Has your law firm considered subscription-based pricing?

Like many lawyers who have worked under billable hours or fixed fees, for most of my career I have pondered the question: “How can I make money while I’m asleep?”, or better yet, awake but not working!

Early in my career I thought I had the answer – subscription-based pricing.

At the time I was working with Linklaters on their Blue Flag program (see this article for an overview of what Blue Flag was all about) which essentially provided compliance related information to subscribers who paid a monthly fee. This was then extended to basic loan documentation that was created using automated software (an early version of HotDocs if I am not mistaken).

As I was to find out though, the problem with this business model is that there is always someone willing to undercut you on price, with little attention to the value you were providing.

And so I never really took it much further.

But I remained interested in the dilemma of how I, as a knowledge provider working on hourly or fixed fee arrangements, could make money while I slept (outside of writing a book and get loads of royalties).

A couple of things recently changed my view on this whole issue though.

First, I listened to Episode #217 of Ed Kless and Ron Baker’s the soulofenterprise.com podcast in which they discuss ‘The Automatic Customer: Creating a Subscription Business in Any Industry’ a book by John Warrillow.

Ed and Ron continue this discussion in Episode #221 (Part II).

One of the big take-outs for me from the podcast was the fact that Porsche has introduced subscription pricing (see here for a story on this).

That’s worth repeating – you can subscribe to drive a Porsche!

And get this, Klaus Zellmer, CEO of Porsche North America, says of subscription-based pricing that:

“We engage people with a brand that they usually wouldn’t,”

As a law firm, imagine…

Second, I recently read that ‘Apple will lean more on subscriptions as iPhone sales drop

That’s right, Apple – as of the date of writing this post – the world’s second biggest business by stock market value is moving towards a subscription-based business.

Which made me think – what’s the biggest doing?

Answer: ever heard of Amazon prime?

So if subscription-based pricing works for these big players, why not your law firm?

As always though, would be interested in your thoughts, views, feedback.

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‘How much are you charging your client for that value add?’

It’s a question I often ask law firm partners:

How much are you charging for that value add?

And nearly always the response I get is the same:- *shocked face look*.

Why, well because in my experience lawyers are willing to give something of real value away for free to a client in the hope that same client will then given them their legal work.

But it rarely works like that.

And, more importantly, it shouldn’t work like that in today’s world (if it ever really did).

Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a cost of doing business component to our profession. CPDs/CLEs for in-house counsel would, in my opinion, sit in this category (but not all L&D activity) [tip: if you do this, open a ‘value account’ for your client and put a nominal value, say A$200 per 1 hour session per attendee, again this to try and show the client (in $$$ terms) the value you are providing here].

Rarely though do lawyers give thought to the ramifications of when they offer their clients something of real value, that really differentiates their firm, and then they give the IP away for free in the hope of getting the “more profitable” legal work.

Case in point is the following comment attributed to DHL Supply Chain Americas GC Mark Smolik in an article in yesterday’s The American Lawyer by Gina Passarella Cipriani [‘GCs Are Offering Work on a Silver Platter—and Law Firms Aren’t Taking It’]

“On the matter side, DHL Supply Chain Americas GC Mark Smolik gave an example of what he wishes law firms would do—and it’s something none of his firms ever has. He suggested a firm might want to look at, say, all of the employment cases emanating out of his California warehouses. Maybe they find that 50 percent of the cases are coming from one warehouse, and one person is the culprit. The GC can then take that information to its business units and work out a solution. It makes the GC look good and it makes the law firm look good to provide that kind of actionable intelligence. Other GCs echoed similar requests during Legalweek’s Business of Law Forum.”

Getting down to the bare bones of my point though:- Mark doesn’t suggest this be done for free. And, in my opinion, done right, there is every chance Mark will pay for this value add.

But that’s just my take – as always, would be interested in your thoughts, views, feedback.

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‘Alternative’ – but to what?

For an industry that claims to make its livelihood on the definition, use and interpretation of words, in my opinion the legal industry has become rather lax in our use of the word ‘alternative’.

Big claim. So what do I mean by this?

Well, let’s look at the word ‘alternative’:- post GFC we hear the term ‘alternative’ almost daily in respect of ‘alternative fee arrangements’ (AFAS); and, ever increasingly, we now hear ‘alternative’ in respect of ‘alternative legal service providers’.

But how often do we ask – ‘alternative to what’?

Are we talking about ‘alternative’ to what we already have and do?

