Author: RWS_01

Over 20 years’ experience developing and implementing effective business development strategies in law firms across Australia and Asia.

Does your law firm apply a Minimum Discount Benchmark?

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Pareto Principle‘: The Pareto Principle, named after esteemed economist Vilfredo Pareto, specifies that 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes, asserting an unequal relationship between inputs and outputs. This principle serves as a general reminder that the relationship between inputs and outputs is not balanced. The Pareto Principle is also known as the Pareto Rule or the 80/20 Rule.

source: Investopedia

Most of us are aware of the Pareto Principle, but it wasn’t until recently, when I was listening to Episode 47 of Mark Stiving’s weekly Impact Pricing podcast, that it occurred to me that we could use this same theory in respect to the discounts we offer customers.

Now don’t get me wrong, I haven’t suddenly gone soft and think discounts are great. I’m still very opposed to them! But I’m also realistic enough to know that most law firms offer customers discounts and customers happily accept them.

If this sounds familiar, then here is a little tip that Kevin Christian gives Mark in the podcast:

  • Look at your historical [discounting] data for the last 12 months. Lop-off the bottom 25% of these discounts – by percentage – that you have been offering clients. This new figure becomes your new Minimum Discount Benchmark. Any new discounts you offer customers must exceed this new minimum threshold.

Which is to say, if you offer customers a range of discounts from 30% to 5%, then the 25% of discounts at the 30% end need to be discarded to give you a new Minimum Discount Benchmark – say, hopefully, a 20% discount rate.

Now any new discount you offer customers cannot be greater than 20% – as this has become your new Minimum Discount Benchmark.

Three months later repeat the process.

At this point your minimum Discount Benchmark should be closer to 10 to 15%.

Repeat again at 6 months.

And within a year, you should be close to a 0% Minimum Discount Benchmark.

Word of warning: if utilisation is your primary reward mechanism, then offering customers a discount is an incentive scheme and the above process likely won’t work as there are competing/conflicting interests between the customer and the lawyer.

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

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“Are you cold?” – a tale from the trenches

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Back in the mid 1990s, when I was first starting out in this profession we call “law”, I was putting my jacket on to go home. As I recall it was around 8.30 p.m., after what had been a long day. The partner I was working for at the time saw what I was doing and asked me:

“Are you cold?”

In an era when if a partner asked you to jump, you replied “how high?” – I got the message.

I sat down and got back to work.

Fast forward to today’s world

So why does this old war story from the trenches even matter in today’s world?

This story matters because of some press coverage here in Australia following recent investigations, etc, by Australia’s Fair Work Commission (FWC). The upshot of this (as I understand it, and I could be wrong) is that the FWC, rather ironically if you ask me, is looking at the number of hours junior lawyers are working to ensure they are being paid minimum wage.

As is often the case when the business of law model is under attack, the establishment fights back. In recent press coverage here in Australia this has included comments in the following two articles in the Australian Financial Review:

Long hours aren’t just for young lawyers in which John Denton (ex-CEO of Corrs) argues that:

  • lawyers should focus on what they offer clients rather than the time that it takes“,  (NB: not sure how clients being billed by the hour would take this comment), and that
  • the key as a profession should always be that it’s not about the hours, but about what the value you’re creating for your clients“, (absolutely right, but wait: how does this work with time-sheets) and that (the Great Escape)
  • You always have to be available, matters don’t come at orderly times“.

Welcome to the real world, law grads in which John Roskam (an executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank based in Melbourne, Australia – and so far as I can tell has never been a lawyer) basically says that if you don’t like being a hard working law grad or junior lawyer, then nobody is making you do it and go and go join the world of commerce where they work much harder (for the record, in my day it was the dot.com world).

So let’s put this into a little context for a second:

  • At the time of my little Are you cold? episode I worked for a Magic Circle firm and my annual billable target was 1,400 hours (1996).
  • The current version of Yale’s The Truth About The Billable Hour (which is from 2002) has it saying US firms typically ask junior lawyers to bill between 1,700 and 2,300 hours a year.
  • The Australian Financial Review recently (2018 from memory) had this number at 1,600 hours in its Partnership Review.

