#Auslaw issues

Is anybody else getting tired of this NewLaw vs BigLaw debate?

Last week saw the latest publication of the Commonwealth Bank’s Legal Market Pulse Report. What was a quarterly report, became half yearly, and would now appear to be annual (a great shame if true as many of us saw this report as an important benchmark of how the industry was tracking).

Anyhow, leaving that aside – and despite some changes to the structure of the report (it seems to be missing growth practice and geographic areas for example – which I loved), it remains an important read for those of us in #Auslaw.

But now a brief rant:- as you would expect of a report researched/undertaken by Beaton (which I understand is the case), it’s almost zealous like in its consideration/debate of so-called ‘NewLaw’ versus ‘BigLaw’ (do a search of the term ‘NewLaw’ and see how many hits you get if you don’t believe me!).

And I don’t get this ongoing fixation.

And yes, I was part of the twitter conversation that saw the birth of the term NewLaw by Eric Chin (who was then at Beaton) and thought it to be an interesting term/concept at the time.

But I’m starting to seriously wonder if we haven’t moved on from all this? If, indeed, once again, we are having the wrong conversation.

So what I want to ask is this:

Shouldn’t we start to have a real discussion about whether or not your firm is ‘full service’ (BigLaw) or ‘specialised’ (NewLaw) – and what that actually means; rather than NewLaw versus BigLaw, with all the inferences that come with that around old ways of doing law versus new ways?

Because I genuinely believe that in a market that is increasingly hard to differentiate in, this is a far more important question.

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ACCA Report: there has been a 30% increase in external legal spend in 2 years

Last month the Association of Corporate Counsel Australia published its ‘2017 Benchmarks and Leading Practices Report‘. Two leading take-outs from this Report being bounded about are:

  1. ‘the average total legal spend for ANZ in-house legal departments has increased from $3.1M in 2008 too $4.3M in 2017’, and
  2. ‘[average] external legal spend has increased from $1.8M in 2015 to $2.6M in 2017, representing a 30% increase.’

In what many, including myself, have called one of the world’s most competitive legal environments, with most reports showing flatline revenue levels for law firms at best; the fact that a report by in-house itself shows that there has been a significant uplift in external legal spend over the two years between 2015 and 2017 should give us comfort. But for some reason that doesn’t seem to be the case. Clearly this uplift isn’t being shared equally among firms and there appears to have been some significant winners, with rather more losers.

Other take-outs from the Report include:

  • More than half (51%) of GCs time is spent on ‘urgent high importance/highly strategic work’ – with the most essential skills and attributes required to being a successful GC being ‘the ability to translate complex information into simple communications, active listening, strategic thinking, broad business understanding and influencing skills‘. I would argue that many of these skills need to be top of mind for private practitioners too.
  • 80% of organisations rate project management as an important tool for improving the efficiency of in-house legal departments – yet more than half of in-house legal team (63%) have ‘no formal workflow management system‘.
  • Worryingly, the dominate project management principle used for ‘complex matters’ briefed out to external providers is, to ‘scope the work‘ (49%) [‘Obtain quote(s)’ is number 3 among cited project management practices]. I believe that if external legal providers are genuine in their declared aim of being trusted advisors to their clients, they may want to look at helping in-house up-skill in this clearly important area.
  • The top three considerations used to determine when matters should be outsourced or in-sourced are: (1) Whether external expertise is required (82%), (2) Current and projected internal workloads (59%), and (3) Amount of budget available for outsourcing (30%).
  • Work types most likely to be briefed externally are (1) tax (33%), (2) litigation/arbitration/ADR (19%), (3) employment/workplace relations (17%), and (4) banking and finance / capital markets (17%).

All importantly, in such a competitive market, the primary reasons behind in-house legal departments choosing one firm over another are:

  • ‘the chosen firm demonstrates an understanding of their requirements’ (72%),
  • ‘has specialist expertise’ (67%)
  • ‘provides good value’ (53%)

With the drivers of satisfaction being:

  • ‘demonstrated understanding of the role of in-house counsel’ (91%)
  • ‘demonstrated understanding of the organisation and its goals and priorities’ (89%), and
  • ‘the provision of commercially applicable advice’ (89%).

