Words matter. What we call something matters. The name we give something usually provides people with the first opportunity to form an opinion about that something, so it's important that the name fits.
I hate "alternative billing." (If someone quotes me on this, make sure they include the quotation marks.) It's a terrible term; one that does injustice to the concept. As I've said before, it has a seamy connotation to it, like "alternative lifestyle." It seems vaguely Berkeley or Brookline or (gasp) Vermont, which makes tradition-bound lawyers very uncomfortable. We need an alternative for "alternative."
And I don't like the "billing" part any better. First, it makes it seem like the issue is about invoice styles, which makes it more boring than the Tax Code or, say, professional soccer. ("Woo! Another one-nought blowout!") Second, it places the focus on the law firm and its adminstration, rather than on the client and the value it is getting.
The intellectual godfather and guru of this ill-named field, the Verasage Institute's Ron Baker, has long advocated "value pricing" as the preferred term. [Update: Ron points out in the comments that he prefers "fixed price" when talking to the customers themselves; "value pricing" is more of a behind-the-scenes term.] It's definitely an improvement, and it is far more descriptive and accurate. The main idea, of course, is that lawyers should price their services based on their value to the client. (Gee, it sounds so obvious when you say it like that.) But my quibble is that the word "value" has Walmart-y connotations. People often connect "value" with "discounted," and that's missing the point entirely.
I propose a different approach:
What we're talking about here is legal services where the price is known to the customer ahead of time, so that the customer can make an informed decision about the worth of those services to him or her before actually agreeing to buy them. In other words, the price is out in the open. There is a fair exchange between lawyer and client with the client having as much knowledge about the price as the lawyer.
And what's the opposite of open-price lawyering?
The price is hidden from the client (and, often, even from the lawyer). I'm not saying that in a judgmental sort of way, like the lawyer is intentionally hiding the price from the customer. Well, maybe I am. But even if it is unintentional, that's no excuse for doing it.
Clients of the world: which would you rather have — open-price lawyering or hidden-price lawyering? Sound off in the comments, or reply to me on Twitter at @jayshep.
Try out the term, and let me know what you think.
Or offer an alternative.