All of which has me wanting to say:

  • to Mr Roskam – we are not asking these kids to work as hard as we did. What we’re actually asking them to do is to work harder.  In some extreme cases, 300% harder! and
  • to Mr Denton – if billable hours really aren’t that important, and if it is all about the client, why do we even bother setting hourly billable targets that – and this is important – junior lawyers have no control over meeting and are almost completely at the mercy of their partner, consultant, special counsel, senior associate, associate, lawyer who also need to meet their annual billable targets?

And I’ll leave you with this: In case you are left wondering, it has been a long held view of mine that billable hour targets are unhealthy  and a really crappy way of working out law firm revenue budgets (side joke for the nerdy, every time someone leaves your team you have to budget re-forecast!).

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Progressive pricing – the “essence of fairness”

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Value is shared with customers rather than extracted from them

Following on from my ‘Will We See Hourly Rate Load Pricing In The Legal Industry?‘ post of last week, during the course of this week I had the chance to read a January 2019 Whitepaper by Jean-Manuel Izaret and Just Schurmann ‘Why Progressive Pricing Is Becoming a Competitive Necessity‘ published by Boston Consulting Group and the Henderson Institute.

For those who have not read it, Izaret and Schurmann’s Whitepaper provides some really thought-provoking insights, including:

  • Progressive pricing scales prices up or down on the basis of the value an individual customer derives.
  • the levels of pricing under progressive pricing are value-based, not means-based
  • Progressive pricing seems to violate the rules of traditional economics, which assume that customers buying the same product or service will pay the same price.
  • Progress pricing enables providers to offer each customer a fair, personalized product and price point.

In essence, progressive pricing enables service providers, such as law firms, to calibrate the value they provide at an individual customer level.

But, importantly to Izaret and Schurmann (see #4 of their ‘four most important differences between progressive and traditional pricing approaches‘):

Progressive pricing is a fairer way to determine prices, because customers pay a price proportional to the value they receive, rather than paying the same fixed price others pay.

For any supporters of value-based pricing, the above quote is pure gold.

But, the caveat in next line of Izaret and Schurmann’s piece is probably more crucial:

But the firm must make the case for this perceived fairness

QED, it is the duty of the firm to communicate the value the customer is getting, not the customer!

As a growing advocate of value-based pricing in professional services, one of the greatest take-outs for me was this line:

Making progressive pricing a profitable day-to-day reality can happen only if firms change how they create, define, and measure value so that they can share it fairly.

All I can say to that is “amen” – because it isn’t going to come out of utilisation and realisation rates, no matter how hard you look!

It is such a great piece I’m going to leave you with the following three quotes from this paper:

  1. Companies must first step back and re-imagine the concept of value in their market. How can a business combine its own capabilities with the close personal knowledge of its customers to create something that fundamentally changes a customer’s life?
  2. Can you define value, measure it, and get everyone to agree on what value is?
  3. Most firms are accustomed to expressing prices in units of product or some other basic metric such as hours. If they can instead calibrate prices in terms of unit of value, then the price per unit of value can remain constant and the amount a customer pays can scale in proportion to the value demanded. That is the essence of fairness.

Great read. If it is not on your list – add it* (*then get back to me and let me know if you agree)!

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My sole 2020 prediction

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I once wrote a long blog post predicting what would happen in the year ahead (‘10 things that could happen in the Australian legal market in 2013‘). It was a train-wreck (many of these ‘future’ looking predictions we are still waiting to see 7 years later!) and I promised I would never do it again.

But I recently listened to a podcast about the role of AI and the future of “back office support” (a term I prefer to call Allied Professionals) [hint: we are all doomed to automation] in the legal industry that has promoted me to break my 7 year rule and make this bold prediction:

More allied professional jobs (Secretaries, HR, Marketing, Business Development, Finance etc) will be lost in the next 5 years to both on and off-shore outsourcing than will be lost to IA and innovation.