On the issue of billing:

  • 42% said that ‘hourly billing was not ideal’, but no alternative was provided,
  • disappointedly, 71% cited ‘discount hourly rates’ as the most common form of billing arrangement, but
  • the adoption of AFAs has increased from 28% in 212 to 42% in 2017.

Nonetheless, 88% of in-house counsel are ‘satisfied with their top provider’, meaning it remains extremely difficult to break an incumbent relationship.

One final take-out from the Report that needs to be seriously taken on-board by external (private practice) legal providers is this: – “women now account for 50% of head of legal functions“.

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How often does your law firm managing partner call clients to thank them for giving you instructions?

It may sound slightly crass, but when was the last time your firm’s Managing Partner phoned a client to thank them for giving you work? Indeed, have they ever phoned a client to say thanks for the work they give the firm?

Because, crass as it may sound, sometimes in life doing the really simple – right – things well gets lost in our haste to over complicate things and reinforce to all how important we are the role we play in this little merry-go-round.

All of this was brought home to me recently when reading an article on abovethelaw.com titled ‘Biglaw Idol’ — Or, How In-House Lawyers Actually Select Outside Counsel: Picking a law firm for a seven-figure engagement can take under five minutes by Stephen R Williams.

Stephen is in-house with a multi-facility hospital network in the US Midwest and in this article he sets out fairly succinctly and scarily (from an Australian business development perspective) near-verbatim transcript of a recent discussion on how the in-house team decided which private practice firm they would retain for “a rather sizable engagement” (the seven figure sum mentioned in the article’s title).

Turns out that once they had decided a select group of firms (5) who they thought could do the job, one of the deciding differentiators that set the winning firm out from the others was the fact that:

Their managing partner also called me this morning to thank me for considering them. He said he understood they may not be who we ultimately retain, but he appreciated the confidence we had in their firm for even considering them.

The GC’s response?

Well, it may surprise you:

GC: Wow, Managing Partner called? I passed over his shop a few months ago in favor of Biglaw 2 and thought he was still mad at me. I am impressed he called. Look, if we can’t get an answer from Biglaw 5 and Biglaw 4 is ready to go — I am signed-off, bring in Biglaw 4.

That Managing Partner just won his firm a seven figure engagement. With one phone call. And he didn’t even say thanks for hiring us. He said, “thanks for thinking about hiring us”. Pretty powerful stuff.

Food for thought…

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Medibank Idea Exchange

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For my sins I am a member of Medibank Private Health Insurance. I understand it has something to do with having a young family and the Medicare rebate. Anyhow, regardless the reason I get a lot of emails from Medibank that have always gone to straight to my trash folder. That is, until this morning.

What makes this morning any different? Well, I received an email inviting me to join the Medibank Idea Exchange community. In part wondering why they were suggesting the singular rather than the plural, I thought I would take a look.

What did I find?

Well, while I have no intention of joining, what I found was an offer to join an ‘invite only’ community where I will be able to share my thoughts and ideas on a variety of different topics and issues and:

  • Contribute to discussions and surveys – so you can tell Medibank what you think and help shape future business decisions,
  • Talk with other members – so you can share experiences and handy tips,
  • Earn rewards for participating – that you can redeem on a great range of products and services.

and I thought to myself: “there might be something in this for law firms to learn from“.

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Almost 20% of Australian law firms revenue is now coming from fixed fees

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It has been a full six months since the last CommBank Legal Market Pulse (conducted by Beaton Research + Consulting) was published and from what I can tell from this latest publication, not very much has changed in that time.

While some members of the Australian legal publishing world have commented on the rising optimism (note this is “perception”, and this has gone from awful to not quite so awful), what grabbed my attention was a piece towards the end of the report (page 19) that states:

“Revenue is still predominantly derived from hourly rates. However, almost 20% of all firms revenue, irrespective of size, is now coming from fixed fees.”

