business development

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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$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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AFAs accounted for less than 10% of all matters in the US last year

This month saw publication of the End-of-Year 2015 edition of the Enterprise Legal Management Trends Report by LexisNexis and CounselLink.

Based on data derived from outside counsel invoices – accounting for US$21 billion in legal spend in the USA – processed through the CounselLink platform, to my mind what makes this Report different to others is this: it provides insights others might miss because while talk can be cheap, the numbers rarely lie.

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From an Australian perspective, a couple of surprising statistics come out of this year’s Report.

  • the use of AFAs, to govern the service payment of matters, only accounted for 9.4% of matters processed through the CounselLink platform. Given all the chatter and whining you hear from law firms, I would have expected this rate to be much, much higher.
  • Employment and Labor (at 17.3%) is a fairly significant practice area leader in the number of matters (but not revenue – see below) using AFAs, but Real Estate accounting for something less than 2% of its practice area matters using AFAs seems out of whack.
  • Nearly 10% of Regulatory and Compliance matters are done under AFA arrangements. At first this seemed a little strange (given the grey hair nature of the advice being sought), but then I thought a large number of compliance programs could be sold using retainers, fixed fees and other AFAs.

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Moving on to percentage of “billings” executed under AFAs and things start to get really interesting.

  • at 12.4%, by far the biggest practice area using AFAs by billings is Corporate, General and Tax (excluding Mergers and Acquisitions, which is a separate line entry). Not sure I would have guessed that.
  • Finance, Loans and Investments ranked third highest practice area using AFAs by billings last year. Again, don’t think I would have picked that.
  • by billings, only 7% of Employment and Labor practice area matters are executed under AFAs. So, 17.3% of Employment and Labor matters were conducted under AFAs, but only 7% of billings. Might just be me, but that seems strange and I’d want to dig deeper into why that might be the case if my practice was showing these numbers. Then again, may just be the Pareto Theory in practice!
  • At roughly 2% of practice area billings, who says Real Estate has become a commoditized practice area? Because these numbers aren’t showing it.

Interesting numbers showing through this Report. Lots of chatter around the rise in M&A activity/revenue and the fact that “New Law” isn’t being hired to do big ticket work, but the use of AFAs and rationalization of legal panels (which I may well blog on later this week) were my two big takeouts.

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Altman Weil Flash Survey: Has the era of data driven pricing arrived?

Last week saw the publication of Altman Weil’s 2016 Law Firms in Transition Survey. Now in its eighth year, this survey continues to be a good indicator of the market forces law firms are facing and in recent years it has been a good indicator of the fee pressure clients are putting on firms.

So, how have firms been tracking when it comes to pricing pressure issues?

At first blush – well. When asked: “Is your firm doing any of the following to support its pricing strategy?“, “Developing data on cost of service sold” and “Training lawyers to talk with clients about pricing” rank head and shoulders (in first and second spot) above everything else.

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Clearly moving in the right direction then, reinforced by the overwhelmingly positive response to: “Is your firm proactively initiating conversations about pricing / budgets to better understand what individual clients want?

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until we get to this shocker…

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So, almost half (44%) of law firms are now training lawyers to have the pricing conversation with their clients, a whopping 88% of firms are proactively initiating that conversation – and yet three-quarters (72.2%) of firms only make use of non-hourly based billing methods in response to a client request.

Am I the only one who finds that incredible?

But really, why does it even matter?

Well, here’s your answer:

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There’s a clear lesson here for anyone that’s willing to listen to it: if you want your firm to be more profitable, be on the front foot when it comes to opportunities to provide alternative fee arrangements.

If you haven’t already, I’d like to recommend you download and read the full survey, if for no other reason than it contains this gem…:

 

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Which, if you believe, suggests that around half of all law firm partners are not even aware of the challenges their firms face!

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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:-

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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.

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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

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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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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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