Now remember that my track-record is rubbish; so always interested to hear your thoughts/views/feedback.

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Will We See Hourly Rate Load Pricing In The Legal Industry?

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Rational choice theory hypothesises that individuals use rational calculations to make rational choices to achieve outcomes that are aligned with their own personal objectives.

One of the biggest (of many) problems I have had with the hourly rate in the legal industry – dating back to my start in the early 1990s – is that it assumes every hour in the day is equal. But, as anyone who has worked in private practice law will tell you, this simply isn’t true.

What do I mean?

Well, to say that the value of the work that we do at 6am, is the same as the value of the work that we do at 12am, is the same of the value of the work that we do at 9pm, is the same as the value of the work that we do at 12pm is simply false in my opinion.

And, critically, this doesn’t take into account an important factor; namely to anyone who has worked in private practice for any length of time, saying that an hour of work (from a personal cost perspective) at 10% utilisation is the same as an hour of work at 130% utilisation is simply insulting.

So what’s the answer?

Well, if hourly billing is your thing, has the time come to consider load weighting?

How would load weighting work?

Well, if you’re a morning person, what if you told your customer that your time between 6am and 10am was going to be at a higher premium than your time between 6pm and 10pm?

Conversely; if you are an evening person, what if you told your customer that your time between 6pm and 10pm was going to be at a higher premium than your time between 6am and 10am?

Or, alternatively, if you haven’t seen your family for several days because of a busy workload, you tell your customer that your 40th working hour that week was (emotionally, because it will rarely be economically) worth than your first or tenth hour (as opposed to the scaling discount most firms apply)?

As an industry we need to move away from the one set billable hour value; but to do that we first need to accept that not all billable hours are equal and to start talking to our customers about charging a premium for those hours in the day/week/month/year that are worth more – to both us and them – than others!

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Is the legal industry undergoing its “Fosbury flop” moment?

Last week the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at the Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute and Peer Monitor published their ‘2020 Report on the State of the Legal Market‘. This annual Report sets out the publishers’ views of the dominant trends impacting the legal market in the United States in 2019 and the key issues likely to influence the market in 2020 and beyond.

The Introduction of this year’s Report looks at ‘Incremental Improvement vs. Radical Change‘, as it might apply to the current state of the legal industry.

Drawing on the story of Dick Fosbury’s performance at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, at which Fosbury stunned the world by setting a new Olympic record in the men’s high-jump event using a technique (the Fosbury flop) that had never been used in competition anywhere else previously, the Introduction to this year’s Report sets a great – and somewhat dramatic – backdrop to what it considers constitutes radical change against incremental change.

The Fosbury flop, without doubt, was radical change to a long held practice in 1968. But, post 1976, when all three medallist used the technique, it can also claim to be the victim of incremental improvement/change, as there hasn’t really been any great leap forward in high jump technique since.

So what has this all to do with the legal industry?

Well, it’s like this, probably since the mid-1980s the legal industry has undergone a series of incremental improvements, without really being the subject of any radical change. But, as the Report eludes, the last 12 to 18 months in the legal industry may have seen a shift here. The re-emergence of the Big 4, growth of legal tech, alternative legal service providers suggest a cusp of radical change is on the horizon (if it hasn’t already arrived).

So has it?

Well, I’m not so sure. Let’s take a look at some of the graphics in the report:

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The graphic above looks at leverage of lawyers in US firms. Aside from the ‘Midsize’ firms, where a type of diamond is forming, the AM Law 100 and 200 look like very traditional law firm pyramids to me.

1 This second graph looks numbers of hours worked per lawyer and this looks to have flat-lined since the GFC in 2008. So no real change there.

4This third – and last – graphic looks at collection realization against agreed worked and, again, has pretty much flat-lined over the past 5 years at a relatively horrid 89.5%.

Collectively these three graphics paint a rather sad story to me. There may be change in the industry. But it is far from radical. And one may argue it really hasn’t even been that incremental post 2008; with the caveat that you also need to be mindful that not all industry segments are now equal, as some are clearly more equal that others!