I don’t have to hand data from 5 years ago that would allow me to do a comparison to see what this means in real terms, but given that IBISWorld puts the size of the Australian legal market at $23BN, that’s a lot of fixed fee generated revenue.

Somewhat surprisingly, there doesn’t appear to be a huge difference in the percentage of fixed fee revenue being derived at “top-tier” and “mid-tier” firms – with fixed fees accounting for 19.4% of revenue at top-tier firms and 19.2% among mid-tier firms.

The types of work for which fixed fees are being agreed/charged is also very similar – 88% for transactional matters at top-tier and 89% at mid-tier.

Notable, and surprisingly, is that top-tier firms would appear to be much more willing than mid-tier firms to offer fixed fees for litigation work – 50% to 33%.

But the test is always in the tasting (for wine lovers at least): so how good are Australian law firms at fixed fee pricing?

Well, not very if the data is to be believed. Asked for the margin on fixed fees relative to hourly rates, the responses were:

  • higher: 13% top-tier / 15% mid-tier;
  • lower: 0% top-tier (which seems a little hard to believe) / 56% mid-tier (which is probably being too honest)
  • about the same: 75% top-tier / 19% mid-tier; and
  • not sure: 13% top-tier / 11% mid-tier (which should be worrying some managing partners out there).

As well as finding out that Australian law firms are not very good at fixing fees, the report also tells us that over 67% of all law firm revenue still comes from standard hourly rates or discounted hourly rates. Here though, over 25% of revenue comes from “discounted” hourly rates – which begs the question: when do you start saying your discounted rates are your real rates?

Lastly, almost 3% of all law firm revenue now comes from retainer arrangements (2.6% for top-tier, 2.8% for mid-tier). Now that’s certainly something worth keeping an eye on!

 

Are we seeing the start of shared services within in-house legal teams?

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Last Friday, 12 February 2016, the Australasian Lawyer published an interesting article detailing how the in-house legal teams at Telstra and Westpac had ‘swapped’ lawyers as part of a three-month pilot secondment program.

That this is a fairly novel and innovative approach shouldn’t come as a particular surprise: both Telstra – with its fixed fee arrangement with the law firm Gilbert + Tobin back in 2009 – and Westpac – most recently with its hackathon with legal teams from (again) Gilbert + Tobin and its legal start up LegalVision – are seen as being at the cutting edge of developing in-house innovation around legal services.

But… as pointed out in a tweet by leading legal market observer, Mitch Kowalski, on Friday night… what makes this recent arrangement between Telstra and Westpac particularly interesting is that it shows every sign of potentially being the start of shared legal services among Australian in-house teams.

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If true, and I cannot see why it shouldn’t be, you have to wonder what the ramifications of this would be more broadly to Australian private practice firms?

Take on board the comment of Rebecca Lim, Westpac’s chief compliance officer & group general counsel that:

“Given the success of this pilot, we are certainly inspired to look for similar forms of ongoing engagement with other in-house legal teams. I believe there is much to be gained from collaborative programs such as this.”

Disruptive springs to mind!

Report: ‘HSF bets growth on Asia’

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The Australian‘s weekly Legal Affairs section is reporting (subscription required) today that global law firm “Herbert Smith Freehills will seek to more closely integrate its Australia and Asia practices.

Sorry to be blunt, but what!?!

According to the Lawyers Weekly website, HSF officially merged on 1 October 2012 to open as the “largest fully integrated law firm in Asia Pacific based on number of lawyers“.

That was 3 years ago.

This begs the question: are all of the recent global law firm entrants to Australia going through the same issues?

My guess here is “yes”. Even though nearly all of them (arguable K&L Gates used US-Australia as its strategic reason for opening in Australia) made specific mention of using Australia as a springboard into Asia, pretty much none of them – to my knowledge – has a specific liaison Business Development Manger person (or higher) located in Australia who assists with joint business development activities.

