Seattle Law Firm Offers Flat Fees

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The Great Recession forced everyone to rethink how things get done. For law firms, the elimination of hourly billing could be the new name of the game. Flat fees offer firms an opportunity to attract and retain clients by reducing their anxiety about cost while forcing the law firm to be more efficient about the services it provides.

“This strategy reduces overhead costs and increases scheduling flexibility for the staff,” says Carol Bailey of the recently formed Seattle-based Main Street Law Group. Main Street woos clients by charging flat fees for all of its services, including family law, elder law, business and corporate law, and will and estate planning.

The concept is not entirely new to the legal field—services such as estate planning, which have predictable workloads and outcomes, are widely offered at guaranteed rates—but Bailey notes few firms offer flat rates on the scale that her firm does.

“People complain [about law firms] and it’s generally about fees,” says Bailey. “It’s unpredictable. They don’t know if it’ll cost $5,000 or $25,000.”

But how can law firms negotiate guaranteed rates for notoriously unpredictable legal cases such as child custody disputes?

To determine an estimate for any legal service, Bailey says Main Street conducts an initial assessment meeting with potential clients to arrive at a guaranteed fee unique to that case. For straightforward cases, an advertised rate is already in place.

“Variations mean you can’t predict the workload, so you must have parameters,” explains Baliey. “We gauge on the complexity of the case and who the players are. We can tell if it’ll take a lot of time.”

Kellye Testy, dean of the University of Washington School of Law, is intrigued by the idea but not convinced of its universality. She fears the guaranteed fee could push a lawyer to take shortcuts or charge a large flat rate.

“I’m hopeful lawyers and clients can find a middle ground that makes sense,” Testy says.

Bailey remains resolute. “We’re assuming that the unpredictable will happen, but we’re trying to change how we think and get away from monetizing hours,” she notes. “… We want to build trust by pulling the billable hour out of the equation. I think it’s an outdated way to do business.”

Bailey also thinks flat rates will make lawyers feel better about their profession. “Most people I know who get out of law school get into the system where there are required billable hours and they lose their purpose. They ask, ‘How am I making a difference?’ I think that’s sad.”

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Legal Briefs: Navigating Environmental Regulations

Legal Briefs: Navigating Environmental Regulations

Tips for staying in compliance.
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Our state’s ever-changing regulatory environment makes it hard to stay on the right side of the law. Here are some simple steps to help keep your business in compliance:
 
1. Ignorance Is Not Bliss. Take time to research which environmental regulations apply to your operations. Consider all relevant media — air, water and land. For example:
 
• Does your facility emit air pollutants? Consult with the local air pollution control agency.
• Are you planning construction near a shoreline or wetland? Consult with the Washington Department of Ecology’s Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program.
• Do your operations require a stormwater permit? Consult with the Washington Department of Ecology’s Water Quality Program. 
 
As a starting point, review the Regulatory Handbook prepared by the Governor’s Office for Regulatory Innovation and Assistance (oria.wa.gov). When in doubt, it is best to consult experienced environmental counsel to determine which regulations apply. Once you have this information, you can develop the appropriate compliance programs.
 
2. Uncover Your Property’s History. Under the Model Toxics Control Act, RCW 70.105D, a business that owned or operated a facility where hazardous substances have come to be located may be liable for cleaning up the property. To manage this risk, it is essential to conduct due diligence before entering into a lease or buying a commercial or industrial property. A reputable consulting firm can assist. If any notable conditions arise, a subsurface investigation may be warranted. Frequently, businesses negotiate environmental indemnity agreements to address this kind of liability, but it is important to do so before you lease or buy, not after.
 
3. Identify Your Waste Streams. Every business generates waste, whether from an office building or a manufacturing facility. Be sure to review your local rules, since some jurisdictions mandate recycling. It is also critical to determine whether a waste is “dangerous” under WAC 173-303. This is more common than you think. Most businesses generate some type of dangerous waste, including adhesives, aerosol cans, paints, solvents, fertilizers and cleaners. You can start by taking a look at the materials you use and the wastes that remain. If you have products labeled “DANGER,” “FLAMMABLE,” “WARNING” or “POISON,” they may become a dangerous waste if discarded or mixed with other wastes. Electronic waste, such as batteries, mercury-containing equipment and light bulbs, are also regulated. If used oil, batteries and other wastes are recycled, they may be partially or fully exempt from the regulations.
 
4. Recordkeeping Is Essential. You should live by the mantra: “If you don’t write it down, it never happened.” The key to compliance is meticulous recordkeeping. Keeping records up to date, organized and readily available for an inspector is critical. Create easy-to-use logs to track internal inspections, monitoring programs and the use of best management practices.  
 
5. Violation Issued. Now What? If you get a notice of violation from an agency or a citizens’ suit notice, immediately take note of the deadlines to respond and any procedures for contesting or appeal. Contact a lawyer to discuss your rights, whether there may be other parties at fault and settlement options. Once you have established the deadlines and determined the best course of action, evaluate what circumstances led to the violation. Plan a debriefing session with your employees to discuss how to prevent future violations. Establish what changes can be implemented to ensure compliance, which may involve enhanced training requirements or the development of an internal auditing program. Use this as a learning opportunity for your business.
MICHAEL A. NESTEROFF is a member of Lane Powell’s Construction and Environmental Practice Group and has handled numerous environmental claims and litigations. Reach him at 206.223.6242 or nesteroffm@lanepowell.com, or follow him on Twitter @MikeNesteroff. 
JULIE S. NICOLL is a member of Lane Powell’s Construction and Environmental Practice Group and has extensive experience advising clients on environmental compliance matters. Reach her at 206.223.7118 or nicollj@lanepowell.com.