‘4,200’ – why it’s a prize not worth winning

Overnight, Australian time, the annual AM Law 100 report for 2019 was published by the American Lawyer.

A fascinating, if not relatively meaningless (with a caveat to follow), look at how the other half live, one insight from this year’s publication worth taking a closer look at is the ever egotistical champion of the industry – the lawyer with the highest number of billable hours.

And this year’s winner comes from the firm of Fox Rothschild (moment of honesty, never heard of them before today) with, wait for it,

bh

While the individual lawyer is not named, nor their rank, let’s put this under the microscope for a second. That’s:

…4,200 (billable hours) in a year / 365 days in a year (2018 wasn’t a leap year) = 11.5 hours of billable time a day (no write offs or, in parlance, ‘time leakage’)…

…every day…

…without a break – for holiday or for sickness…

…billable

…for 365 consecutive days…

…including Christmas Day.

So what does this really mean?

Whenever I’m asked what this really means I always refer people to the excellent Yale school publication – ‘The Truth About the Billable Hour‘.

In that publication a number of different variations are set out, but in order to ‘bill’ 2201 hours, you need to have been “at work” 3058 hours. By their own admission, this doesn’t account for “personal calls at work, training/observing, talking with coworkers, a longer lunch (to exercise or shop perhaps), a family funeral, pro bono work (if not treated as billable hours), serving on a Bar committee, writing an article for the bar journal, or interviewing an applicant.”

– and yet here we are talking about 4,200 billable hours!

So why does this even matter?

Why asking someone to work 2,000 billable hours a year will kill their spirit‘ is by a long way the most read post on my blog. And yet here we are talking more than double this amount.

So I have a few questions:

  • if you are the supervising partner of a lawyer that has billed 4,200 hours a year, do you have a duty of care to ensure that lawyer is mentally okay?
  • if you are the managing partner of a fee earner that has billed 4,200 hours a year, do you have a fiduciary duty to ensure the mental wellbeing of that lawyer?
  • and, most importantly, as a client: do you really want someone who is working 11.5 hours a day, every day, without a break, working on your file (because I know my answer this question)?

As always though, interested in your thoughts/views/feedback.

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Report: 45% of Australian GCs are forecasting a decrease in their 2019 legal spend – How is this going to be achieved?

The State of Australian Corporate Law Departments Report 2019 – a joint publication between Thomson Reuters and Acritas – was published earlier this month. With more than 2,000 telephone interviews conducted and 73 interviews with Senior Legal Counsel based in Australia taking place, the sample for this report is robust. And while the usual rhetoric around “more for less” is reflected throughout the Report, one of the standouts is that Australian GCs are forecasting 45% projected budget cuts (over 2018 we have to assume):-

budget cuts

To put that into context, that almost twice the global average.

In a time when we have Royal Commissions being announced almost weekly, and compliance issues are on the front pages of the papers daily, you have to wonder where and how these savings are going to be achieved.

As to the ‘where’, given how much ‘top-end’ reputational compliance work that’s happening in Australia at the moment, and how little cost savings can be made from the margins in low-end commoditised work, you’d have to assume the most likely area will be in the mid-level contract drafting/negotiation/management space [the space in which about 30 out of the top 40 firms in Australia play].

As to the ‘how’, having read the Report my take is that Australian GCs will look to achieve this through:

  • innovation
  • panels, and
  • the elephant in the room

Innovation

‘Innovation’ has been a buzzword in the Australian legal world for over a decade. And, as one of the first jurisdictions to legislation the incorporation of law firms, to many outside Australia our system has been one of envy.

But when you ask Australian GCs to rate the innovation of Australian law firms, only 35% feel they’re working with service providers they find modern and innovative.

innovation

From where I sit this means that 65% of Australian GCs don’t think you’re really doing all that much in the innovation space!

Legal Panels

Led by procurement, the dreaded ‘legal panel’s’ stated aim is to achieve:

  • cost efficiencies and predictability
  • relationship building (de facto another way of cost savings)
  • less administrative burden
  • quality [of work]
  • responsiveness
  • access to experts, and
  • value adds on offer

All great and noble aims if you are looking for a 45% cost saving year-on-year – until you take a closer look at the reality:-

panels

This chart is from the ‘GC Thought Leaders Experiment‘ and it clearly indicates that having a panel in place isn’t saving you anything! Add to that lateral hire movement over the past 5 years, and I very much doubt any of the metrics of having a panel are being met.