As I understand it, there may be cost related issues involved in this (who pays for the resourcing – Australia or Asia). There may also be personnel issues involved.

Who knows; but the short answer is that for the life me I cannot understand how 3 years or more (in some cases) on from when the global firms arrived in Australia they still don’t seem to:

  • have dedicated Asia-wide practice and support teams
  • be able to tell you the number of referrals across jurisdictions (inbound and outbound)
  • be able to tell you which partners are referring work [championing] across jurisdictions
  • be able to tell you how many referrals are going to other firms within the jurisdiction where they have an office – particularly where there may have been a relationship prior to the merger (in Australia’s case, would you like to take a punt that Gilbert & Tobin gets referrals from international firms with an on the ground presence in Australia?)
  • know which of their clients are referring work to them across multiple jurisdictions.

To me, this says that both the back-end and front-end operations of the merged firm are still working in geographic and practice group silos (which they most certainly would appear to be from today’s article).

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that HSFs is seeking to more closely integrate its Australia and Asia practices. I hope other firms follow suit. I’m just frustrated that this initiative is probably about 2 and half years late!

#BizDevTip: Spring clean now for a strong start to 2016

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Spring has officially sprung in Australia (1 September) and so now is the time to do a spring clean of your law firm if you want to give yourself the best chance of making a strong start to 2016.

As a minimum, you should consider shaking out the winter cobwebs with the following housekeeping actions:

  1. Audit your client list  – to see who the best performers have been, who the up and comers are, and who have fallen off a bit.
  2. Review your revenue streams – to see which practices are getting revenue from which clients. Remember, the more practice groups that are getting instructions/revenue from a client, the more likely that client is to be a profitable client.
  3. Review and update your ‘key’ (which should include decision makers as well as supporters) contacts database and update their preferred method of communication (phone, email, chat, Facebook, tweet?).
  4. Hold an off-site firm strategy day that includes a review of market conditions, expected client demands, and how your firm will respond to these.
  5. Segment your client contact database by industry, etc so that clients receive the most appropriate information from you – rather than blasted mailshots.
  6. Start thinking about your FY2017 client listening program – who will you go and visit? Will you be doing this internally or externally?
  7. Start thinking about your FY2017 communication plan.
  8. Review and update your referrer / firm champion list.
  9. Look up what industry events will be taking place in 2016 and see if you need to be attending these.
  10. Consider ways that you can be adding value (via your value added services) to your client relationship that might differentiate you from your competitors.

I cannot guarantee that you and your firm will be star performers in 2016 if you carry out this spring clean, but I can guarantee that 2016 will [at best] be a fairly ordinary year for you and your firm if you don’t action these and more.

Survey: One in four Australian law students are not sure about their future intentions

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We often talk about the lack of opportunities that current Australian law students face when looking for work in what counts as the ‘New Normal’ in the world of legal in  Australia.

It was interesting to read, then, in a recently published survey of the 1,403 law students undertaken on behalf the Women Lawyers’ Association of NSW that:

“One in four law students were not sure about their future intentions, and one in ten intended not to practise as a lawyer.”

Of those students who did intend to practise as a lawyer (61%), only half (both female and male) anticipated working as a solicitor in private practice; while close to one third intend to work as a government lawyer, in-house corporate lawyer or as a barrister.

Those law students who do not intend practising law after graduation said they anticipated working in banking and financial services, government/politics or in corporate strategy.

Interestingly, given the cut backs in this area, one in five law students were proposing to work as a community-based legal service lawyer, with female law students the more likely to be studying law for altruistic reasons; including “having an interest in social justice“.

Less surprisingly, male law students were more likely to cite “a good income that a career in the law offers” and “the prestige and status that a career in the law would bring” as being their main drivers for studying the subject. Which probably proves beyond any reasonable doubt that females are smarter than males!

All in all, I’m not sure the outcome of this survey would have varied dramatically in my days studying law at university 20 years ago. That said, I know that my aspirations – in studying the subject – were to be a lot more like Geoffrey Robertson QC than the partner of a Magic Circle law firm.

