Australian firms

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!

 

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!

When will a law firm have its Enron moment?

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I’ve just read an interesting article about how disruptive Dyson has been. More specifically, the subject of the article was whether #NewLaw (as it is being called) will be as disruptive on the legal industry as Dyson was to vacuums?

But my outtake on reading the article was this: law isn’t ready for positive disruption (innovation), as we’re yet to have a really shockingly bad, client related, negative shock-wave (failure in client service).

What am I talking about?

Simply this, to my knowledge law has yet to have its Enron/Worldcom moment in the same way Arthur Andersen did for the accountants (anyone remember ‘Big 5’?).

More specifically, in our haste to be the “extension of your in-house legal team“, or “your trusted adviser“, or any one of about a million other fad terms out there today, I believe we may be forgetting one of the biggest (if I remember rightly it made #3 on the list) recommendations in the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s “Report of Investigation” into the collapse of Worldcom to [in the future] “… cure the principal failing that gave rise to the fraud: a lack of effective checks and balances on the power of senior management …“:

A corporate culture in which the advice of lawyers is sought and respected; and

So while, as a business developer, I whole support and encourage “getting to know your client better”, in doing so I would ask that you keep at the back of your mind this question:

Are we trying to “pillow talk” our clients?

Because almost two decades after the collapse of Worldcom, my takeout is that we need to have an Enron/Worldcom moment before we have a Dyson moment in order for the profession to move forward.

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Forget the Gadens merger, the big news today is Olswang’s announced ‘Revenue Share Scheme’

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Pretty much all anyone involved in the Australian legal sector will read about in the industry news today will be the reported three way tie-up between Global behemoth Dentons, Australian law firm Gadens and Singaporean firm Rodyk & Davidson, which is still subject to a partner vote but you assume is pretty much a done deal.

Although this may have a profound effect on the Australian legal market in years to come, in much the same way as the K&L Gates / Middeltons merger has hardly set the sector alight, I somehow doubt this merger will too.

There is, however, another piece of news being reported this morning that could very well have a massive effect on the local market – and that is the news that Olswang has established a ‘Revenue Share Scheme’ that it hopes will incentivise staff (it is being reported the scheme is open to all employees at the firm, from partners through to business services staff) to refer clients to the firm through a referral bonuses scheme that will pay an employee who introduces a new client who subsequently spends more than £20,000 in the first year instructing the firm, 10 per cent of the instruction fees in the next year.

I worked under a scheme very similar to this is Asia just after the Asian Financial Crisis and I can vouch that provided you get your conflicts worked out (because trust me, this leads to a lot more potential conflict situations), then this type of scheme can be very incentivising.

While I doubt this type of scheme will be introduced widely here in Australia too soon – after all, why do we get paid salaries, I can see this becoming more prevalent and certainly having a more profound effect on market practice globally.

It’ll be left to the test of time however to see whether – in five years time – everyone is discussing their 10 per cent bonus or the Gadens-Dentons tie-up!

‘Drive for show, Putt for dough’

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According to a post earlier this week on the LexisNexis Business of Law Blog:

“A new legal spending trends report finds big law billing rates grew notably – pushing a 6% increase in the gap between the top two tiers of law firms, by attorney headcount, from 38% to 44%.”

Indeed:

“Median partner rates at the “Largest 50” law firms – those with more than 750 lawyers – rose to $711 per hour, based on 12 months of data ending June 30, 2015. That number is up from the last report where median partner rates came in at $675 per hour for the 12 months ending December 31, 2014.”

As I have posted before, however, this [rising headline hourly rates] is absolutely meaningless if your realization rates are in decline – an issue this particular report appears to remain silent on.

I have never understood, beyond ego, why a partner would be more interested in their hourly rate than their average realized billable rate (ARBR). After all, the ARBR amount is the amount that clients are willing to pay you – money in the bank – and is a more accurate reflection of your true worth/value.

