AFAs as clients’ interest in them has increased. But rather than wait for clients to broach the topic, Kent proactively raises it with them, employing AFAs as an effective marketing tool at a time when in-house legal departments are more mindful than ever of their legal spend and the value they’re getting from outside counsel.
Many of the fee arrangements Kent has adopted use hourly billing as a component, but he frequently uses less conventional arrangements that are highly tailored to meet the needs of a specific client. In many of the arrangements, the firm shares risk with the client, so Kent works closely with the client and the financial department at Conrad O’Brien to ensure the arrangement is optimal for both the client and the firm.
The Legal Intelligencer: Necessity is the mother of invention. What need were you inspired to address with your innovation?
Kevin Dooley Kent: As the legal landscape and traditional law firm models have changed, clients’ interests in an alternative to hourly billing has increased. As clients look to redefine their billing arrangements with their legal providers, I have tried to propose alternatives and find creative solutions that fit both the clients’ wishes and fulfill the firm’s needs. Some of my cases have been well-suited to use alternative fee arrangements and so, together with clients’ interests and the case needs, I began learning more about various fee structures and proactively raising with clients the idea of an arrangement other than straight hourly billing. My approach in using fee agreements as a marketing tool came as a natural result as having open conversation with clients about various billing options prior to the start of engagements. Proactively raising the topic of billing arrangements has yielded a more productive and open client relationship.
TLI: Innovation within a law firm requires a strong vision and a lot of coordination internally. How was your firm able to turn a vision into a reality?
KDK: Conrad O’Brien’s flexibility has been crucial to the success of using different fee structures. The firm first started experimenting with alternative billing arrangements in the early 2000s through some of the more senior partners, including Jack Guernsey, with whom I still work with to help craft optimal agreements. The support and acceptance of alternative fees has been crucial and allowed the firm to adapt various arrangements to client and firm needs, and build our database of fee arrangements at the firm. Also important is the freedom to make these arrangements and the understanding of my partners in instances where these have not worked out to the firm’s advantage—I think everyone appreciates the value in taking calculated risks and learning lessons when those risks lead to a less than optimal result.
TLI: In an increasingly competitive legal market, what’s one of the biggest challenges law firms face today?
KDK: At the top of my list: Recruiting and developing talented lawyers who are also attuned to the business side of legal practice, i.e., the firm as a business and our clients’ business needs.
TLI: Conversely, name one opportunity available to law firms in the current climate.
KDK: There is a tremendous opportunity to mold a legal practice to the changing marketplace and break free from traditional models of delivering legal service that may have inherent inefficiencies because aspects of that model are outdated. This is particularly true in mid-size firms that have the flexibility to make significant internal changes quickly, especially when it comes to professional (legal and business) staffing.