#Auslaw issues

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

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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?

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Report: Collected realization plummeted to 82.2% in Q1 2016

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Thanks to an article by Dave Galbenski of Lumen Legal – ‘Overcapacity, Underutilization and Realization Rates Plummeting‘ – I have just been made aware of the publication last month (May ’16) of the Q1 2016 Executive Report (.pdf download) undertaken by Peer Monitor Index (Report).

While the Report gives glimmers of hope (demand slightly up for certain practice areas), the overall message is bleak. And none so more than this:

“After showing some recent signs of stabilizing, collected realization took a sudden and sharp drop in the first quarter. For most of the past two years, collection rates have hovered around the 83% mark. But in Q1, collected realization plummeted to 82.2%. Not only is this a new historical low, it was the largest quarterly drop in more than three years.”

OK, two things here:

  1. a collected realization rate of 83% is not a benchmark we want to be heading to, but away from.
  2. if you keep putting your hourly rates up (recently BTI Consulting’s The Mad Clientist asked: ‘Is $5,000 an Hour Next?‘) but your collected realization rate is “plummeting”, then you’re most likely losing money (as well as the respect of your clients I might add).

My only other thoughts are:

  1. why do we insist on the hourly rate model as our primary means of charging if our collected realization amounts to 82 cents in the dollar? Seems absolute madness to me; and
  2. how many law firms out there can continue to operate on such an “historic” low collected realization rate? I know a number of accountants and bankruptcy lawyers who’ll happily tell you: “not many”.

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The law firm disconnect in two images

This week saw the publication of LexisNexis’s Bellwether Report 2016. titled:- ‘The Riddle of Perception‘.

Based on structured interviews with 122 independent lawyers and 108 clients (all UK-based I believe), this year’s Report provides valuable insight into the thinking of lawyers and law firms and, incredibly, how far removed that thinking still appears to be from the views of their clients.

None so is this more starkly brought home to me than in two separate images in the Report in response to questions put forward around the issue of fixed fees.

The first (which is actually the second in the Report) can be found on page 22:-

Image 1

[click on image to enlarge]

where, in response to “Which of the following is an opportunity for your business going forward?” – 43% answered: fixed fees.

The second is found earlier in the Report on page 18, where when asked what “Changes forms implemented in the last year or plan to implement in the forthcoming year?” – a “deliberate shift towards fixed/capped fees” raked 12th. with only 13% saying there was anything planned around this for the forthcoming year.

Image 2

[click on image to enlarge]

Now call me crazy, but that seems to be as close as you can get to madness.

Read the Report though, it really is very good.

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Exiting the ‘Valley of Despair’: Tips on rebuilding a book of business

Valley of despair

source: Emily Carr:- ‘Practical Change Management for IT Projects

The ‘Valley of Despair‘ is a term used in IT process improvement projects to describe the period of time where productivity decreases immediately after the implementation of a new process. In essence it describes that period of time during which you shift away from what you know and are comfortable with to what is new and unknown (but which will ultimately, hopefully, results in better processes).

Although a term commonly associated with process improvement, to me this has also become a good way to best describe a growing trend in the modern lawyer’s life; namely that particularly difficult period during which a disruptive element impacts on their book of business. Examples would include:

  • economic: with the GFC most securitization lawyers lost their practices overnight.
  • panel: when your firm loses a panel appointment with your practice’s biggest client as a result of the client rationalizing the number of its panel firms.
  • relationship: the key contact at your biggest client moves to a company your firm has no relationship with; or, worse, is promoted to a role where they no longer have influence over who gets the legal instructions.

There are many others, but you get the gist: your performance hits a wall called ‘change‘.

In my experience, partners who face this scenario come face-to-face with Elizabeth Kuber-Ross’ “Five Stages of Grief“:-

Denial —> Anger —> Bargaining —> Depression —> Acceptance

To overcome the Valley of Despair you need a sixth element: a desire to move forward.

  • Step 1: Accept your fate

The first step in any recovery program is accepting you have an issue. Too often law firm partners stick their heads in the sand and refuse to accept that anything is wrong until the Managing Partner is knocking on their door asking them what their plans are for the future (wink, wink: it’s not with us!). By then, you are well and truly in to the ‘bargaining’ and ‘depression’ phases. If you want to rebuild your book of business you need to be much further ahead of the game than that.