Because if that’s the case then we are not being true to our esprit de corps, namely ‘words have meaning’.

i.e. there is nothing ‘alternative’ in the term ‘alternative fee arrangements’. There are merely hourly rates, fixed fees and some sort of risk sharing arrangement fee agreement. In short, fee agreements.

And, as Heather Suttie eloquently put in her post today, there are no “alternative” legal service providers. There are just legal service providers (some of which, surprise surprise, serve different clientele).

But that’s just my take – as always, would be interested in your thoughts, views, feedback.

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ps: the only thing I would add to Heather’s post is Pangea3 – 2004

KPMG: “We are not trying to be a traditional law firm.”

“We are not trying to be a traditional law firm. Our approach is different, with a focus on offering our clients integrated global legal advice and solutions, where we are able to work seamlessly with existing KPMG clients who are looking for local and multijurisdictional counsel.”

The quote above, by Stuart Fuller of KPMG Australia, in today’s Australasian Lawyer is yet another great example of why law firms need to be on their guard and wary of the Big4’s re-entry back into the legal sector.

Why?

Well, here are my big 3 take-outs from Stuart’s comment:

  1. almost nobody is trying to be a ‘traditional law firm‘ – everyone is innovating and looking to reposition themselves as strategic advisors (the current Holy Grail). In short, if you want to be a ‘traditional law firm’ – unless you are really niche, which, like many, KPMG are not – then your days are numbered in my opinion.
  2. a focus on offering our clients integrated global legal advice and solutions” – what would DLA Piper, Baker & McKenzie, White & Case, Norton Rose, Deacons (just to mention a few) make of that comment? Isn’t that precisely what they would lay claim to be trying to do?
  3. but, crucially, the following sentence is the principal reason why law firms with more than 20 partners should be concerned: “where we are able to work seamlessly with existing KPMG clients“. Why? Because the Big4 get involved earlier in the advisory/transaction life-cycle than law firms have historically done, so if the law firm is only looking to advise on the law, and not act in any consultation phase (even as early as the pre-planning phase), then they are going to be in big trouble.

But that’s just my take – as always, would be interested in your thoughts, views, feedback.

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Which kinds of businesses are most threatening to your firm’s future?

The December/January edition of Briefing magazine includes a supplementary report looking at the Legal IT Landscapes 2019. It’s a very enjoyable read, and includes the following graphic (answering the question from which the title of this blog is taken):

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What this indicates is that despite my having blogged about this issue as far back as September 2017 (‘Do you know who your competitors are?‘) senior managers of law firms still hold that other law firms like theirs are the greatest threat to their ongoing commercial success (at 26%).

As I wrote back then,

With the level of work that clients are now taking back in-house, or not bothering to do at all, they are without doubt the “overwhelming competitive threat” to the current law firm business model. And, this is not cyclical but structural.

Crucially, understanding this is of paramount importance if firms wish to survive the next 5, 10, 15 years. Because it reshapes everything we do. How we try and win work. The type of work we are trying to win. And even the nature of the relationship we have with our client.

In the long term it will determine the way we measure and reward. It will dictate how we charge, and it will determine whether we succeed or fail.

and I still hold now, this view is misplaced at best, and out and out wrong at worst.

As the following quote taken directly from the National Profile of Solicitors 2016 report (most recent I could find) published by the Law Society of New South Wales, in Australia the seriousness of the threat that in-house legal teams have on  the viability of your firm’s future success should not be underestimated:

Legal employment sectors are shifting. The great majority of Australian solicitors continue to work in private practice, with 69% employed in a law firm. However, the proportion of solicitors working in private practice has dropped from 75% to 69% over the last five years. This is due to a significant growth in the number of solicitors working in the corporate sector and government.

Between 2011 and 2016, there was a 59% increase in the number of solicitors working in the corporate sector, compared to a 17% increase working in the private sector.

Let that sink in for a second: a 59% increase in the number of solicitors working in the corporate sector [in Australia] over a 5 year period post the GFC.

Even coming from a relatively low baseline, that’s a staggering shift (indeed, some may even argue seismic)!

But ask senior management of law firms and only 10% will tell you that “in-house/client” is a business that is most threatening to their firm’s business.

Misguided pershaps?

As always, would be interested in your thoughts, views, feedback.

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Lawyers and ‘the amplifying factor’

On 11 January Seth Godin blogged ‘Good intentions (how to be on time)‘. Typical Seth, it’s a relatively short post; and typical Seth, it contains an important message – ‘The amplifying factor‘.

In Seth’s words:

The amplifying factor is that when they’re late, people wait for them.

