Alternative Fee Arrangements

What the year 2081 will mean for law firm discounts

Business Development image

Over the holiday’s I finally got time to read D. Casey Flaherty’s ‘Unless You Ask: A Guide For Law Departments To Get More From External Relationships‘ published by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC).

Casey’s publication is excellent and very insightful. Although written for in-house legal departments, it contains information that every private practice lawyer should be across. If for no other reason than it has an array of sample questions they may be asked.

But, it is a brief piece in the publication on asking for discounts on hourly rates/bills that I wanted to share with you all. Because Casey has managed to put into words, both succinctly and comprehensively, my own feelings on discounts.

So here it is (see pages 64 & 65):

Without some grounding in value, discounts just become a game.

First, you can only push the discount lever so many times. A recession hits or you run a convergence initiative. You get your firms to take a big haircut. What’s next? It will probably be a few years before you can return to that well in any meaningful way. Continuous improvement, on the other hand, should be a constant. There is always some process to refine, some assumption to question, or some technology to take better advantage of. Discounts can be part of a strategy. But a strategy that relies entirely on discounts is hollow.

Second, there is a huge volume of data that suggests that while most clients see themselves as negotiating progressively deeper discounts, what they are really doing is negotiating down the size of the rate increase. Last year, the client got a 10% discount off a $500 rate. This year, the client gets an 11% discount off a $520 rate. What really happened is that that firm increased the rate from $450 to $463. You can perform this trick—4% rate increase, additional 1% discount—for a quite long time before the rate flattens out. How long? 66 years. In 2081, the paid rate ($1,600/hr) would finally stop increasing as the discount (75% off a published rate of $6,399/hr) caught up to the rate increase.

Third, while almost every law department will proudly refer to the deep discounts they’ve negotiated, only about half even get one. That’s because a true discount is not calculated versus a lawyer’s published rate—of which there may be several—but is calculated by reference to something called a standard rate, an internal firm number used to determine realizations, profitability, etc. With a few exceptions, almost no one pays published rate and therefore everyone thinks they are getting a discount. But only about half of clients actually pay below standard rate. And even they are not getting as deep a discount as they think.

Fourth, if you count discounts as savings, please stop. If you’ve reduced rates below what you were paying previously, that’s one thing, especially if you also have a mechanism to monitor and hold the line on hours. But if you are just counting the delta between the published rate and your paid rate, it introduces some bizarre incentives. It encourages firms to jack up published rates so they can offer you the optical illusion of a bigger discount. It encourages you to select higher priced firm so you can report greater ‘savings’—i.e., you show double the savings by paying $700/hr to a lawyer with a published rate of $900/hr than you do paying $350/hr to a lawyer with a published rate of $450/hr. And your savings accumulate with every extra hour of work the firm bills. There is something inherently perverse about a savings metric that makes you look better the more you spend.

Fifth, finally, and most importantly, undue emphasis on discounts tends to confuse unit price with total cost. Rate differences are linear. Hours can differ by orders of magnitude. The $350/hr associate might look relatively cheap until it takes them ten hours to deliver work half as good as what the $800/hr partner delivered in one. Attention to the unit price ($350 v. $800) will obscure both quality and total cost ($3,500 v. $800). We intuitively understand the difference experience can make. Systems—the proper integration of process and technology to augment expertise in delivering legal services—are experience institutionalized. Systems merit attention in trying to understand the relationship among quality, unit price, and total cost. Discounts are only a small fraction of one piece of that puzzle.

There you have it: why discounts should not be anywhere near the front of your pricing arsenal.

RWS_01

 

Advertisements

R.I.P. AFAs in 2017?

I thought I would start my calendar year of blogging off with a slightly controversial post:

Will 2017 be the year that we finally sees the demise of so-called Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs)?

For those unfamiliar with the various types of AFAs currently in use – and there cannot be many of you out there, then Patrick on Pricing’s Continuum of Fee Arrangements is a good starting point.

