pricing

When Seth Godin’s simple contribution analysis for pricing doesn’t work

Last week Seth Godin wrote a brilliant post titled ‘All other things being equal (simple contribution analysis for pricing)’.

As the title of the post suggests; in his post Seth suggests that if you know your cost of production you can use this as the basis for calculating your go to market price – and ultimately this will effect your profit margin (price – cost = profit).

In Seth’s example he uses the price points of $7 and $9 and states that, with a cost of production of $5-:

.. all other things being equal, you’ll need to sell twice as many at $7 as you’ll need to sell at $9.

($2 profit per unit at $7 as opposed to $4 at $9).

And Seth is right. So what has this to do with law firms?

My answer:

this is exactly how law firms have priced their services (hourly rates) for the last 20 years.

And it totally falls apart because of what we call in the business the “average billing rate”.

Back up: what exactly does that mean?

Well we know what our cost of production is (only we don’t because we will argue all year long over “shared costs” etc) and we know what our “rack rate” is (only we don’t because there are so many of these we never sure which is the “actual” rack rate) so we know the profit margin.

Using Seth’s example, our cost of production is $5- per hour and our rack rate is $7 per hour or $9 per hour. QED, $9 per hour lawyer is making more “profit”.

But…

say $9 per hour’s realisation rate is 70% and $7 per hour lawyer’s realisation rate is 100%…

..then you have a whole different story as now $9 an hour lawyer’s Average Billing Rate is less than $7 an hour lawyer’s.

And suddenly ‘simple contribution analysis’, which law firms have been using ever since I joined the profession over two decades ago, becomes meaningless.

But ultimately Seth is right:

Price is a story, it’s a story we tell ourselves and others about what we have to offer. But price is also the path to being able to stay in business.

and also: his post clearly states “All other things being equal“, which we all know will never be the case in the matrix known as a law firm!

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Fixed or capped fees – as a client which would you go for?

Last week the American Arbitration Association (AAA) announced that it would introduce an alternative fee arrangement (AFA) option on “eligible cases” offering to help resolve B2B disputes through the arbitration process (source prnewswire.com).

The AAA’s claim is this is the “first of its kind to be offered by a national provider of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) services“.

So let’s check it out.

Setting aside the “eligible cases” issue, what are the AFAs being options being offered?

According to the AAA:

  • Fixed Fee Arrangement, whereby an AAA arbitration panel member proposes a fixed fee for the pre-hearing, hearing, and post-hearing phases of arbitration which must be approved by all parties.

  • Capped Fee Arrangement, whereby an AAA arbitration panel member proposes a fee cap for the entire arbitral process which must be approved by all parties.

Wait a second, as you’ll know from my last post, capped fee arrangements are not an AFA and any pricing expert advising you otherwise needs to be shown the door.

But…

Given the choice – as a client of a  law firm client – which would you choose?

My take: depending on how different the two quotes are – which I’m guessing would be done on an “hourly rate x number of hours x which way is the wind blowing calculation“, I’d go capped fee (the exception here, a really low ball fixed fee).

Why – given my objection to this?

Well, because a fixed fee is – fixed. While a capped fee is – capped.

So if your lawyer comes in under cap (using hourly rates), they can only bill you what they have charged. And if the lawyer breaches the cap (using hourly rates), then they cannot charge you any more than the cap – hence it’s name.

So, as a client, I win both ways.

While a fixed fee is fixed. So if the lawyer uses time-sheets (hourly rates) and comes in under the fix, back luck you client. On the flip side, if the lawyer uses time-sheets and comes in over the fix, back luck law firm.

QED: in this case, I’d go the capped fee option.

The sting in the tale here though is these 7 little words:

“which must be approved by all parties.”

which despite India Johnson, President and CEO of the AAA-ICDR, comment that:

“Alternative fee arrangements align with our mission to add cost savings and fee transparency and predictability to the arbitral process; the AAA and its Roster of Arbitrators are proud to be the first arbitral institution to offer an AFA option to parties and counsel seeking to resolve their disputes through arbitration,”

means the reality is it will never happen.

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Why most law firms don’t need to hire a Head of Pricing

Following a conversation I had recently with John Chisholm, I had reason to revisit Patrick Johansen’s website patrickonpricing.com and re-read both his Continuum of Fee Arrangements™ and his Roll Call of pricing professionals.

Let’s get controversial. Re-reading Patrick’s stuff it occurred to me that there are an awful lot of law firms have hired pricing experts (Patrick has over 300, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that number were closer to 500) on -most likely- really good money who, get this: don’t really need them.