It’s worth noting here that swimming against the tide of rationalising panels to fragment legal spend is A Verona Dorch – Peabody’s Energy’s Chief Legal Officer who stated (on the issue of appointing panels) that:

Expanding the pool allowed me to insert a few more midsize and non-money center firms than I otherwise could have. And that’s been incredibly helpful—just a few months in, I’m noticing that those firms are extra eager to impress and put forth their top talent.

So maybe, just maybe, if you get it right there is something to be said for legal panels – only not in the form we currently have them.

The elephant in the room

And so we come to the elephant in the room, where a lot of these savings are likely to be found:

40% of Australian in-house buyers of legal services have used alternative legal service providers (“ALSP”) for support on legal matters, and over half of those who used an ALSP did so as they felt it was a more affordable option.

Private practice we are on notice.

As always though, interested in your thoughts/views/feedback.

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Want to know how Microsoft’s legal team measure value?

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 8.45.00 pm

Value” – specially how we create and communicate it – is probably the hottest issue in legal pricing at the moment. So how much would you pay to find out how Microsoft’s legal team measure value?

If you’re smart – nothing.

Instead you will listen in to the ‘Business of Law Podcast‘ where Karen Kepler (Law Procurement Manager at Cargill) talks with Rebecca Benavides (Director of Legal Business at Microsoft Corporation) and Jason Barnwell (Assistant General Counsel of Legal Business, Operations, and Strategy at Microsoft Corporation) about the process of designing and building an outside counsel panel.

And after you have listened to the podcast (around 40 minutes of your time), download the show notes and take a look at the 4 page slide pack on ‘CELA Law Firm Engagement: Strategic Partner Selection Process‘ – because you’ll then be able to recognise where the image at the top of this post comes from.

Big lesson learnt here: Our clients want to talk to us about this, but are we really willing to listen?

As always interested in your thoughts, views, feedback.

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Is your law firm building a community or servicing a customer?

Last week I had reason to travel to Newcastle NSW. On the train journey up there (which is roughly three hours from Sydney’s CBD) I took the opportunity to listen to a podcast by Mark Stirving and his guest Darren LaCroix – “How a smart subscription pricing strategy improves retention“.

Very little of what follows in this post actually has much to do with pricing, bar the fact that at approximately the 20 minute minute mark Darren cites a quote from Raymond Aaron which immediately caught my attention:

“They’ll come for the content, they’ll stay for the community”

Wow, as someone who has done a ton of thought leadership and content marketing over the past 20 years for law firms, this really hit home.

After all, let’s face it, law firms are good at content. Actually, they are really, really good at it. To the tune of at least one client newsletter a day good at it.

But, largely they’re really rubbish at building communities.

And this is important because?

Simple really: if you have ‘customers’ it isn’t. But if you want your firm to grow ‘communities’, it’s critical.

As always interested in your thoughts, views, feedback.

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Question:- Is your firm pricing the issue or the risk?

One of the first things you will be taught in project management is the difference between a ‘risk’ and an ‘issue’. For those not in the know, an ‘issue’ is something that has happened – and we need to fix it (preferably ASAP); whereas a ‘risk’ is something that has not yet happened but may foreseeably happen, so we need to factor this in.

In any discussion around the pricing of legal services we are faced with exactly the same problem:

  • there is an issue – the client has a problem: we can workout how much it will cost to fix it, yet;
  • there is a risk, the part we are not sure about, nor are we sure about the scope.

QED: 9 times out of 10 instead of looking at the issue/risk conundrum rationally, we take on the risk blinkers and either price to the issue and/or tell the client we cannot know how much it will cost outside of the risk (hence hourly rates).

Whereas the smart pricer/legal project manager in the room will typically white-board both the ‘issue’ and the ‘risk’ with the client and say to the client:

  • This is what we know (the issue). It’ll cost you X.
  • This is what we are pretty sure will happen (the risk). It will cost you Y.
  • And this is the remote (bad luck it happened element) – let’s reconvene and discuss.

But this is just my take. As always though, would be interested in your thoughts, views, feedback.

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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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