As always though, read the Report as I’d be interested in your thoughts/views/feedback.

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‘Bears and Alligators’

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Happy New Year to all.

I trust everyone had a relaxing and enjoyable holiday period. I certainly did, and took the opportunity to catch-up on some podcasts I had missed towards to the end of 2019. One of those was Episode 47 of Mark Stiving’s weekly Impact Pricing.

In this episode Mark has a free-ranging talk with Kevin Christian on all things pricing related under the appropriately named ‘Two Pricing Experts Talk Pricing(published 9 December 2019) and, while the whole podcast is great, things get particularly interesting  around the 19 minute mark when Kevin asks Mark:

“If a bear gets in a fight with an alligator, who wins?”

Now I can hear you saying: “What has this got to do with law firm business development and pricing issues?”, but – pun intended – ‘bear’ with me.

Because, as is music to the ears of every lawyer, Kevin explains,

‘it depends’ –

on where the fight is taking place.

If the fight is taking place on land then the bear is more likely to win; but if the fight is taking place in water then the alligator is more likely to win.

Que?

Here goes – bears and alligators are analogies to the ‘value’ discussion such that, as Kevin states, if you are:

  • Talking about the ‘Value of your Solution’: then you are in the seller/vendor territory and the seller/vendor is going to be leading and benefiting from the conversation;

whereas:

  • If you are only talking about the ‘Price of your Solution‘, without talking about the value, then you are in the buyer’s territory.

Takeout – what does this mean?

In a world when we deal with procurement and other agents who are not looking at the value of the service we provide, but are constantly looking at the cost of that service; then, as law firms, it becomes imperative that we explain the value being provided and have ourselves a land battle with the alligators.

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Peak Load – The Rise of the Contractor Lawyer in Private Practice Law Firms

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We have seen a rise in the use of contractors in more senior legal practitioner roles in recent years. This has been supported by firms moving to introduce their own contract legal businesses to manage fluctuations in workflow.”

Marc Totaro – National Manager, Professional Services Business & Private Banking; Commonwealth Bank of Australia

Earlier this month the Commonwealth Bank published the 2019 edition of its Legal Market Pulse. While the Report relates specifically to law firms and the legal industry in Australia, it contains a number of take-outs and trends that I believe can be applied more broadly across the global industry that is ‘legal services’.

One of these, as the quote from Marc Totaro above indicates, is the documented rise in the Report in the use of contractors within law firms themselves.

Until recently I had not seen much traction with suppliers of legally qualified contractors cracking the private practice market. Don’t get me wrong, I knew who Crowd & Co were and I had read about the arrangement between Lawyers on Demand and DLA Piper. But the actual use of contractors to back-stop in private practice hadn’t really registered with me.  Part of the reason for my scepticism here had been centred around the issue of:

Why would law firms with relatively poor utilisation rates want or need the use of contractors?

My thinking here changed though following a conversation I had with Katherine Thomas, CEO of Free Range Lawyers and  ex-Vario (Pinsent Masons). Katherine assured me – and convinced me – that the tide was changing and that law firms were now making use of access to highly skilled contractors for both locums and projects as part of their core HR strategy. And when I got to thinking about it a little more I realised that poor utilisation rates would actually be a really good reason why you would want to have access to contractors at it would give you greater flexibility in managing your teams’ resourcing.

In any event, the Commbank Report would appear to provide anecdotal evidence to Katherine’s views in that law firms are indeed making greater use of contractors. What’s probably more encouraging – from Katherine’s financial point of view – though is the fact that biggest area of year-on-year increase in usage is at the Senior Associate/Senior Lawyer (4+ years) level.

And in my view, the contractor trend is probably one of the biggest insights to come out of this Report – although others are writing a lot more around others things contain in the Report so make sure you read it!

Now if only I had been smart enough to read that market trend!

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

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Which would you prefer: the customer you attract, or the customer you pursue?