Okay, so a fair amount was made of a chart in a ‘ACC Report – Law Department Management: Establishing Value In An Evolving Business World’ published late last year which predicted a 50% increase in the use of Alternative Fees this year. Given the ACC is the leading voice for in-house counsel globally, including, now, Australia, pretty clear evidence of the future direction of AFAs you’d think.

But, to my knowledge, little has been made of the fact that the same chart foresaw a 30% decrease in the use of Alternative Fees this year by those same in-house counsel.

use-of-afas-image

And so I asked myself: Given their popularity, what could possibly be driving in-house to contemplate a reduction in their use of AFAs? This is especially so given that the ACC has very much been at the forefront of championing their use? And, potentially, in such large numbers?

The truth is, I don’t know the answer to this question. It could be as simple as the fact that in-house counsel expect to instruct out less work that fits the AFA model. But I also hazard a guess that with some in-house counsel it will have something to do with one or all of the following three possible reasons:

  1. AFAs are not transparent – no one, apart from the person who sets them, knows how they got to tat price. As such, it’s really difficult to compare them.
  2. AFAs don’t represent value. Despite a belief that they represent value over hourly billing, in the view of many in-house counsel they simply don’t. Therefore, much easier to use the foe you know (hourly billing with discounts).
  3. AFAs are not alternatives. Simply put, the core to most AFAs proposed by law firms remains: Units of Labour (manpower) x Time x Rate = Price. QED, they are not “alterative”. Indeed, their very names even suggest it with “blended”, “phase”, “task”, “volume”, “flat”.

To be clear, I don’t want to see the demise of value pricing. Indeed, quite the opposite. Nor am I particularly an advocate of hourly billing. I am however, wholly against the use of the term “alternative” when they clearly aren’t. And so I’m not overly surprised that 30% of in-house counsel are saying they will see a decline in their use this year.

Given the glacial speed of change in the the industry, I’ll wait to see if there is any change here this year. My gut tells me though not to hold my breath and that we are likely to be in the same place next year as we are now.

RWS_01

What strategies are being used to manage outside legal costs? – not AFAs!

“The growth of AFAs has been much slower than many predicted, remaining at roughly 16% of revenue in 2015…

… Most of the resistance has come from clients who are not comfortable with what law firms have proposed as AFAs, and would rather stay with hourly rates and discounting.”

[Both of the above are taken from the recently published 2017 Client Advisory, by Citi Private Bank and Hildebrandt Consulting Inc  (see page 9)]

I completely understanding why clients feel frustrated with the so-called Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs) that law firms often propose to them and are pushing back on these. Whenever you discuss AFAs with law firms, all you tend to hear is talk of ‘fixed fees’, ‘capped fees’, ‘success fees’, ‘risk collars’ and other such loft terms, more often than not being held as if they were innovative disruptors in the way we price legal services when the reality is 99.9% of them have the billable hour underpinning them and have been on the pricing menu for more than two decades. So why shouldn’t clients just go with a standard billable hour and get a 10% discount at the end of the matter – much simpler and proven route (and, as a side note, interesting to see the report continues to show realization rates on the slide!).

No, as a profession, the time has come to accept that if we want to be real about offering clients alternatives to the billable hour then we must get on the front foot and become more creative about what we are offering them. And the best, and possibly only, way we will achieve this is if we start to have conversations with our clients about this.

And herein lies both a solution and a way forward!

In another recently published report – the 2016 Legal Department In-Sourcing and Efficiency Report: The keys to a more effective legal department by Thomson Reuters (see page 16) – ‘Use of budgets for matters‘ smashes ‘Alternative fee arrangements‘ (59% to 31%) as the most popular answer to the question around what strategies are being used to manage outside legal costs.

strategies

Given this was a survey of 429 attorneys and operational professionals working in corporate legal departments by Thomson Reuters, you would think it would be a good indicator of in-house aptitude (side note: notice only 1% mention Reverse auctions? Definitely not reflective of the noise being made in the market around these!)?

Anyhow, here’s a Holidays thought for those law firms looking for alternatives to the billable hour that might actually (a) pay them some money, and (b) have the support of their clients:

go and speak to your client about use of budgets for matters.

