The final installment in the saga of our intrepid volunteers of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church wrestling with the hairball of New York City land use, zoning, landmarks, and countless other laws and regulations in trying to reach what should be a simple factual/legal conclusion: How many developable square feet, as of right, pertain to our vacant corner lot abutting the rear of the Sanctuary?
For those just joining the proceedings:
At the conclusion of the third installment, we had engaged Firm C (an AmLaw 100) to give us an answer to the developable square footage question. We had requested and they had agreed to a fee cap of $15,000.
They have since delivered an opinion, caveated as you might expect, taking the most conservative possible position on the issues and therefore positing the smallest developable footprint—slightly smaller than the worst that we had imagined.
Be that as it may, this isn’t about their substantive advice, any more than the first three installments in this series have been. It’s about their approach to the not-inconsequential issue of client relations.
The final billing they submitted for what they surely must have known, had they given it a moment’s thought, was news as unwelcome as could be, came to over $17,000 in total. As for the agreed-to $15,000 cap, they informed us that “the engagement letter clearly states that we bill by the hour.”
I paraphrase, condense, and slightly enhance the pointedness of our reply:
“Well, yes, but why does that make this excess our problem?”
We could have added an observation about their evident inability to manage their own internal functions in running a matter, but why pile on? We were trying to take the high road—while at the same time being prudent stewards of St. Michael’s limited resources—and surely they could see that as clearly as we.
Perhaps they could see it clearly, but that didn’t mean they had to accept it graciously, because they did not. It took far more back and forth than it should have to get the total damage closer to (but still greater than) $15,000.
Reflecting on the countless interactions I’ve had with lawyers over my career in the industry, I’m delighted to report that they retain the ability to surprise me and even shock me into wonder at their cleverness and idiosyncratic talent for breaking with convention.
But this took matters to unexplored territory in the space-time dimensions of client relations.
I suppose another sort of person could take a lesson from this about how to run their own business (that would be Adam Smith, Esq., LLC in the case of Janet and me), but it would indeed have to very much be “another sort of person,” one who could conduct themselves such that charging a client more than agreed to left them unfazed.
Maybe we really and truly ought to take a lesson, because some behavior remains, to us, incomprehensible.
Bruce, the irony is that the partner(s) at Firm C who argued their fees with you likely bill at a rate so high that they spent more time arguing about their fees than the amount in dispute was worth. It seems to me that Firm C’s proper answer to you about the fee would have been to say: “Now that you mention it, we did promise to cap our fee at $15,000. Thank you for telling us; please send us a check for the amount that brings your total billings to $15,000 and we’ll write off the rest. We would be delighted to continue to work with you if your board moves this project forward.”
Also, unless Firm C’s answer to the question “How many square feet can St. Michael’s build as of right” was substantively different from “3.44 times the lot size,” I think Firm C overcharged you by $14,700.
“Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for. A product is not quality because it is hard to make and costs a lot of money, as manufacturers typically believe. This is incompetence. Customers pay only for what is of use to them and gives them value. Nothing else constitutes quality.” – Peter Drucker
By this definition, many of us pay for incompetence.
This has been an interesting series. I have some questions though. Maybe I missed something, but the church chose Firm C? Even after being treated so shabbily in the RFP process?
I ask this as an honest question and with the complete understanding that there are multiple dimensions to choosing a law firm for something like this. And in no way am I implying that this is any sort of excuse for the law firm’s behavior.
Fair question, and the answer is yes, Firm C. For, as you infer, a host of reasons not all of which have to do with Firm C–many had to do with Firms A & B!
I’m glad you, and I gather many readers, found this an interesting series. Obviously I had no idea where it would go when I started it, but I thought the view from The Client Seat would be a critically important topic to cover on ASE and as you can imagine I have few opportunities to experience it first-hand.
I must confess I have yet to formulate a compelling hypothesis explaining how such a demonstrably awful attitude towards and treatment of clients–bordering on the breathtaking, as in the partner’s walking right past us and down the elevator to get coffee as recounted in Chapter 3–continues to sustain itself in the market. As a friend of many many years who preferred anonymity in this context wrote me privately after reading “Coda,”
For my real analysis of when and how and if that even might happen, you, Gentle Readers, will have to await publication of Book #3.