  • Step 2: Do an audit

Here’s the thing: things in life are rarely as bad as they first seem. So, as soon as you become aware of a change agent – such as those above – get out your pen and a piece of paper and write down a list of who you know, when was the last time you contacted them, what type of work could you be doing for them, are you already doing that type of work, etc.

In short, take stock of what you have and who you could be doing it for.

  • Step 3: Make a plan

Alan Lakein is reported to have said: “Failing to plan is planning to fail“. I’m not sure if he actually did, but it’s pretty accurate and if you want to rejuvenate your book of business then you will need a plan of how to go about this.

This plan should include the obvious, like:

  1. what type of work do I want to be doing?
  2. who do I want to do this work for?
  3. what do I know [commercially] about these businesses [tip: if the answer is “not a lot”, get a research assistant on to it ASAP]?
  4. who are the decision makers at these companies?
  5. how likely are they to give you / your firm the work [tip: rank the likelihood from 1 – 5 (very – unlikely)]?

Your plan also needs to include things you may not think of, such as:

  1. will my partners give me relief while I try and rebuild my book of business? If so, how long?
  2. what level of fees do I need to generate (cost +, times 3, times 5)?
  3. what rates will I need to charge to generate that level of fees? will the target client accept these rates? if I need to discount, will my partners accept me discounting to win work when their clients are paying full freight?
  4. who is currently doing the work for the target and what am I bringing to the table that would make the target move the work to me?
  5. how will my competition react to me invading their turf?
  • Step 4: Execute on the plan

I’ve heard it said that: “a plan without an action is a wish“. In the world of professional services, we see a lot of wishing!

So, as soon as you have your plan in place you need to get out from behind your desk and start to execute on it. Look at what

  • inbound and outbound related activities you need to do;
  • networking events are taking place and when;

then set yourself a 30-60-90 day action plan to work towards.

Most importantly, always be responsive and never, ever quit.  Building a book of business takes patience and repetition, you cannot adopt a “lottery mentality” as one shot actions nearly always lead to failure.

So if at first you don’t succeed, try again. That way, you’ll give yourself the very best chance of rebuilding your book of business and moving forward.

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“Bill clients, get money”

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In my spare time, I’m a keen amateur photographer (note, I didn’t say “good” 🙂 ). Anyhow, because of this interest I follow a number of photography related blogs which, every now and then, include posts that crossover into my professional life.

A post I read this morning from the DIYphotography website (I say “from” because I use feedly as my rss feeder and read all my morning updates on the Ziner app) is just such a post. Titled, ‘3 Vital Tips To Help You Set Your Photography Pricing‘ by Gannon Burgett, the post takes up a call by Sue Bryce that:

“You can’t price yourself when you have no self worth.”

and goes onto suggest that photographers follow the approach of photographers Sue Bryce and Tiffany Angeles and, I quote,:

  1. Charge what you’re worth – be confident in your abilities and know what it is you offer, both in terms of products and aesthetics
  2. Never set yourself at market value – part of knowing what it is you offer helps you better understand what it is you can charge. Don’t base your price purely off of competition. Don’t be afraid to charge more.
  3. Value yourself and your work – this is more all-encompassing than a specific tip, but without the confidence and self-value, it’s going to be a much tougher job to set your pricing.

Amazingly simple and straightforward advice that many lawyers could benefit from – a fact brought home to me in the very next post in my Ziner app, ‘The deep discount attorney and other cautionary tales‘ by Carala Del Bove on the LexisNexis Business of Law blog.

In this post, Del Bove quotes from real life case studies Ms Ann Guinn cites of lawyers willing to offer discounts to clients because, to quote:

“it just felt greedy to me [not to].”

In the post Ms Guinn offers the following two pieces of advice I wanted to share:

“Don’t try to get into your clients’ heads, cautions Ms. Guinn. In other words, don’t let your clients determine the value of your work.”

rather, discuss this with them upfront when you are first asked to quote on the instruction; and

“Instead of worrying about what discounting legal fees will mean for your client, think about what it will mean to you as a small business owner.”

All in all, two excellent posts on understanding the value of the service you provide clients and the dangers you face if you don’t price, bill and collect revenue on your work appropriately.

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ps – I’d also like to credit Ms Guinn with the title of this post.

Report: Do high growth firms share common traits?

