November 2009 Archives

November 30, 2009

Managing Business Litigation Costs - Is Flat Fee Litigation Possible? Part Two

Part One of this article discussed the general concept of flat fee litigation, and the associated relative risk shared by attorneys and their clients. Part Two explores potential flat fee litigation schemes further. The greatest challenge in devising a flat fee litigation scheme is making reasonable estimates of the attorney time necessary to effectively litigate any given case. Experienced litigators can distill the facts and the law in advance and make reasonable estimates of the time necessary, and they routinely offer estimates to prospective clients in the billable hour context. Unfortunately, lawyers' estimates are often understated and clients end up paying significantly higher fees than originally expected. This is likely because attorneys are loath to give worse case scenarios and risk turning clients away.

1083976_labyrinth.jpgSo long as clients are willing to absorb a share of the risk (see Part One) in exchange for certainty in billing, attorneys can and should offer their clients a flat fee option for most litigation matters. In order to reduce the risk to clients of over paying for matters that may resolve in the early stages of litigation, attorneys can offer flat rates for the different stages of litigation. A flat fee litigation scheme may look something like the following: a flat fee for pre-filing negotiation; a flat fee for post-filing/pre-trial litigation; and a flat fee for trial preparation and trial. The pre-trial litigation phase could be broken up further into a flat fee for post-filing/pre-discovery work and a flat fee for all remaining pre-trial litigation including discovery.

The difficulty of course arises in deciding how to calculate the flat fee. Litigation is a complex process mired in factual, legal and procedural uncertainty, and it's the attorney's job to navigate the maze for the client. Nonetheless, experienced litigators have the skills required to make reasonable estimates. They can estimate the number of witnesses to be deposed, the volume of documents to review, the potential discovery burden, the extent of expert discovery and an average time for expected motion work. In some cases, they'll be able to include the skill and determination of opposing counsel in the equation. They will not get it right in every case. In fact, the estimates may be off more often than not. Whatever accuracy is achieved, they can at least assign risk value to the estimates. The goal is to present a marketable alternative to the inefficient and client unfriendly "billable hour" practice.

It's important to note that setting a flat rate for attorney fees doesn't eliminate all uncertainty for clients. Litigation costs can vary considerably and attorneys should provide their best estimates of those costs while explaining the inherent unpredictability.

Compared to the entrenched "billable hour" practice, the flat fee approach is an attractive prospect to the San Diego law firm looking at creative billing practices to lure new clients and keep existing clients who are increasingly more frustrated with the status quo.

November 18, 2009

Managing Business Litigation Costs - Is Flat Fee Litigation Possible?

Attorneys and law firms have visited the issue of flat fee litigation in the past, and there are San Diego litigation attorneys today that offer some of their business clients the option under limited circumstances. However, there can be little doubt that the overwhelming consensus amongst legal professionals is that flat fee litigation simply isn't practical. In part, this view stems from the difficulties in predicting actual attorney hours necessary to litigate any given case. Even if a law firm could adequately estimate the number of hours necessary to complete a case, it is virtually impossible to know whether the matter might resolve informally long before significant attorney hours are expended. In fact, a good attorney will strive for this beneficial result for his or her client. Avoiding long drawn out litigation is always a healthy result. Apart from the monetary costs, the emotional and time consuming roller coaster ride takes a toll on business owners.

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Business owners would like some certainty as to the final cost of litigation. Attorneys are concerned with compensation for the actual work performed. Under standard billing practices, attorneys do their best to provide estimates, explain the process and most often stress the inherent uncertainty that comes with any litigation. Unfortunately no matter how well explained, clients rarely anticipate the actual costs ahead. Moreover, although attorneys are bound by ethical considerations, the reality is that there is little incentive for efficiency. Nor is there a desire to scare off clients with worse case scenarios. Yet, worse case scenarios are common in litigation, and the result is an ever increasing dissatisfaction with litigation and the legal profession in general.

The question then turns to one of sharing risk. From the litigation attorney perspective, agreeing to take on a litigation case for a flat fee comes with great risk. They know the potential for a long drawn out process consuming unanticipated attorney hours. At best, underestimating attorney time results in reduced average hourly rates. At worst, the attorney finds himself or herself overwhelmed by a single case at the expense of others. For clients, knowing what attorney fees will be in advance makes it possible to evaluate whether anticipated litigation is an economically feasible alternative to informal resolution. However, in exchange for certainty in billing, they risk overpaying for their attorneys' time, and the overpayment can be significant if the case resolves in the early stages. Paying an attorney for an anticipated 80 hours that resolves after 5 hours of work can be just as dissatisfying as expensive ongoing litigation. It's clear, nonetheless, that consumers are looking for alternatives.

