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Corporate counsel panel takes on billing, other changes

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They have seen the future, and alternative billing isn’t in it.

Frank Steeves, general counsel of manufacturer Emerson Electric Co., and Jan Alonzo, who holds the same title with transportation company UniGroup Inc., are firmly in the by-the-hour camp when it comes to law firm bills.

Steeves and Alonzo and three other panelists discussed the future of the legal services industry and corporate careers Thursday night at a Missouri Lawyers Weekly event at the Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis.

With Alonzo and Steeves were Jonathan King, vice president of cloud strategy and business development at Savvis, Joan Newman, career coach with Joan Newman & Associates, and Keith Williamson, general counsel at health care company Centene Corp. S. Richard Gard Jr., publisher of Missouri Lawyers Weekly,  moderated the discussion.

Steeves said he likes to get charged by the hour.

“I like to work with lawyers who are good,” Steeves said. “I’m delighted to pay their fair bills when they come in.”

When he first starts working with a new law firm, Steeves will pay the full rates, he said. If he likes the firm and sends a greater volume of work, he may start to look for discounts.

Alonzo also prefers to pay by the hour.

“I don’t feel anybody has really figured it out,” Alonzo said about alternative billing. “The times I’ve been involved with it, it’s really been a failure.”

The panelists also tackled other changes and opportunities in the legal industry. The economic downturn led to in-house counsel’s greater price consciousness, and in the future they’ll be routing volume “commodity” work to the lowest bidder, with “bespoke” work still going to more premium firms, Newman said.

Pressure has built up on in-house counsel on legal bills, Williamson said.

While there are pressures on one side, there are opportunities on another, such as in developing areas such as privacy issues, King said.

“Courage in networking is staying on top of the trends,” King said.

It’s difficult to add employees at a company, but not as big of a deal to pay for outside lawyers, Steeves said. Emerson has a firm in Omaha that hires the best lawyers, wherever they live and work, he said. The lawyers work for the firm but may never set foot in the law office or in St. Louis, where Emerson is based.

“Where law firms screw up in my opinion is they’re inflexible on those kinds of arrangements,” Steeves said.

At a request from Gard, the panelists closed out with advice they had received and remembered.

King recalled being advised on email writing. Try to always write emails in the plural. “It’s ‘we,’ not ‘you,’ not ‘I,’” he said. And, if you’re asking for something, always end the email with thanks in advance.

Williamson recalled advice from a partner on what to be concerned about, when Williamson was working at a firm in New York.

“The first is, is the client happy?” Williamson said. “The second is, is the client paying the bill?”

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