Why do I say that?

Looking again at Patrick’s Continuum of Fee Arrangements, Patrick has sixteen different pricing options available for law firms to offer clients:

  1. Hourly – the ‘go to’ pricing option for law firms. But are hourly rates pricing or billing?
  2. Volume – nope, not a pricing mechanism. It’s a discount. Not even an alternative fee arrangement (AFA).
  3. Blended – isn’t that an hourly rate?
  4. Retainer (Periodic) – okay, now we are talking. Law firms may need some help from a pricing expert on this one. But wait up, how much of a law firm’s revenue is done on a retainer mechanism? Less than 5% would be my guess. Justify the cost of pricing expert on the books (as opposed to freelancing), unlikely.
  5. Capped – OMG don’t get me started on capped fees. Known as the “heads I lose, tails I lose” pricing mechanism for law firms. I understand why clients love capped fees, they cannot lose. But any pricing expert on a law firm’s books who recommends capped fees as an option deserves to be sacked immediately.
  6. Task – okay, but isn’t this really just a fixed fee?
  7. Flat (Transaction) – okay, but again: isn’t this really just a fixed fee?
  8. Phase – sounds like a fancy name for task to me!
  9. Fixed – Nirvana. Now we need a pricing expert.
  10. Contingency – implies it needs to be contingent on something.
  11. Portfolio – my view is that this is one of the most misunderstood and under-used of the various pricing options. I’m not sure there are many pricing experts in commercial law firms who do this well.
  12. Hybrid – yeah right. Are we talking cars now?
  13. Holdback – this isn’t pricing. This is a reward mechanism. I could do all the pricing calculations in the world, but if the legal team provide a rubbish service then the client will withhold a part of the fee.
  14. Risk Collar – is hourly billing with an up and downside calculation mechanism.
  15. Success/Bonus – again, performance related.
  16. Value – right, and how many law firms are really doing this? Few and far between. Hell, most law firms don’t even understand the ‘value’ they provide (see ‘discounts’ and google number one AFA offered by law firms). No, nice to say; but a very long way from getting it.

So looking at this list I ask myself: “How much science is involved in pricing legal services?”. And the answer I come up with is: “Not a lot”.

Taking all this on board, I get why law firms hire ‘pricing experts’ out of accounting teams. And maybe that’s where the real opportunity is being missed.

But trust me, for all but two or three of the above pricing options, you don’t need a pricing expert – you need an accountant. So don’t waste your money hiring one.

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“Who still pays sticker price”

…is a quote from the 2018 Buying LegalProcurement Survey‘ that I took the time to read over the weekend.

This report makes for a fascinating read, not least the fact that ’72 percent of organizations are currently using panels/preferred provider lists’ and that ’25 percent are planning to use them in the future’ [Takeout tip:- best to invest in a really good tender team. Something that we in #Auslaw have always under invested in].

Anyhow, one of the quotes of the report is “Who still pays sticker price?

my take, for what it’s worth, is that nobody does.

Leaving aside the fall in realization rates we see continue to see every year in reports such as the one published by Altman Weil (what are we at this year – 83%?), the rise of so-called AFAs currently used by “65 percent of survey respondents and another 31 percent are planning to use it” means that even if the ‘billable hour’ isn’t dead yet, the hourly rack-rate certainly is.

But the point of this post – as is a common theme here on my blog posts – goes to the use and, importantly, effectiveness of ‘discounts’.

One of the graphs in the report shows that a massive 88% of respondents negotiate discounts with their legal service providers and that a further 8% plan to use this tactic in the future.

Picture One - 23072018

While totally believe, this is also an unreal stat (think about that for a second: 88% of clients are saying you are not worth what you think you are worth!).

But – and here’s the crux, when asked the “average effectiveness” of the various fee negotiation options available to them, the client preferred option of negotiating discounts did not come top.

Not even close.

The most effective was negotiating AFAS.

And the second most effective way of ensuring that your law firm delivers on time and on price?

–  ‘pre-matter Scoping of Work’

Picture Two - 23072018

Well there’s a surprise – properly scope a matter and implement legal project management and, odds on, you’ll have a satisfied and happy client that isn’t asking you for a discount – is probably happy to pay you hourly rates – and is giving you repeat work.

What more could you want!

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Is it time for ‘ARMs’ to replace the ‘RFT’ process?

Last Friday, 2 March 2018, Alex Berry, in the UK’s Legalweek, published ‘The end of panels? Barclays adviser shake-up provides vision of RFP-free client relationship‘.