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This blog post is based on a #2020futureoflawthought I posted last week on social media – ‘Who pays you better, the client you attract or the client you pursue?’.

It occurs to me that law firms are much more willing – and even better resourced – to pursue customers than they are to attract them. We have dedicated pursue customer resources to hand – such as bids, tenders and pursuits teams. And we are willing to offer discounts and other ‘value adds’ to new customers that we would never think of offering to existing and loyal customers.

And what do we get for throwing all these resources and efforts in to pursuing customers?

If we are honest, and have a really good bid/tender/pursuit team to call on, somewhere between 50%-70% win conversion rate! Which is not to say that conversion rate is profitable, because in many cases to get us across the line it isn’t!

Create distinction

Recently I started listening to Scott McKain’s daily ‘Project Distinction podcast. It’s a great podcast that lasts around 10 minutes; around the same time as I made my social media post, Scott ran a week long series on how the ‘hard sell’ had had its day (the $55 million dollar ‘lost’ sale is a funny listen and a serious lesson in to why the 7 touches sales method is dead IMO).

Scott is also the author of ‘Create Distinction’, a book I have just started reading on the back of his daily podcasts that I have really enjoyed.

Anyhow, both Scott’s podcast and what I have read of his book so far have made me come to the realisation that the traditional law firm approach of pursuing a customer is actually the wrong way of doing things. Instead of pursuing customers with great value adds and discounts, we need to get much better at attracting customers – to our areas of expertise and to our superior service delivery.

Become a person of interest
Timely Andrew Sobel – one of the greats in my opinion – also touched on the issue of attracting versus pursuing customers in his blog post last week: ‘C-Suite Strategies Part IV: Become an Irresistible Person of Interest’.

In the post Andrew asks:

What if, however, the situation were reversed, and senior executives were *drawn to you*? What if, instead of you waiting in the long line outside their office, they were waiting in a line to meet *you*?

Fair question: what indeed?

Andrew then sets out six ‘strategies’ (more like ‘tips’ in my opinion) on how to become a person of interest, that include:

  1. Sharpen your expertise while expanding your knowledge breadth
  2. Develop your thought leadership
  3. Be seen as someone who is at the crossroads of the marketplace
  4. Become a person with interests
  5. Build an eclectic network
  6. Develop, manifest, and communicate your core beliefs and values

Something to think about this week then: would you prefer to be attracting or pursuing customers?

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

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Does your law firm use personas in its tender response preparation?

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I first came across the use of “personas”, in the buying-cycle, in ‘This is Service Design Doing’ by Marc Stinkdorn, Edgar Hormess, Markus, Adam Lawrence, and Jakob Schneider. This is one of those books that have a pivotal impact on your thinking and go directly into your Top 20 reading recommendations.

But it has been a while since I last picked the book up. And so when I was reading ‘Personas – A Simple Introduction’ by Rikke Dam and Two Siang  this week (as material for this week‘s newsletter)  it brought me immediately back to Service Design Doing; especially, or probably more particularly, who Dam and Siang define “persona” as being:

Personas are fictional characters, which you create based upon your research in order to represent the different user types that might use your service, product, site, or brand in a similar way. Creating personas will help you to understand your users’ needs, experiences, behaviours and goals. Creating personas can help you step out of yourself. It can help you to recognise that different people have different needs and expectations, and it can also help you to identify with the user you’re designing for.

How many law firm business development / tender / pitch / pursuit / etc professionals use this concept  in their bid/no bid process? Not many would be my guess.

But think of the benefits of your law firm role playing (or at least giving a chair to) the following personas in any tender “bid/no bid” discussion:

  • the Procurement person’s persona
  • the Legal operations person’s persona (increasingly) – CLOC / ACC and the growth of legal operations
  • the Client/user persona
  • the Client/payer persona
  • the GC persona
  • the CFO persona
  • the CEO persona
  • the In-house lawyers persona
  • the Business Managers persona

And the list can go on and on.

If your firm played this game, do you think you might start to get a little better at wining tenders?

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

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