Continue reading "Managing Business Litigation Costs - Is Flat Fee Litigation Possible?" »

November 13, 2009

Non-Competition Clauses in California Employment Contracts

In California, post employment non-competition clauses are generally unenforceable. The prohibition of such clauses stems from the state's strong public policy favoring freedom of employment and competition, and there can be little doubt that savvy California businesses are aware of this. Yet businesses in San Diego and throughout the state routinely include non-competition clauses in their employment contracts, especially those with upper management. Businesses likely feel justified in including non-compete language because they know it is legal in nearly every other state in the country. In addition, many businesses have legitimate concerns regarding the protection of trade secrets. Companies invest in the creation of customer lists, customer loyalty, and in methods and procedures for maintaining and building a customer base, and they want to protect their investment.

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Most employees don't intend to steal their former employer's secrets. They are simply interested in taking advantage of employment opportunities. The problem arises because of the difficulties in distinguishing between a former employee's inappropriate use of trade secrets and that same employee's utilization of personal skill and experience for the new employer. Competitors often solicit business from the same customer pool and use similar mechanisms to seek out and maintain a customer base. Who can say for certain that the former employee isn't soliciting clients consistent with the new employer's standard operating procedures? Whatever the case, California has chosen to err on the side of competition.

Employers, on the other hand, have chosen to err on the side of inclusion. Despite their illegality, businesses still include non-compete clauses in their employment contracts. Most prospective employees are unaware of California's employment laws and are unlikely to consult an attorney, and employers know that in most cases their employees will honor non-compete agreements upon the termination of their employment.  Moreover, employers merge non-compete language with trade secret language. If a former employee chooses to go to work for a competitor, employers will look past the non-compete language and allege theft of trade secrets. California courts have long recognized a "trade secrets" exception to the prohibition on non-compete clauses. By alleging theft of trade secrets, employers reduce the risk of having the case dismissed early for failure to state a cause of action, and increase the pressure on the former employee now faced with prolonged and costly litigation. Sometimes, the new employer will absorb the cost, but not often.

There is anecdotal evidence that California's competitive friendly approach has been successful. Some argue that the success of Silicon Valley compared to other technology corridors is in large part due to California's competitive environment. Whatever position one takes, recent developments make it clear that California businesses should exercise caution when including non-compete language in their employment contracts. California Labor Code § 432.5 makes it a misdemeanor to include illegal terms in an employment contract, and Labor Code § 2699 provides for a private right of action for any alleged violation of California's Labor Code and provides for a penalty for each violation of up to $200 per employee per pay period. With 25% of the penalty going to the prevailing plaintiff, employees concerned about non-compete clauses have an additional incentive to bring such actions. Moreover, a recent case casts doubt on the continuing validity of the trade secret exception. In Dowell v. Biosense Webster, Inc., the appellate court found a non-compete clause unenforceable and questioned, but did not rule on, the "continued viability of the common law trade secret exception to covenants not to compete."

Considering these developments, employers and their business attorneys should at the very least take care to ensure that non-compete language is narrowly tailored to address the protection of trade secrets. Including broader non-compete language risks liability under California law.

November 3, 2009

Existing Tenants Are Valuable Asset to Commercial Landlords in Ever Shrinking Lease Market

It's now estimated that the San Diego commercial lease market will hit bottom in 2010. Whatever the future has in store for commercial real estate, the present news is not good for commercial property owners. Office vacancies in San Diego are at almost 20% and retail vacancies, while not as high, are still significant at around 8%. It's likely that most commercial property owners in San Diego cannot remember the market every being this bad. With vacancies so high, commercial landlords are forced to negotiate better lease terms in order to retain existing tenants and to attract new ones. In this highly competitive market, it's the smaller commercial property owners that are being hit the hardest.

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The competition for new tenants is tough. Larger companies can afford to offer cash incentives for improvements, free rent for six months and significant first year discounts to lure the most attractive tenants, leaving smaller properties desperate to fill their empty space. For many smaller property owners, the only way to compete with these incentives is rent reduction. It's an economic reality that commercial property owners of all sizes cannot get around - continued downward pressure on rent coming from all sides.

Offering incentives to prospective tenants is a good business decision for those that can afford it. For those that cannot, holding on to existing tenants is of paramount importance at least for the foreseeable future. As the market continues to tighten, landlords are beginning to recognize that existing tenants are their most valuable asset. There is little to be gained by eviction of a tenant who can pay partial rent if it proves difficult if not impossible to fill the space once the eviction process is complete. Moreover, existing tenants are known quantities. A tenant with a history of timely payment and who is not constantly at odds with the landlord is a good tenant. This is also the type of tenant that will remember a landlord's goodwill during tough times. While it may be impossible for smaller commercial property owners to offer cash incentives to prospective tenants, they may be able to afford accepting lower rents for a fixed period of time to keep existing tenants. This also provides the landlord with some control over the term of any renegotiation.

Of course, not every tenant is a good tenant. However, commercial property owners of all sizes should carefully weigh the benefits of keeping existing tenants against the cost of eviction and the all too real risk of empty space. Struggling businesses are increasingly aware of the tightening market and, with or without the assistance of a commercial lease lawyer, are approaching their landlords hoping to trade on their track records to stay alive.