Australian

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:

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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!

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Will a ‘One Asia’ strategy work for BLP?

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I spent just over a decade in Asia between the 1990s and mid-2000s. In all the time I spent there I never considered the Region as ‘One Market’ – but rather as a multitude of diverse and different markets.

By way of example, almost everything we did in Asia was “ex-Japan“. This wasn’t because we didn’t see Japan as part of “Asia” – as it very much is – but rather because the international legal market there (NB, the Japanese local legal market is a very different issue) has far more in common with the US market than the Asian. As a result, we lumped Japan in with the US when discussing strategy (and you’re free to question that thinking/strategy).

Likewise, any strategy discussions we had that involved Singapore almost always included India, the Middle East and the Philippines. Similarly, strategy discussions that involved Hong Kong included not only mainland China but also Indonesia.

Finally, SE Asia (Thailand – where I was located, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) was its own regional discussion.

All up then, when discussing “Asian” strategy we had four or five discussions – not one.

That said, I worked with (but not for) firms (notably Herbert Smith as it was then) who operated on a fly-in fly-out basis. In my day we called this the “hub and spoke” approach, where the expertise went to the client need and, I have to assume, strategic discussions were done on a Regional basis.

While not criticising firms who took this approach – some did very well out of it – I didn’t think it worked for the firms I worked with as we held the view that, probably more so than any other market in the world, Asia operates on a relationship basis. Our experience was that relationships trumped expertise, and in the very family operated business world of Asia at that time, cost.

So why the history lesson?

Last week, in the Asian Lawyer, I read Bob Charlton – Asia Managing Partner of Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) – comment, following the firm’s Asian retreat, that:

“…in broad terms we agreed we must have a one Asia approach.”

Interesting, I wonder what BLP could mean by “a one Asia approach“?

Fortunately the article sets out exactly what that means:

“BLP’s “one Asia” strategy means the firm is doing away with the concept of geographic and practice area distinctions, focusing instead around sector groups. These groups include aviation, construction, oil and gas, private wealth and shipping.”

Now that really is interesting because, frankly, I’m not sure it is going to work.

A sector focus in Asia is a sensible move. A sector only approach to market in Asia is gutsy to say the least.

I say this for two reasons: (1) ‘relationships still trump in Asia’, and (2) Asia is not now, nor will it be for a very long time (if ever), one economic zone. That’s the case both for inbound and outbound work. And even if you don’t want to have people on the ground (which I would strongly recommend you do), you need to consider the geo-political economic implications separately.

And I’ve said all of this without mentioning the elephant in the room: “AdventBalance”. I wonder if they take a sector approach to their strategic thinking in Asia…

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What do clients value most when dealing with their lawyers?

Last week I posted on the recent publication of the 2016 LexisNexis Bellwether Report (this year titled ‘The Riddle of Perception’) – with specific reference to the disconnect within the Report between opportunities lawyers identify and approaches they plan to take.

Looking at the Report further, when asked: “How do you rate the service given/received in terms of value for money?” – 30 % of lawyers thought they offered “excellent” value for money, whereas only 8% of clients agreed.

Probably more worryingly, 46% (almost half!) of law firms believed they provided a “very good” service, and only 19% of clients agreed.

And of extreme concern to law firms? – 32% (or almost a third!) of clients thought the service provide by law firms was “average“, whereas [not too surprisingly] only 5% of law firms agreed.

 

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Clearly a disparity remains between the service that lawyers believe they are providing and those that clients feel they are receiving.

And herein lies the problem: as we all know, “value” is subjective, in the eye of the recipient. In other words, it really doesn’t matter what “value” law firms believe they are delivering, but what the client believes they are receiving trumps all.

So, “What do clients value most when dealing with lawyers?“:-

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Well, fortunately that question is answered in the Report too.

Takeout from this?

Just because a lawyer agrees to provide a discount doesn’t mean they’re providing greater value!

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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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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.

Mitch tweet

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!

Report: ‘HSF bets growth on Asia’

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The Australian‘s weekly Legal Affairs section is reporting (subscription required) today that global law firm “Herbert Smith Freehills will seek to more closely integrate its Australia and Asia practices.

Sorry to be blunt, but what!?!

According to the Lawyers Weekly website, HSF officially merged on 1 October 2012 to open as the “largest fully integrated law firm in Asia Pacific based on number of lawyers“.

That was 3 years ago.

This begs the question: are all of the recent global law firm entrants to Australia going through the same issues?

My guess here is “yes”. Even though nearly all of them (arguable K&L Gates used US-Australia as its strategic reason for opening in Australia) made specific mention of using Australia as a springboard into Asia, pretty much none of them – to my knowledge – has a specific liaison Business Development Manger person (or higher) located in Australia who assists with joint business development activities.

As I understand it, there may be cost related issues involved in this (who pays for the resourcing – Australia or Asia). There may also be personnel issues involved.

Who knows; but the short answer is that for the life me I cannot understand how 3 years or more (in some cases) on from when the global firms arrived in Australia they still don’t seem to:

  • have dedicated Asia-wide practice and support teams
  • be able to tell you the number of referrals across jurisdictions (inbound and outbound)
  • be able to tell you which partners are referring work [championing] across jurisdictions
  • be able to tell you how many referrals are going to other firms within the jurisdiction where they have an office – particularly where there may have been a relationship prior to the merger (in Australia’s case, would you like to take a punt that Gilbert & Tobin gets referrals from international firms with an on the ground presence in Australia?)
  • know which of their clients are referring work to them across multiple jurisdictions.

To me, this says that both the back-end and front-end operations of the merged firm are still working in geographic and practice group silos (which they most certainly would appear to be from today’s article).

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that HSFs is seeking to more closely integrate its Australia and Asia practices. I hope other firms follow suit. I’m just frustrated that this initiative is probably about 2 and half years late!