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Bartlit Beck: Technology delivers the efficiency allowed by the success-based fee model

The litigation boutique Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott LLP has made a history of trying to stay ahead of the curve. Established in 1993 with the idea to offer clients an alternative to the billable hour, the firm gained ground with its “success-based” fee model that sought to align both parties’ interests. Today, with 81 lawyers in offices in Chicago and Denver, the firm keeps alive its innovative streak with infusions of technology and staffing and process management.

Partners Chris Landgraff and J.B. Heaton spoke to Forum about how the firm incorporates technological innovation into its practice, codesigning its own software and the urge for disruptive change that is in its DNA.

FORUM: Bartlit Beck got a lot of attention early on for bucking the traditional billable hour price model. Could you describe how being formed around that idea has influenced the firm?

CHRIS LANDGRAFF: The firm was founded in part to get away from the hourly model, and the original idea was to try to develop fee models that align our interests with the client’s. One way we do this is with an arrangement that involves a flat fee and what we call a hold-back – an amount that is accounted for but the client doesn’t pay each month. If the bill was $100 a month, for example, we would ask the client to pay $80 and account for the remaining $20, which would build up every month. At the end of the case, if the result was a good one, the client would typically be asked to multiply that hold-back amount. If the result was a settlement, we typically just ask the client to pay the hold-back amount. If the result wasn’t a good one, the client would keep the hold-back amount.

Using the flat fee plus a bonus model allows us to align our interests with the client’s interests from the get-go.

J.B. HEATON: Exactly, and the idea of the fixed-fee approach was also largely because the firm, from the beginning, had a concept that we wanted more senior lawyers doing more of the work. And once you’ve made the decision that you’re not going to leverage a lot of associates, then that decision drives you to rely more on technology to be more efficient.

FORUM: How does this work in practice?

LANDGRAFF: One example is the idea of technology- assisted document review. We partner with leaders in that area so that we can use and utilize technology- assisted document review in large cases where you have these amazing linguists and programmers developing algorithms to help identify key documents or responsive documents.

HEATON: And that’s a great example – where a technology that is disruptive to an hourly firm is exactly the kind of thing that we’re looking for because it allows us to be more efficient and not need that army of associates – and the technology does it better than the associates can.

FORUM: The firm also was an early adopter of Microsoft® large-screen Surface Hub for conference room use, but also possibly for use in courtrooms. How has that progressed?

LANDGRAFF: That’s still something that we’re working to develop. We want to be able to review and collaborate on documents and other files throughout our office, of course, but we also envision being able to use the Surface Hub in a courtroom, which would allow for a much more dynamic presentation of evidence to a judge or jury. We already use the smaller Surface Pro in court, so the Hub would be a significant innovation.

In court, we also use trial presentation software, called TrialMax, which we helped codevelop with FTI Consulting.

FORUM: The firm codeveloped its own proprietary software?

LANDGRAFF: We worked with it, suggesting modifications and different functionalities to the software. (Laughing) I don’t mean our lawyers were writing code – we’re not there yet.

What I will say is that one of the unique aspects of our firm, in terms of technology, is that no matter what technology we’re using and no matter which lawyer is standing up before a judge or a jury or an arbitration panel, that lawyer is running her or his own show. We never have someone in the background, where we say, “Hey, Susie, will you go to slide six?”

This allows us to be more flexible and nimble in court and move to documents or exhibits that we want to show based on what the judge is asking or what the witness is saying. It allows us to be more in control and project more authority as we go through our presentation.

HEATON: That’s right, it’s common for us to go into substantive hearings or trials and see people running their own technologies. Again, I trace that back to just the greater level of senior lawyer involvement that we have under our structure compared to what tends to happen under a structure that’s built on much more leverage and the hourly model.

FORUM: How do you continue to adapt to new technology and more importantly, how do you get partners to buy into the latest innovation?

HEATON: I think this very much comes back to the idea that the technology was really always in service to being more efficient. It was never technology for technology’s sake; and really from the beginning, it has been about serving that goal. That’s a natural filter for a lot of things, and it keeps us from getting overwhelmed by the latest technology or gadget that’s out there.

LANDGRAFF: As far as getting partners to buy in, one kind of informal thing that jumps to mind is that we have a firm lunch every Thursday. Sometimes it’s just a catch-up session, where people talk informally about cases they’re working on, but sometimes, probably once a month, it turns into an informal training session. Recently we spent the lunch discussing how best to utilize Microsoft’s OneNote for case work.

FORUM: So, where does Bartlit Beck go from here? How do you keep that technological edge, especially with clients?

LANDGRAFF: As J.B. said, we’re not into technology for its own sake. Maybe in the earliest days, tech was its own selling point, but for us it is subservient to the effectiveness and the efficiencies of a model that’s not structured around an hourly billing system.

So, in the end, I don’t see our business driven by being on the technological edge as much as it’s driven by having more senior lawyers working on cases with smaller teams that are more experienced, on average, and more efficient because of the technology we use.

Meet the interviewees

J B Heaton IIIJ. B. Heaton III 
is a managing partner with Bartlit Beck in Chicago and focuses his practice on complex economic and financial cases.

Christopher D. LandgraffChristopher D. Landgraff 
is a partner at Bartlit Beck in Chicago.

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