Association of Corporate Counsel

What the year 2081 will mean for law firm discounts

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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

 

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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.

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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

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.