There’s an old joke: A lawyer dies and goes to heaven. At the pearly gates, he protests to St. Peter, “But I’m too young to die, I’m only 45!” St. Peter responds, “Not according to your time sheets.”
Lawyers may not falsely claim decades’ worth of billable hours, but for many of their clients, there’s a feeling that the process of calculating those hours is needlessly opaque. A new application called Viewabill, cofounded by David Schottenstein, Robbie Friedman, and the famous lawyer and writer Alan Dershowitz, aims to bring a new transparency to the process, and a more trusting relationship between business owners and the professionals whose services they contract.
“A lot of tension grows because of misunderstandings over bills and time,” says Dershowitz, who has defended such high-profile clients as O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson. “I just like the idea that everything in the relationship between lawyer and client should be open and transparent.”
The idea behind Viewabill is simplicity itself: a cloud-based application that enables firms to easily track and share their pre-bill activity, and for clients to monitor that activity. The attractively designed app allows users to log on and navigate their pending charges via a dashboard, or periodically receive emails reporting on the charges from their lawyers (or accountants, or copywriters, or any professionals they may contract).
A dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneur, David Schottenstein clandestinely sold cigars to his father’s friends at 12. Now 29, he cuts a dapper figure when we sit down to meet in a Brooklyn café. He wears his first two startups (Viewabill is his third) quite literally on his sleeve. His salmon-colored bespoke cashmere blazer is a product of Astor & Black, the custom clothing company he founded almost a decade ago. An orthodox Jew, he wears a beige yarmulke embroidered with the name of his other startup, Swiss Stays, a maker of extendable collar stays.
Over the years, like any businessman, Schottenstein has had a need of lawyers for routine issues. And each month, Schottenstein would get a bill in the mail from these lawyers. “Every time the bill came, it was like having a pit in my stomach,” he says. “I had no idea what I was in store for. I heard Darth Vader music in the background.” His lawyers would bill 50 hours for a task, when he would have told them to cap it at five. Sometimes he wondered if his lawyers simply looked at Schottenstein’s account at the end of each month and figured, “We didn’t hit him hard enough this month. He’s doing well.”
He fired three law firms before reaching out to a childhood friend from Columbus, Ohio, Robbie Friedman. Friedman had just left a big firm where he was unhappy and moved back to Columbus to hang out a shingle on a practice of his own. Schottenstein offered him a deal. He’d hire Friedman for all his legal work, but to avoid conflicts, Friedman would send him a list of everything he’d done, the hours spent, and the fees accrued. “That way I can tell you any time, stop doing whatever, shit’s out of control,” Schottenstein told his old friend.
“It worked like magic,” he says. Only, the process was slightly cumbersome for Friedman, who had to enter the data into an existing time system he used, and then re-send the data in an email. The two put their heads together to develop one system that would achieve both tasks, Viewabill.
But what if it wasn’t the system that made things work, but their old friendship? Far from the case, says Schottenstein. “Robbie’s super cheap, and would never take a discount on a bill. And I’m super tough about bills.” If anything, he says, the software saved their friendship. At any rate, some 120 beta users are finding use for the application. And it’s not just clients who take an interest in the software. Some law firms, too, are pleased to voluntarily submit to higher transparency in an effort to stave off conflicts. The law firm Benesch is among the first to see the value in early adopting Viewabill, before their clients even ask for it.
With the product in place, Schottenstein embarked upon his greatest challenge: landing a big-name lawyer to endorse the project. Schottenstein finagled an introduction through a friend at Hatzalah, a volunteer Jewish ambulance service, and the only organization on whose board Dershowitz sits. Schottenstein merely sought an endorsement, but Dershowitz was so excited that he decided to join as cofounder.
Dershowitz is using the software now, after years of putting billing records “in a little black notebook in my back pocket,” he says over the phone. He recently got an iPad. “This is gonna force me to go a little high tech.”
Back in the Brooklyn café, I ask Schottenstein if he and the 74-year-old lawyer find time to hang out much in Miami, where the two of them live. “He’s been blowing me up all morning,” Schottenstein says, checking his phone. The two are making plans to go to House of Dog, a kosher hot dog joint where you can get hot dogs topped with cholent and kishka, traditional Jewish dishes.
“His Miami entourage consists of me, Elie Wiesel, and his wife,” says Schottenstein of Dershowitz. “He’s a good dude.”
[Image: Flickr user GORE-TEX]