Eventually you have to ask yourself which you would prefer: a headline charge-out rate of $1,000- with an ARBR of $700-, or a charge-out rate of $800- with an ARBR of $800-?

And that’s without going into how much easier it is to have the conversation with your clients around rising your realization rather than informing them on 1 July each year that you will be raising your rates by 10% again this year!

Alternatively, you can keep on driving for show and not worry too much about the dough you’re making.

Are international law firm offices worth the trouble?

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I’ve read four news items in the last 24 hours that, frankly, would make any law firm managing partner ponder on whether there was any value in opening an international office or two.

1.  PWC’s 2015 Annual law firms’ survey

The first item I read was PWC’s 2015 Annual law firms’ survey – specifically the ‘Global operating and financial performance‘ section, which included the following doom & gloom news:

  • The UK continues to subsidise international offices and exchange rates have further accentuated the imbalance this year. UK profit per all partners is ahead of international by 74.4% (2014: 65.8%) in the Top 10 and 88.5% (2014: 66.8%) in Top 11-50 firms. Fewer chargeable hours and consequently higher fee earner staff cost ratio in international offices is the key differentiator.

  • International chargeable hours for the 1-5 years pqe grade are significantly behind UK offices (between 3% and 33% across the bandings) with the exception of Top 10 firms in the USA (no difference) and Top 11-25 firms in the Middle East (1% in excess of UK performance).

  • Top 11-50 firms continue to expand internationally, with mixed results as the range in performance widens. Average global net profit margins now range from 23.0% to 44.0%.

There’s more, but I think you get the picture:- international law firm partners are effectively being subsidized by their UK partners.

2.   Merged Firms Contend With Weak Aussie Dollar

The second item was by The Asian Lawyer over on the americanlawyer.com who published an article yesterday on an issue that I’ve blogged on no less than four times since 2013 – ‘Merged Firms Contend With Weak Aussie Dollar‘.

The article mentions the entry into the Australian legal market of Herbert Smith (Freehills), Ashurst (Blake Dawson), K&L Gates (Middletons) and King & Wood (Mallesons) and contends that each largely saw the weakening of the Australian Dollar prior to merging and were still happy to proceed with the merger.

It’s definitely an interesting read, if not a little flawed. For a start, K&L Gates are on record as saying that the fall in the Australian currency has hurt them.

If you add to that the HSF tie-up was probably more a “Freehills” driven deal than “Herbert Smith”, and add that currency fluctuations would probably have been the last thing discussed in the Swiss Verein tie-up of KWM, then you’re only left with Ashurst – and rumblings in the UK industry press would seem to suggest that they are not overly happy with the results from their Australian operations at the moment.

All in all then, despite the upbeat message in the article, not a particularly good advertisement for international operations in my opinion.

3.  China set to invest £105 billion in UK over next 10 years

The third article I read was in the China Daily no less, which stated that ‘China set to invest £105 billion in UK over next 10 years‘.

This item, based on research done by think tank the Centre for Economic and Business Research and international law firm Pinsent Masons, is on the back of a trip to the UK by President Xi Jinping.

It nevertheless provides some insight into why Pinsent Masons felt the need to open an office in Australia, even after its merger talks with Australia firm Maddocks fell through. It also makes one think that there’s a world of opportunity out there if you have the right international strategy.

  4.  Cross-border M&A surges

The last was an item I read this morning over on the Australasian Lawyer website – ‘Cross-border M&A surges‘.

This article highlights the findings of a new study by international law firm Baker & McKenzie and again touches on a topic that I’ve blogged about in the past, namely that:

“Australia is a significant destination for inbound cross-border M&A and that’s a trend that has continued in recent years and in the past 12 months, there has been a number of significant cross border M&A transactions into Australia,” Baker & McKenzie Sydney partner David Holland told Australasian Lawyer.