Berry’s article outlines reaction to Barclays Bank’s announced shift away from the traditional [and largely, IME, procurement-driven] panel review process – in that, by the end of this panel term, in 2021, Barclays will not be re-tendering its panel.

The good news for the current private practice client relationship partner(s) – but probably not the many tender writers out there (including me) – is the news that:

“When the latest panel appointments come to an end in 2021, Barclays will fully move over to the new model, with lengthy panel reviews – and the laborious RFPs they entail – becoming a thing of the past.”

Which, begs the question – “What new model?”

The answer according to Berry is something termed:

‘active relationship management’.

Think about that for a second: ‘active relationship management‘ – then ask yourself: “How that differ from BAU (business as usual) in your firm?”.

Berry’s answer:

‘active relationship management’  – “will give the bank more flexibility to manage the size and composition of the panel, with law firms added and removed from the line-up on an ad hoc basis.”

But hang on a second – ‘Isn’t that what the whole RFT process is?’

Isn’t that what we have been talking about for years, vis-a-vis the whole rationalisation of panels?

It would appear not.

In Barclays Bank’s case:-

“Barclays argues that this model will help it to develop deeper relationships with its long-term advisers, while the bank is also looking to increase its use of alternative fee arrangements and move towards the “redundancy” of the hourly rate.”

Really?

Replacing a legal panel with an ARM structure, with no end term, with the aim of helping the client “develop deeper relationships with its long-term advisers”. I’d second that.

But, “the bank is also looking to increase its use of alternative fee arrangements and move towards the “redundancy” of the hourly rate” – sorry, but wrong platform to have a constructive discussion on this issue.

End result:- likely to be a churn a burn until the next RFT.

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The pointlessness of the ‘billable hour’ set out in two charts

Overnight, Australia-time, the Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute, relying on data from Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor, published the findings of its ‘2018 Report on the State of the Legal Market‘. Reviewing the performance of U.S. law firms in 2017, as well as looking at the trends expected in 2018, this annual report is typically the “first” big report publication of the year and so a trendsetter of where we may be going as an industry over the next 12 months.

As has been the case in other years, the first chart I typically like to see in this annual report is the one setting out ‘Collection Realization against Standard Rates by Law Firm Segment‘ – Chart 9 in this year’s publication – to hopefully give me an indication of how an industry that largely relies on increases in hourly rates each year to boost top-line revenue is fairing.

As you can see, yet again the results here can best be described as ‘disappointing’:

Chart 9

AM Law 100 firms are tracking an ever declining realised recoveries of circa 80 cents in the dollar. All others aren’t doing all that much better at circa 85 cents in the dollar.

Either way, those levels of realisation would have most bank managers in a panic. And the reason they don’t comes down to one small issue: in law firms this collection rate – other than telling you that the market doesn’t see your hourly value as highly as you do – is absolutely meaningless.

What it is, is pie in the sky internal budgetary metrics against market reality cash in the bank.

So we turn to my second “go-to” chart: ‘Collection Realization against Worked (Agreed) Rates‘. This year this is represented in Chart 10:

Chart 10

As the name suggests, what this chart is showing us is “Collected v Worked (Agreed)”. I’m   assuming the “agreed” here is upfront, and I’m accepting that the picture is far from perfect, but there is a far better flatline realisation rate here of 90-ish per cent, or 90 cents in the dollar.

So, what’s my take-out from the two charts?

If you want to try and get a better handle on your projected cashflow, no doubt better to have an upfront conversation with your client about how much you are going to be charging them – however that is (fixed fee, hourly rates, etc) – than having an arbitrary, and less and less meaningful, ‘billable hourly rate’.

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Would your clients agree to pay you for ‘computer time’?

An old friend of mine, Alex Hayden-Gilbert (aka @thaipirate on Twitter), recently kindly shared with me a costing proposal from March 1994 that included a line item for ‘computer time’ – something we may consider outrageous today.

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 8.00.02 pm

But, giving this some more thought, I wonder:-

is charging clients for ‘computer time’ such an outrageous concept today?

To answer this, let’s break this down:-

  • you work for a law firm that charges by the hour,
  • you are of an age where typing with one finger is acceptable (Baby Boomer or Gen X), and
  • you work for a law firm who has cut costs to increase profit per partner and part of that cost cutting includes a reduction in WP and secretarial services – resulting in you needing to do more typing yourself.

Get where I’m going with this?

Yep, from where I’m sitting unless your client has made you pass a typing competency test (say 80 words a minute), then the reality is they are still – some 23 years later – paying for ‘computer time‘.

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