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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‘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):

image 201901

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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