As it turns out, I ended up being neither. Which is why survey’s like this are important in reminding us that we probably need to hold off telling law students that it’s all doom and gloom in the world of the “New Normal” and start with actually asking them what they want to do with their lives.

3 more surveys on the state of the legal market were published this week

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Hot on the heels of a post I posted two weeks ago summarising three reports on the state of the legal market, the last week of August has seen the publication of a further three survey reports.

  1.  The US Survey Report 

The first survey report (Surveys Find Mixed Demand, Moderate Pay for Corporate Counsel) is out of the USA and summarises the findings from a questionnaire sent to 1,300 chief legal officers (CLOs) of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) – who now have a Chapter in Australia.

This ACC survey covered wide ground, including pay rises (3%) and areas of in-house recruiting growth (compliance, contracts and corporate generalists), but probably my favourite take-out was the following two paragraphs:

“Organizations are looking for corporate counsel who can facilitate the business process, according to Peters. Counsel should become familiar with what the company does, take an interest and act as a support, instead of simply focusing on the legalities of whatever is presented to them, she said.

For example, corporate counsel might tour the company’s plant and observe the manufacturing process to better understand how the company works, according to Peters. This might allow the lawyer to help get the product to market quicker. “It behooves the lawyer to be involved and become an integral part of the company. Partnering with the business, you add and keep value,” she said.”

Private practice lawyers could move a lot further along the trusted advisor paradigm just by following that piece of advice.

2.  The UK Survey Report

The second survey report (Mind the Gap: GCs, Firms Wide Apart in Perception)  is actually a one-page infographic [downloadable here] done by the team at Briefing Magazine in the UK and provides further evidence, if ever we needed it, that there is a growing ‘value gap’ in the perception of the relationship between in-house counsel and their outside law firms & law firm managers.

This survey polled 125 GCs, 67% from companies with more than £1.1 Billion in revenue a year and more than 1000 employees, along with 86 managers (NB: Briefing Magazine‘s target readership is law firm leaders and managers) from the top 120 law firms in the UK.

Two take-outs from this survey of note are:

  • on whether the process of buying legal services had moved to the in-house legal team’s procurement department, 80% of in-house GCs said they – and not the procurement department – had the say on who to send legal work to, whereas almost three quarters (74%) of law firms said exactly the opposite (ie, procurement had the say here).
  • on the issue of AFAs (alternative fee arrangements), 76% of law firms believe that in-house GCs want to move away from the billable hour, whereas only 58% of GCs said they do.

Interesting as they are, both of these responses really highlight to me that most law firms out there are not having proper conversations with their clients around how legal services are being procured and, importantly, paid for.

3.  The Australian Survey Report

The third survey report of the week was the most comprehensive.

Authored by Joel Barolsky and published by The Melbourne Law School and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor, the 2015 Australia: State of the Legal Market report sets out the dominant trends impacting the Australian legal market in 2015 and the key issues likely to influence the market in 2016 and beyond [a copy of which is downloadable here].

As you would imagine, a survey report of this nature (15 pages) packs a punch and there are way too many take-outs to summarises them all here so if you are interested in the finding of this report, but don’t have the time to read the whole thing, I would like to suggest you take a look at Joel’s post on LinkedIn – Key takeouts from major new legal market report – summarising the findings.

For me, it was interesting to see the survey confirm a trend I identified last year in the market, namely that the biggest competition private practising lawyers have these days is actually in-house counsel. I think this is further evidence that private practice lawyers are not doing enough to explain to their in-house counsel the benefits of using outside counsel.

In short, to my mind the conversation should not simply be: “I’m spending $150,000 on external legal each year, I can hire a lawyer and bring this work in-house“. Although I very much fear that is exactly the conversation that is taking place. And when you keep in mind that the two principal areas of concern for in-house counsel are compliance and risk, you’d think this provides external legal with exactly the right platform to have the conversation around why taking work in-house should not be a growing trend.