After all, surely all those pricing directors, legal project managers, process improvement directors, innovation officers, etc talk with each other every now and then and come up with something helpful and original along these lines!

Happy holidays to all.

RWS_01

 

What percentage of legal spend is via alternative fee arrangements?

The Ninth Annual Law Department Operation Survey was published late last month (Nov 2016). A survey of – a record number of – 133 law department professional, one of the questions asked in this year’s survey was:

‘What percentage of legal spend is via alternative fee arrangement?’

Unlike other legal market surveys undertaken during the course of the year, the results here are telling in that they are from those running the legal department, as opposed to those practising, and therefore, arguably, are more reflective of the market’s aptitude to Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs).

Overwhelmingly – at 87 percent – US in-house law departments make some use of AFAs with their private practice suppliers. Tellingly though, only 14.1% of this is over 50% of spend and more than a third – 34.4% – is in the one to 10 percent space (making me wonder if this is just discounts disguised as AFAs).

 

afas-9th-ldo-survey-2016

RWS_01

Hourly billing – A dialogue with John Chisholm

In the concluding paragraph to a LinkedIn post he made Friday, 2 September – title ’10 rules about hourly billing for law firms’, in which he sets out the rules of US-based blogger Matthew Homann as they apply to hourly billing – my good friend, and sometime mentor, John Chisholm asks:

“Are we changing the “we sell time” mindset and business model of the legal profession? Are we changing it quick enough?”

I believe John’s questions to be important and worthy of a response. So here’s mine.

Are we changing the “we sell time” mindset of the legal profession?

“If aren’t selling time, what are we selling?”

Many would say that lawyers sell their expertise, knowledge, skill, and experience.

While I would have held that to be true pre-2008, in the new world order I no longer believe that to be the case and would hold that today this type of thinking makes it incredibly difficult for you to differentiate yourself from the pack. I’d go so far as to say that in today’s world expertise, knowledge, skill and experience are a given: they merely get you an invitation to the dance.

No, short of a nuclear event or a commoditised issue, what lawyers (and business development people on their behalf) sell today is access to the right expertise, knowledge, skill and experience. And we do this by fulfilling on all of the modern day clichés: – understanding our clients’ businesses, being client-focussed, always being available, always adding value to the relationship.

The problem though is that even if we know what we are selling, how we charge for it is a very different beast.

Are we changing the “we sell time” business model of the legal profession?

In the 2016 edition of ‘Law Firms in Transition’ by Altman Weil the researches asked:

“If your firm uses any non-hourly based billing, is your use of alternative fee arrangements primarily reactive (in response to client requests) or primarily proactive (arising from your belief in the competitive advantage of alternative fees)?”

72.2% of law firm leaders responded – “reactive“.

In an era where “Sixty-four percent of large firms have added a Pricing Director or staff equivalent” (see page (v) of the report), that’s pretty staggering. But it also goes to the heart of the problem: there clearly isn’t significant enough incentive to move away from what is in place (hourly billing) and towards something new – and the reality is we are only offering non-hourly fee arrangements under the very real threat of not being given the work at all!

And, to my mind at least, herein lies the crux of the issue John raises:- the problem is not that we sell time per se, but rather our business model rewards people for charging by it.

Indeed, if we truly want to know if the industry is changing from the “we sell time” reward model, then the Altman Weil report identifies all we need to know. In there it stipulates that law firm leaders clearly see:

“Efficiency and pricing [as] areas that firms can control to meet the changing marketplace and manage challenges and opportunities.”

And yet despite clearly seeing this:

“The one pricing tactic that has been adopted by a majority of large and small firms is developing data on the cost of services sold. Sixty-seven percent of all firms and 91% of large firms are doing this fundamental analysis, which should enable them to structure more customized fee proposals.”

And while I do commend law firms for trying to establish what a particular type of work might cost, this evidence clearly shows that firms remain stuck in a cost-plus method of charging for services rather than trying to determine what the value is to the client in doing the work – which actually would enable them to structure more customized fee proposals.

