License to Bill

“That bill shall know no limits,” wrote one DLA Piper lawyer to another in 2010 in what the firm is now calling ‘unfortunate banter’ between associates about work for a client. But what is truly unfortunate is the underlying billable-hour regime and the law-firm culture it has spawned.” – “The Tyranny of the Billable Hour,” The New York Times, March 28, 2013

Dear Loyal Client:

As a consumer of professional plumbing services, you’re probably familiar with the old joke that goes like this: A woman calls a plumber to deal with a leak that’s rapidly filling her basement with water. The plumber arrives, heads downstairs, then comes up again just moments later to report that the leak has been stopped. “That’ll be two hundred dollars,” he says. “That’s ridiculous!” the woman protests. “You haven’t even been here for five minutes! And I saw you: All you did was turn a knob! I demand an itemized bill!” The plumber obliges, handing the woman a piece of paper on which he’s written, “Turning knob, $5. Knowing which knob to turn, $195. Total: $200.” Good clean fun!

And then there’s that other joke, about the man who calls a plumber. After working for half an hour, the plumber presents the man with a bill for $200. The homeowner says, “Good Heavens! I’ve been practicing law for over 30 years and I can’t charge that kind of money!” The plumber smiles and says, “Yeah, I couldn’t either when I was a lawyer.” How true!

But we’re not writing to tell you jokes. To the contrary, we’re writing about a serious development and an important change in the way Plumb Bob’s Pipe Services will be doing business moving forward. Taking a cue from our colleagues in the legal services field—but also learning from their missteps—we have decided to move away from a traditional hourly-rate revenue model to an “a la carte” system… but this does mean that we will have to charge for discrete items of work—and more than usual—including communications with you, our cherished clients. Including this letter. But, in keeping with our dedication to complete transparency in billing, we will break down for you just what you’re getting for the money we’ll be asking you for on the invoice that constitutes page two, attached.

The first joke, above, is free of charge. The second joke, however, is priced at $35. The third paragraph, in which we announce our new billing policy—and which represents the essence of this letter, really—costs $50. Accordingly, the price of this communication, as of the start of this paragraph, is $85—but this paragraph itself costs an additional $25, bringing the total to $110, as long as you do not read any further. (The following paragraph will explain why we’re adopting a new system. This parenthetical is gratis.)

For thousands of years, mankind has used systems of pipes, drains, valves, and other contrivances to distribute water for drinking, heating, washing, and removing wastes—and for just as long plumbers have been employed to construct these systems, and then to repair them. (+ $15.) Professional plumbing is not an inherently secretive trade, but the intricacies of water-conducting apparatuses can be bewildering to the uninitiated. (+ $10.) For that reason, to the untrained eye of the layperson, what the professional plumber does is often indistinguishable from magic. (+ $10.) More than one real-life customer has demanded justification for a plumber’s rates—people want to know just what the plumber was doing in the boiler room for three minutes or the laundry room for seven (+ $10.) So now we are going to tell you just what; there will be no more mystery in your plumbing bills! (+ $5.) (Total paragraph cost: $50.)

Indeed (+ $1.), we’re so sure that you’ll like our new billing system (+ $10.), we’re going to back it with a guarantee (+ $8.): If you’re not completely satisfied with itemized billing ($ +8.), we will return your account to flat-rate hourly billing with minimal detail (+ $13.), at no extra cost (+ $4). Just let us know. (Incoming calls to the office will be charged at $2.95/minute; letters at $1.50/ounce; emails at $0.05/byte [100 bytes minimum].)

As always, we thank you for your business! (+ $7.)

Matthew David Brozik, erstwhile litigator, used to charge clients by the tenth of the hour. Read more of his work, absolutely free, at imdb.name.

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