hourly rates

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!

 

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‘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.

‘Stupid is as stupid does’

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In the 1994 movie of the same name, Forrest Gump is asked:

“are you stupid or something?”

to which Forest replies:

“stupid is as stupid does”.

Some 20 years later (yes, it really has been that long!), in general parlance this phrase has come to mean that:

‘an intelligent person who does stupid things is still stupid’ – (Urban dictionary)

and I have to say that this thought went through my mind earlier this week when I read that a third of [UK] commercial firms are likely to raise their rates in a bid to boost their profits (Solicitors Journal 6 May 2015 – “Number of law firms planning to raise charge out rates increases“).

Leaving aside the issue of whether a direct raise in your rates will equate to increased profits (for example, the psychological impact of rising rates/budgets on fee earners with no increased salary (cost)) –  what in the world would make 26 (1/3rd) of so-called intelligent finance directors of the UK’s Top 100 law firms say “it is likely their firms will increase their charge out rates in order to improve profitability in the year ahead“?

As I have blogged countless times before (the most popular being: ‘Is it time for law firms to break with the RULES when looking at profitability?‘), hourly rates are but one of the metrics in calculating profitability. And it’s probably not even the biggest metric driving your firm’s partner profit levels, which almost certainly would be better achieved via an increase in your realised rate.

Putting this mathematically (admittedly not my strongest area), say my hourly rate is $100 and my realization rate is 90%, then I’m being paid $90-. Taking this forward I’ve decided to increase my hourly charge-out rate to $110-, but find that my realization rate has now fallen to 80%. If my maths is correct, I’m now being paid $88-.

In other words, in real terms, I’m losing money!

Don’t think this could happen? Then take a look at Charts 4 & 5 from the ‘2015 Report on the State of the Legal Market‘ published by The Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at the Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor (at page 5)

chart 4

 

chart 5

Those charts don’t make for pretty reading.

So when, as the article reports:

“…firms realise this is not going to be an easy sell to clients who are likely to negotiate hard to keep fees down, so their approach to increasing charge out rates is likely to be softly softly, rather than gung-ho”

my response would be: “why bother?”.

Instead,

  • try keeping your charge-out rate the same over the next 12 months;
  • try not to give discounts;
  • try to increase your realisation rate (by 3 to 5 cents in the dollar);
  • try to reduce your lock-up days;

and see where you end up.

You may just find that has a better impact on your partner profitability numbers than the likely impact that is going to come your way when you go annoying and off-siding your clients with the almost obligatory 1 July 10% rate increase letter.

But I could be wrong…