To close out this segment, I believe that the Altman Weil report touches on a central problem, and with it a possible solution, to the “we sell time” business model that currently exists in many law firms:

“…in too many firms personal, political and cultural obstacles are hindering pragmatic economic decisions.”

Are we changing it quick enough?

It should be obvious by now that my response here is going to be “no”.

But I wanted to finish by quoting a paragraph in the Altman Weil report that I believe sums up the profession’s glacial attitude to change far better than I can:

“If the strategy is simply to keep up with the pack, it misses the point that most of the pack is itself lagging and just a small increase in pace can distance a firm from its undifferentiated competitors. A firm can never get ahead by merely aspiring to keep pace with sluggish competitors. Vigorous pursuit of opportunities has always paved the way for competitive success.”

RWS_01

Independence Day & The Billable Hour

Two things got my attention on Friday. The first was the decision by the UK to exit the EU (so-called “independence Day” by some of the more fanciful politicians and “Brexit” to most of the rest of us). On a much smaller scale, the second was an article in The Australia Financial Review that “Ditching the billable hours case a struggle“. (print edition – NB: online the article title is “Billable hours to always hold a place in law firms“).

With the first of these two items, I have very little to no control over and am left at the mercy of others.

The second on the other hand is absolute rubbish!

To be clear, mention of the billable hour in the opening four (4) paragraphs of this article are all to internal metrics; specifically how many hours fee earners need to bill each day to make budget (and a side note here, anyone else note how this changed from an annual figure of 1,400 hours to a daily figure of between 6 and 7.5 hours depending on which firm you work for? Is this because a daily figure is much easier to live with than an annual figure that daunts you by its task? If so, kind of simplistic thinking towards people who are supposed to be in the top 1%).

Anyhow I digress as this has nothing to do whatsoever with how clients are charged, much less how they want to be charged, and whether or not the billable hour needs to remain the “go to” fee arrangement of choice by firms and paragraph five (5) of the article tackles this issue head on when it says:

“However, the majority of firms said they worked with clients and offered alternative fee arrangements if suitable.”

You’re kidding right?

For those of you who have not seen it lately, here is the Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor ‘Chart of Billed and Collected Realization Against Standard‘ for the period 2005 to 2015:

realise

That squiggly little line in free-fall tells you realization rates have fallen from roughly 93 cents in the dollar in 2005 to just over 83 cents in the dollar in late 2015. It also tells me that you are not doing a very good job if you are working with your clients vis-a-vis how you charge them for the work you do and it puts to rest any attempt to suggest that billable hours are the preferred method of clients to be billed (unless, that is, you’re suggesting that clients know they can get discounts, or just not pay, bills that accrue on an hourly basis).

So over the weekend I got to think: like the article says, pretty much all of the reasons why the billable hour continues to be a struggle to ditch are down to internal measurement metrics. So, maybe, just maybe, like the UK did on Friday, it’s time for Australian law firms to opt out of the known and disruptive itself – and maybe the rest of the world with it!

RWS_01

$180K for a First-Year Associate – so what!

Business Development image

One of the big news items this week has been the decision by Cravath, Swaine & Moore to raise its starting salaries for first year associates to $180,000. Cries of “Not worth it!” and “What value do first year associates provide clients?” (answer: probably none) can be heard from all four corners of the planet.

My view on this though is so what? I don’t really care what you pay your first year associates. In the same way I don’t really care what you pay your other associates or partners. Nor do I really care what your rent is costing you.

Unless, that is, I get to thinking that: I am the one paying for all this. In which case, I suddenly become very interested.

But here’s the thing: I’d only really start to think that I’m the one paying for all your luxuries – the boat you have moored at the marina, the sports car you drive, the house you live in, the first year associate you can call on day and night – if I didn’t value the service you provide me. In other words: If I didn’t think I was getting value for money.

So if you’re one of the many private practitioners questioning the move by Cravath, Swaine & Moore, my only comment/question is this:

If you are providing your clients with a value for money service offering – and you are able to communicate this, why should it bother you?

RWS_01