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This month saw publication of the 2016 High Growth Study by Hinge Research Institute. Although not limited to law firms, law firms (along with “Healthcare & Other”) made up 12.9% of the 968 respondents who answered Hinge’s survey and, therefore, the Study’s findings help provide some insight into whether or not “High-Growth” firms share common traits.

First, “High-Growth” was defined as being a firm with:

“Over $1 million in revenue and had an average yearly growth rate of at least 20%”.

Not exceptional. Having said that, of the firms surveyed:-

  • 30% generated over 88% of new revenue growth and were 45% more profitable than their No-Growth counterparts

so most definitely desirable.

So, did these High-Growth firms share any traits? In short, “yes”; and these included:

  • Target Clients: High-Growth firms are 75% more likely to have a highly specialized practice – i.e., not all things to all people or full services firms
  • Client base: High-Growth firms are more likely to target the larger clients (over $10 million in revenue)
  • Research: High-Growth firms are 2X more likely to conduct research on their target client
  • Differentiation: differentiators favoured by High-Growth firms are twice as likely to be easier to prove and are more relevant to clients. Importantly, these don’t include “reputation” and “awards won” (favour of No-Growth firms) and do include “culture” and “people”
  • Marketing investment: High-Growth firms invest 23% less in traditional marketing than No-Growth firms. This is because what marketing High-Growth firms do is targeted and measured

While some of these may surprise, they reinforce that in order to grow in today’s market firms need to have a clear understanding of who they are, who they work for, who they would like to work for, and the value/benefits they provide. In short, they’re focused.

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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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‘Best’ or ‘Preferred’?

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Trish Carroll, of GALT Advisory, had an article of hers published recently (February 26, but I didn’t get the email notification till today) in the Australasian Law Management Journal‘s Law Management Hub titled: ‘Get up close and personal to improve your business development‘.

While Trish’s article contains a number of really useful tips, I found it notable because of the following very thought provoking line:

“It is not about being the best; it is about being the preferred.”

99 times out of 100, I totally agree with Trish. And it is a really important lesson for high achieving lawyers to learn: being the best at what you do is no longer a guaranteed successful business model. In today’s legal market there are a lot of average lawyers making very serious amounts of money because they are the preferred ‘go to’ lawyer.

The one exception I would make would be for top-end, bet the bank, niche advisory work where being the best still trumps.

So the question you need to be asking yourself everyday is:

“What will I do today that will make me my clients preferred lawyer?”

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Do you know your ABR?

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There has been a fair amount written in recent days following an article published in the Wall Street Journal that ‘Legal Fees Cross New Mark: $1,500 an Hour‘. Most of the published articles I’ve read talk to the outrage of commanding such a high hourly charge-out rate, but this article by Stephen Harper caught my attention.

In the article, citing data from ‘The 2016 Report on the State of the Legal Market‘ by Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor, Harper states that:-

“In 2005, collections totaled 93 percent of standard rates, the report found. By the end of 2015, the realization rate was down to 83 percent.”

Although US-based, this sad statistic very much reflects on an issue I touched on in my post on fixed fees in the Australian market yesterday; namely that 25% of Australian law firm revenue is now derived from “discounted” hourly rates.

If we say then that roughly 1/4 of a law firm’s revenue comes from discounted hourly rates, and that the firm is being paid approximately 83c in the $1, [compounded] we have a very serious profitability problem.

On these numbers alone, any law firm looking at its profit margin should be rushing into fixed fees – while admittedly upskilling themselves (including tracking data) on how to do this better.

And part of this process should also include an understanding of, as well as tracking, what each individual lawyer’s Average Billing Rate (ABR) is.

In the many hundreds of tenders I have done and the numerous conversations I have had with lawyers over the years, I have never once come across either a request for what the particular lawyer’s ABR is, nor heard the lawyer freely admit this rate. I have, on the other hand, heard daily the hourly rates that particular lawyers charge as if this were the reason why they were hired (there being an assumption that the higher your charge-out rate, the better value you provide!).

And therein lies the problem, as Harper says:-

“How much a firm bills doesn’t matter; what it actually brings in the door does.”

Too right. So the next time you hear a lawyer talk up their hourly rate, you might want to ask them what their ABR is – because that’s going to be a far better indicator of the value their clients see them providing. And if you get an answer, you might then want to talk to them about the benefits of fixed fee pricing.

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!