Sacre bleu! Visibility in the attorney-client relationship. Whatever has Viewabill started?

The six minute increment is a long held part of the way attorneys and accountants work. A new startup wants to give clients more visibility over all those increments.

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Credit: iStockphoto

I've never been a big fan of professional advisers. Call me a skeptic, but I've never really felt that lawyers and accountants add much value. Rather they're mainly about avoiding risk. To make matters even worse, they have a tendency to charge like wounded bulls for (often) fairly intangible results. Who hasn't, on occasion, received a big fat bill from a lawyer, only to scratch one's head as to how that final figure was calculated?

For that past couple of years, software startup Viewabill has been trying to deliver some clarity in terms of those bills. It is a simple enough system -- Viewabill delivers a platform that lets clients see what happens across all of the different attorneys or law firms they use, in real time. Viewabill is like a (virtual) cab meter for legal activity.

While it may not make those six minute increments any cheaper, it goes a long way toward giving clients comfort as to how many of those increments a particular piece of work requires. It also changes the traditional model of attorney-client relationship which goes something like this:

...You ask a lawyer a seemingly simple question, they go away, come back a few weeks later and tell you, "maybe." Then, one day, you get a bill for some insane amount and have no idea what you're actually paying for, or how the bill got so high. An uncomfortable (but standard) negotiation takes place afterwards where a portion of the firm’s work gets written off, the bill gets discounted, and nobody’s left with a good feeling about the whole transaction that just took place.

Viewabill's initial approach was somewhat adversarial. Despite being founded by an ex-big law attorney, Viewabill's approach was toxic to the procession. After all, why would a lawyer want their clients having total, real-time transparency into all of their billable activity, before they have the chance to edit down their time entries into a more palatable version for the final invoice they send at the end of the month?

But that’s not the only reason lawyers had a reason to hate Viewabill. The company’s initial business approach, to persuade corporate legal departments to demand their outside counsel use Viewabill backfired. The company quickly found itself meddling in some very deep, long-time relationships between in-house lawyers of companies and their outside law firms -- many of the firms the in-house lawyers had come up the ranks from themselves. Viewabill even discovered that some of the most prestigious firms in the world had a meeting specifically about Viewabill and "unionized" against it.

Despite all this, somehow Viewabill managed to take root in the legal industry. A softening of approach, a humble backtracking and a new message of "improving the attorney-client relationship through innovation" seems to have worked. Law firms began to recognize the value of using Viewabill; namely, it was building strong relationships with their clients, improved their time-keeping practices and realization rates, and virtually eliminated the need for write-offs altogether.

Now, over two years later, nearly 140 of the largest law firms, such as Reed Smith, Perkins Coie, Akerman and Pepper Hamilton use Viewabill with their corporate client giants such as MGM, NetApp, Kia Motors and LinkedIn, to name a few. Earlier this month, Viewabill released a brand new user interface for law firms which provides transparency within the law firm itself, so that partners can get real-time access to firm-wide activity throughout the billing cycle.

Viewabill isn't revolutionary from a technology perspective, but by applying technology (pretty simple technology at that) and a dose of network effect to an age-old problem, it is delivering some pretty game-changing results. And that, after all, is what technology should be about.

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