#Auslaw issues

Presence of mind, not being present in the flesh

‘presenteeism’: (noun) the practice of being present at one’s place of work for more hours than is required, especially as a manifestation of insecurity about one’s job.

Ask any lawyer if they have stayed behind at work when they weren’t needed, whether or not that’s a a manifestation of their job insecurity – and it almost is, and I’d bet all could tell you a great tale.

Mine..

I was leaving the office and put on my jacket and my partner – seeing me do this – asked if I was cold.

So, the realisation that ‘presenteeism’ exists as a problem is no secret (‘It’s a waste’: Law firms plagued by ‘presenteeism’ culture and graduate ‘sweatshops’ by Michael Pelly in the Australian Financial Review [published on Feb 22, 2019] and ‘4,200’ – why it’s a prize not worth winning on this blog highlight this issue); but what really grab my attention was an excellent article in this week’s The Economist (‘Bartleby – The joy of absence‘).

The Economist article talks to two things that really resonate with me with regard to the futility of presenteeism in the legal profession – especially as we move forward.

The first speaks to the way we were (and some would argue still are):

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce group, recently praised the 996 model, where employees work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, as a “great opportunity”.

The second includes what is probably year-to-date one of my favourite lines (and the title of this post):

Turning an office into a prison, with inmates allowed home for the evenings, does nothing for creativity that is increasingly demanded of office workers as routine tasks are automated. To be productive you need presence of mind, not being present in the flesh.

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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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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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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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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2018 was a great year for AusLaw firms*!

As we close out the year that was 2018, the graph below – from the recent (December 2018) Commonwealth Bank ‘Professional Services’ report – would appear to support the fact that 2018 has been a financially beneficial one for all those involved in private practice in Australia:

Screen Shot 2018-12-30 at 8.37.01 pm

The question I have though is this: is this a true correction?

And what I’m really asking here is this:

  1. have the underlying structural changes that we all know need to be made been put in place?
  2. if so, are we starting to see the benefits of these, or does this chart represent a false dawn?

And as we entered 2019 I’m going to leave those two questions out there, as I think many of us know what the real answers are here.

As always, would be interested in your views.

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* or was it?

My comments on today’s Lawyers Weekly article: ‘Observations on NewLaw in Australia in 2018’

Today (28 December 2018), Lawyers Weekly in Australia published an article by Lachlan McKnight, CEO of LegalVision in which Lachlan comments on his ‘Observations on NewLaw in Australia in 2018‘.  At the outset I should state that I don’t know Lachlan, and this post is no way directed at him, but is just a numbered-point muse on the interesting observations he makes in his article.

  1. ‘NewLaw’ (which is as meaningless a term as ‘Mid-tier’) is now an ‘industry’ – now that’s interesting.
  2. Agree with Lachlan’s comment in #1.
  3. While I agree with Lachlan’s comments in #2, I also believe the attitude here is changing within the more ProgressiveLaw firms. ProgressiveLaw firms realise that with greater risk (which fixed fees actually are), there should be a premium (much as there is with any insurance premium). EvolutionaryLaw firms go one step further and start to have a conversation about ‘value’ pricing.
  4. Three is an interesting comment: aren’t LegalVision in part owned by G&T  – as an aside (re #3 above), didn’t Danny Gilbert recently state that he thinks that clients don’t want move away from the #BillableHour?. Nevertheless, I agree with a lot of what Lachlan says in #3 but would probably set the bar at $75 million (we still only have a population of 25 million and IBISWorld still only puts the WHOLE legal industry revenue in Australia at $20bn [NB: the top 30 law firms in Australia make over $50m a year – in an industry this small!]).
  5. I would totally disagree with Lachlan’s comments in 4 and in my opinion you only need to look at the stuff MinterEllison and KWM are doing (with whom I have no association) to see this point – to me – is misplaced. In fact I would go 180 and say many BigLaw firms are going through their Arthur Andersen/Accenture moment (the original ‘child eat parent’?).
  6. The biggest challenge NewLaw (and Mid-tier law if such a thing exists) has to #5 isn’t OldLaw, it’s the #Big4.
  7. Number 6 is a point I have tried raising several times this year – scale. Law (Old and New) see ‘scale’ as being bodies (in part because of time-based billing). If it ever was it not longer is and any law firm, new or old, that get’s the right answer to scale will have a point of difference and in such a competitive market this is crucial. The reality is that potentially the biggest winners here should be the so-called Mid-tier (who have a lot of the grey haired industry knowledge without, currently, the scale – but I fear they have missed the boat because of lack of investment).
  8. For #7, see my comment in #3 re G&T.

As always, would be interested in your views.

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