While the last two items undoubtedly give you cause for why a law firm would have international operations, I’m nonetheless cautioned by another my recent posts: “A bridge too far” : When international law firm mergers turn sour, which also featured a certain K&L Gates.

BTI’s The Mad Clientist: New Business for the Taking: Corporate Counsel Shift Work Back to Law Firms

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In private practice and looking for a good news story to read this weekend? Then BTI Consulting Group’s The Mad Clientist may well just have it.

According to his latest blog post,

“After 4 years of feverishly bringing work in-house [following the GFC] corporate counsel are reversing course.”

Is that cries of joy I hear ring out?!? If so, the news only gets better. Because not only are in-house counsel shifting work back to law firms, but the type of work they are sending out is the sweet spot big ticket matters. Indeed, according to BTI’s study of 322 corporate counsel, “Chief Legal Officers expect a tripling of bet-the-company litigation, increases in class actions, and substantially more securities litigation.

But before you go clambering over your other partners to get on the phone to your in-house counsel contacts, keep in mind that (1) the study was done in the USA, and (2) BTI is of the opinion that:

“The big winners will present themselves to clients as strategists and discuss risks and exposures before the matters ever start. The bigger winners will discuss prevention, potential settlement postures and learn about the business risks posed by the new matters.”

Putting that aside for a second though, we can but hope that the tide is turning here and that the pendulum has once again swung back in favour of private practice. But in order to be best placed to take advantage of this development, you need to be working through your client plans (including engagement and communication actions) now so that you can be ready to take full advantage of whatever 2016 throws at you!

Until then, “have a great weekend!”

A ‘Failure To Deselect’?

A Failure To Deselect

Read a fantastic rant by Barrie Seppings – Director of Creative Strategy at wordsearch, the world’s leading marketing network for architecture, property and real estate – on the Firebrand Ideas Ignition Blog yesterday titled “Copywriters: What the %$@#* are you saying?“.

Barrie’s post get my approval merely for quoting Don Watson, Paul Keating’s former speechwriter, brilliant book Death Sentence – and if you have ever written a tender and not read Don’s book, please do!

Anyhow in his post Barrie makes mention to something I had not heard of before and which he terms a ‘Failure to deselect‘, being:

“… a fear that unless we say every single thing we can possibly say about a brand or product, we therefore fail to communicate the full range of the brand’s attributes. And we therefore fail as marketers. So, to avoid failure, we use all of our words to try and say all of the things.”

Now, swap out ‘brand or product‘ and ‘marketer‘ and replace it with ‘law or regulation‘ and ‘lawyer‘ and does this sound familiar to you?

It certainly did to me. And in this time of ‘doing more for less‘ in law, it got me to thinking: are we actually suffering from a ‘failure to deselect’?

Is an iTunes store for professional services the next big thing?

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Today the Australian Financial Review has published a very interesting article (‘iTunes store for professional services‘) that states:

“Global professional services giants will invest hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 18 months to build iTunes-style repositories of software-supported services that can be distributed to clients through a digital shopfront anywhere in the world.”

going on to state that: “[KPMG] is throwing $US200 million to $US300 million ($425 million) at populating this repository with “disruptive technology assets”“.

All sounds a bit far fetched doesn’t it?

Or does it?

We already know that a number of leading law firms in Australia have developed client facing apps since Gilbert + Tobin’s Telco Navigator app was awarded ‘Services to the industry’ in the professional services category at the 2014 Communications Alliance and CommsDay (ACOMMS) Awards.

Most recently this has included the very informative K&L Gates Hub platform, which is described as being:

“a digital destination for timely insight on critical issues at the intersection of business and law.”

So while law firms may not be throwing $US200 million to $US300 million at this development, there’s little doubt that iTunes (as well as Google Chrome App) may well play a significant role in the way law firms distribute their thought leadership in the future.

And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, it made me recall another quote I read this morning to the effect that in the future it may well be the case that your firm’s differentiating factor could be as simple as having the human touch.