fixed fee

‘Annuity Revenue’ – who wouldn’t crave some financial certainty in current circumstances?

Annuity revenue – a predictable revenue stream from new or existing customers who buy products and services associated with new or previously purchased products. 

As the Managing Partner of a law firm today, what would you say if I walked into your office and told you that I could:

  • provide you with a guaranteed monthly revenue income,
  • with a product that creates loyal customers, and
  • where those customers become – at no additional cost to you – brand champions and refer your services to their network, free of charge, via the Holy Grail of marketing – positive ‘word of mouth’ referrals.

Sounds great doesn’t it. Almost too good to be true.

Well all I can say is that if you were anything like one of the Managing Partners servicing customers who responded to the Pitcher Partners recent ‘Legal Survey 2020 Report‘, that’s exactly what you would be saying: “thanks, but no thanks we are happy with the billable hour”.

Pitcher Partners - Billing Methods

The fact that the billable hour remains the ‘go to’ method of billing (not the same as pricing) for Australian law firms and their customers does not, in and of itself, surprise me. I must admit, however, to being a little surprised with the 1% increase in this billing method (up from 58% to 59%) year-on-year.

Given the times (even pre Covid-19), I was also a little surprised to see that both ‘fixed fee’ and ‘value-based’ pricing remain relatively static (although it should be added that from what I could see the report lacks a definition of ‘value-based’, probably purposely so).

To me this represents a massive lack of foresight on the part of law firms and a significant lost opportunity.

In much the same way as software as a service (SaaS) companies have come to realise that one-off payments around shrink wrap contracts were not servicing the long-term financial interests of the company (unless it’s a legacy product that will no longer be supported), the time has come for law firms (and professional services firms more broadly) to realise that if we want to maximise revenue and, potentially, profit we need to rethink how we generate that revenue.

One alternative that the likes of Ron Baker and Mark Stiving have been banging the drum about for some time is ‘subscription based pricing’.

The benefits of adopting a subscription based pricing model

I have posted previously on this blog about the benefits of subscription based pricing (see here), but leaving all that aside for a second; as Amy Gallo wrote way back in October 2014 in the Harvard Business Review (see ‘The Value of Keeping the Right Customers) with the acquisition costs of acquiring new customers running being between 5 and 25 times more expensive than servicing existing customers, it makes economic and financial sense to find, and keep, the right customers.

How you price this is probably the most important step along that path.

The weakness of having billable hours as your default billing method is that you are pricing to the transaction. Whereas one of the greatest benefits of the subscription based pricing model – or even a retainer based pricing model if you must at the start- is that you start thinking about pricing the customer or even the portfolio.

In other words, you start to think about the customer and their needs first. And for an industry that always talks about the customer being at the centre of everything we do, doesn’t it makes sense that our pricing structure reflect this claim?

But it also makes sense internally, because it:

  • is smarter pricing
  • leads to smarter collaboration
  • moves you away from seasonal end of financial and calendar year pressures, and
  • helps remove any discussion around the ‘commodity’ tag.

Not to say, in these COVID-19 times, when you are talking working capital facilities with your bank, it provides you with a guaranteed annuity revenue stream.

Now who would not want that comfort right now?!

These just represent my thoughts though and always interested to hear your views.

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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!