Paul Kiernan has been the executive partner of Holland & Knight's Washington office for nearly five years. During that time, the firm has made a high-profile move to a new building and grown headcount to about 135 attorneys. Washington is the firm's largest office.
Kiernan, who has been with the firm for almost 20 years, is a trial attorney focused on appellate work, government contract litigation, real estate matters and commercial litigation.
Legal Times sat down with Kiernan recently to talk about what's keeping him busy these days, the changing legal market and the decline of the billable hour.
Legal Times: Which practices have been growing for the firm?
Kiernan: We're still seeing growth in health care. We're seeing tremendous growth in IP, cyber security and privacy work. Those are very hot areas right now. We're continuing to expand our work in government contract sector.
What effect has Congress' activity or lack thereof had on the business of the firm?
On the traditional lobbying side, we've been taking a different approach on a lot of our matters. We've been focusing more on the policies and trying to form coalitions around policies. We see that as an icebreaker in hyper-partisan times both on the Hill and within the administration. One example is the PASScoalition.com, which is Public Access to Sunscreens. It is a coalition of health professionals, manufacturers and interested citizens. It uses traditional advocacy, but also new media. It's a different kind of way to go at this by focusing on policies. We've been trying to come up with ways that advance the interest of the clients despite the partisan rancor.
We're a very bipartisan shop. We have people from both sides of the aisle, on all sides of the issues and we do that on purpose. It makes it more effective for clients.
What are your thought on the Washington legal market?
Speaking for Holland & Knight, through the recession we made adjustments through 2008 and 2009 as everybody did. The past few years, the firm as a whole has had increased profitability each year. We continue to see strong markets, particularly Washington. The effect of the recession has been more on the economy as a whole and our client base. Clients are asking more from their outside counsel and asking for it in different ways than they used to. The notion of what value am I getting from my outside counsel has really come to the forefront.
Does the firm engage in any alternative fee arrangements?
We do a number of different things. Our government group has fixed fee retainer agreements in which there are no billable hours. We don't track the hours. It's a task-based fee arrangement that is worked out with the client. That frees both the client and the firm of the tyranny of dealing with the billable hour and focusing more on the task.
Clients don't look for the alternative fees for the sake of alternative fees. They are looking for value. If you deliver a better product and do it quicker and cheaper, that is where the industry is going. The last couple of years and the next couple of years will be the transition to that.
Is the billable hour dying?
I think we're moving away from it, because I think we have to move away from it. I think clients are looking for more certainty from their legal spend. They are looking to be able to point to the value add and I think the whole provision of legal services is changing. You've got international competition, outsourcing and increased technology. Valuing it based on how much time it takes you to do it is not going to be the way of the future. We're going to get away from how much time it takes to do it. I don't disagree that we're still in the billable hour universe, but I think within five years it will be the exception and not the norm.
How does the D.C. office fit in with the overall picture of the firm?
This market is the largest in our law firm. The Washington presence has been significant for the firm. On a national scale, Washington is now the center of virtually everything – finance, security, transportation. Everything comes through Washington now in a way that it didn't 10 to 15 years ago.
Holland & Knight really deals with the business of the District of Columbia in a way that a lot of our peer firms don't really concentrate on doing business in the city. We cover both the federal and the local side. That has been successful for us.
What is keeping you busy right now?
On my desk right now I have a major shareholder buyout dispute that is pending in both Maryland and the District. That goes to trial in October. I have a federal case challenging the constitutionality of the District of Columbia's local source requirement for contracts, the District law that requires if you're going to get city support, that the first source of hiring people have to be District residents. That is a constitutional challenge that is down here in federal court. I have two or three appeals that are on my desk right now on different matters.
This is part of a series of Q&A sessions Legal Times is conducting with D.C.-based law firm managing partners. Photo by The National Law Journal's Diego M. Radzinschi.