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Across the country, the recession is putting increasing pressure on law firms to slash spending and discount their services. Geoff Willard, a Northern Virginia lawyer who largely represents newly launched companies, illustrates how the Wal-Mart effect of discounting is playing out in the Washington region’s legal community. Willard left his job as partner at DLA Piper, a huge global blue-chip law firm, because, he said, he was fed up with the traditional business model that required it to annually increase rates and billable hours to finance ballooning profits and overhead.

Last fall, he joined a start-up “virtual” law firm that he said is much better suited to the current economic conditions: It does business mainly over the phone and through video conferencing. Because the firm lacks two of the biggest cost drivers — a prestigious brick-and-mortar office and associates — he said he is offering his clients substantial savings compared with what they paid before.

Besides saving money for clients, Willard said the firm is good for his home life, too. At his previous firm, he said, he worked 60 to 85 hours a week to keep up his billable time. Now he works 40 to 50 hours and has more time with his wife and two young daughters.He said he has the ability under the new arrangement to work less and make more money. Because overhead is so low, he keeps 85 percent of what he generates, he said, instead of 30 percent.

“I can go to my daughters’ piano lessons and tae kwon do practices,” said Willard, who kept 90 percent of his clients from his previous firm. “I have clawed back a significant part of my life.”

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