So why is this relevant to your firm?

The answer:- how familiar does this [2015] post by Bruce MacEwen (Adam Smith, esq) sound:

(3) We recently had a meeting scheduled with the partner on the matter at the firm’s offices in midtown. (I was not present.) Our representative—one of the two wardens of St. Michael’s—arrived about five minutes early and ran into the partner in the firm’s reception area; he was heading for the elevator to go out to get coffee.

He kept going.

My colleague sat in the conference room for 15-20 minutes awaiting his return. When he did appear, the plan was to conference in the other St. Michael’s warden on the speakerphone. He didn’t know how to do that.

This is a perfect example of ‘the amplifying factor‘. And in law firms I see this behaviour every single day…

As always, would be interested in your views.

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Survey: The 5 Biggest Challenges Facing Australian Law Firms in 2019

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 9.29.51 pm

Happy New Year and Welcome to 2019!

The recent (December 2018) Commonwealth Bank ‘Professional Services’ report highlights five challenges law firms in Australia are likely to experience further pressure on in 2019, which are:

  1. ‘Clients demanding more for less’
  2. ‘Downward pressure on fees’
  3. ‘Willingness to switch firms’
  4. ‘Clients in-housing work’
  5. ‘Clients directly using legal process and services outsourcing ‘

Each of these has it merits, while none is particularly new. So let’s take a quick look at each and assess them on their merit.

The call for ‘more for less’

It’s true, the call for ‘more for less’ continues. But I believe we may be misinterpreting the call a little here between what in-house really want (see Ann Klee, VP of Global Operations — Environment, Health & Safety, at General Electric Company – ‘less for less’) and what law firms believe they should be providing – a Rolls Royce service for a Toyota price tag.

My take: Neither client nor law firm are currently getting what they want and the net result is that nobody is happy with the relationship. Law firms need to get a better understanding of what is being asked of them. Scoping work properly – by experts – and then the subsequent professional project management of that is where the greatest return can come from here.

‘Downward pressure on fees’

Admission time!!:-

“I have never really understood the ‘downward pressure on fees’ argument”

Why?

Because, in order to be putting downward pressure on fees, surely you need to know upfront what that fee is – right?

However, if what you are saying is that this is actually a downward pressure on hourly rates argument, then I get where you are coming from.

But this is not the same thing as a downward pressure on fees argument, because there is little doubt in my mind that clients are willing to pay a premium on fees when the value of those fees have been fully explained and justified.

My take: despite the rhetoric, law firms still have a long way to go in understanding what in-house General Counsel are actually saying when they say “no surprises” on fee issues. And here’s a working reason why:- because while the GC can talk to legal issues the company faces, it’s the CFO who is responsible for explaining costs; and in more Australian companies than not, the GC reports to the CFO. A lesson in that for most private practice firms here.

A ‘Willingness to switch firms’

I often laugh when I see this one, because, really, ask yourself this: if most of your partners and lawyers are willing to switch to another firm, why shouldn’t your clients?

My take: if you want client stickiness, why not start with re-engaging with your own staff and get loyalty in your firm brand (something that hasn’t really happened since 2008 in Oz). Because while attrition will never be zero, if you can get your own staff on board as brand advocates you may find it a lot easier to convince your clients to hang-around.

‘Client in-housing work’

Without a doubt the biggest change in my working life has been the increase in in-house practitioners. A career in-house is now a very viable option for someone leaving university, something that was never even thought of in my day!

My take: the biggest competitors most law firms are not other law firms. It’s not even the #Big4. Don’t get me wrong, these are competitors, but nothing compared to the CFO of your major client working out its cheaper to hire a new lawyer in-house than pay your fees (see here for more on my views on your in-house competitors).

‘Clients directly using legal process and services outsourcing’

Not 100% sure what is meant by ‘outsourcing’ here. If this includes ‘on-shoring’, then I agree it’s a real threat.

My take: law firms in Australia will face a number of challenges over the next 12 to 24 months. Outsourcing, on-shoring will be among them, but I’m not sure I give them the same weight as the Commonwealth Bank Report does.

Some of the other issues I believe law firms here need to be aware of include further consolidation of the market (it remains too big for such a small market), staff retention issues, profit squeezes, technology and process improvements (and how, through change management champions, these are being handled within law firms because currently we are failing badly).

And finally, some 750 words into this post, we can mention the “innovation” word 🙂 .

Anyhow, guess you get the gist of where I am going with these so best of luck for 2019!

As always, would be interested in your views.

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