Plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose.

The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.

Forgive us if we go a little old-school here.  We were thinking the other day about the application of business practices to contemporary legal practice when we ran across the decidely non-contemporary Report of the Thirty-Ninth Annual Session of the Georgia State Bar Association, held at Tyree Island on June 1-3, 1922.

Yes. 1922.

While we ordinarily pride ourselves on being up-to-date and ahead-of-the-curve, this 87 year-old report caught our attention.  Two of its essays–confusingly, both were entitled “Reports on the Business Methods of Law Firms”–struck us for their clarity of expresion, their business-focus, and the odd timelessness of the issues they presented.

“It behooves us, therefore, to follow the lead of business men and study efficiency, the elimination of waste, the accomplishment of best results with the least effort, and the least expense, and the other principles which are recognized as necessary to the conduct of any successful business in these days of strenuous competition and most earnest endeavor.”
George Jones, Esquire, of Macon, Georgia (p. 148)

When he’s not using the word “behoove” in gentle admonishment, the author above, George Jones, spends much of his nineteen pages arguing for closely tracked but flexibly deployed billing practices.  As his timesheet (pictured below) shows, Jones was a big believer in lawyers scrupulously recording and reviewing the increments of time they expended on client matters.  But, rather than solely invoicing clients for these increments he argues for a blended approach to billing, preferring to use his timesheets as backup to prove to disbelieving clients that amount of work their matters actually consumed.

“Everyone will agree that the basis for charging fees is one of the most difficult and unsatisfactory of a lawyer’s problems…I maintain that they are four such bases, stated in the order of their importance:

  • First, Time occupied [billable hour]
  • Second, Amounts involved; [contingency]
  • Third, Character and importance of the questions involved and work done; [matter-based]
  • Fourth, Results to clients. [success/outcome-based]
[italic text added]

It is the combination or aggregate of these elements which consciously or unconsciously actuates us in determining what to charge…It is important that clients shall be satisfied with the reasonableness of the charge made ..a client thoroughly dissatisfied with an exorbitant charge is likely to seek out somebody else.” (Jones, pp-144-145)

With the cascade of articles in this month’s trade and popular press about the viability of the billable hour, we thought Jones’ 1922 discussion seemed especially, um, timely.  Like we said: plus ça change…

Check out his state-of-the-1920’s-art billing and matter management system below or see the attached for complete copies of the two “Business Methods” papers.