international law firms

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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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!

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!”