law firm clients

‘How much are you charging your client for that value add?’

It’s a question I often ask law firm partners:

How much are you charging for that value add?

And nearly always the response I get is the same:- *shocked face look*.

Why, well because in my experience lawyers are willing to give something of real value away for free to a client in the hope that same client will then given them their legal work.

But it rarely works like that.

And, more importantly, it shouldn’t work like that in today’s world (if it ever really did).

Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a cost of doing business component to our profession. CPDs/CLEs for in-house counsel would, in my opinion, sit in this category (but not all L&D activity) [tip: if you do this, open a ‘value account’ for your client and put a nominal value, say A$200 per 1 hour session per attendee, again this to try and show the client (in $$$ terms) the value you are providing here].

Rarely though do lawyers give thought to the ramifications of when they offer their clients something of real value, that really differentiates their firm, and then they give the IP away for free in the hope of getting the “more profitable” legal work.

Case in point is the following comment attributed to DHL Supply Chain Americas GC Mark Smolik in an article in yesterday’s The American Lawyer by Gina Passarella Cipriani [‘GCs Are Offering Work on a Silver Platter—and Law Firms Aren’t Taking It’]

“On the matter side, DHL Supply Chain Americas GC Mark Smolik gave an example of what he wishes law firms would do—and it’s something none of his firms ever has. He suggested a firm might want to look at, say, all of the employment cases emanating out of his California warehouses. Maybe they find that 50 percent of the cases are coming from one warehouse, and one person is the culprit. The GC can then take that information to its business units and work out a solution. It makes the GC look good and it makes the law firm look good to provide that kind of actionable intelligence. Other GCs echoed similar requests during Legalweek’s Business of Law Forum.”

Getting down to the bare bones of my point though:- Mark doesn’t suggest this be done for free. And, in my opinion, done right, there is every chance Mark will pay for this value add.

But that’s just my take – as always, would be interested in your thoughts, views, feedback.

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Survey: The 5 Biggest Challenges Facing Australian Law Firms in 2019

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Happy New Year and Welcome to 2019!

The recent (December 2018) Commonwealth Bank ‘Professional Services’ report highlights five challenges law firms in Australia are likely to experience further pressure on in 2019, which are:

  1. ‘Clients demanding more for less’
  2. ‘Downward pressure on fees’
  3. ‘Willingness to switch firms’
  4. ‘Clients in-housing work’
  5. ‘Clients directly using legal process and services outsourcing ‘

Each of these has it merits, while none is particularly new. So let’s take a quick look at each and assess them on their merit.

The call for ‘more for less’

It’s true, the call for ‘more for less’ continues. But I believe we may be misinterpreting the call a little here between what in-house really want (see Ann Klee, VP of Global Operations — Environment, Health & Safety, at General Electric Company – ‘less for less’) and what law firms believe they should be providing – a Rolls Royce service for a Toyota price tag.

My take: Neither client nor law firm are currently getting what they want and the net result is that nobody is happy with the relationship. Law firms need to get a better understanding of what is being asked of them. Scoping work properly – by experts – and then the subsequent professional project management of that is where the greatest return can come from here.

‘Downward pressure on fees’

Admission time!!:-

“I have never really understood the ‘downward pressure on fees’ argument”

Why?

Because, in order to be putting downward pressure on fees, surely you need to know upfront what that fee is – right?

However, if what you are saying is that this is actually a downward pressure on hourly rates argument, then I get where you are coming from.

But this is not the same thing as a downward pressure on fees argument, because there is little doubt in my mind that clients are willing to pay a premium on fees when the value of those fees have been fully explained and justified.

My take: despite the rhetoric, law firms still have a long way to go in understanding what in-house General Counsel are actually saying when they say “no surprises” on fee issues. And here’s a working reason why:- because while the GC can talk to legal issues the company faces, it’s the CFO who is responsible for explaining costs; and in more Australian companies than not, the GC reports to the CFO. A lesson in that for most private practice firms here.

A ‘Willingness to switch firms’

I often laugh when I see this one, because, really, ask yourself this: if most of your partners and lawyers are willing to switch to another firm, why shouldn’t your clients?

My take: if you want client stickiness, why not start with re-engaging with your own staff and get loyalty in your firm brand (something that hasn’t really happened since 2008 in Oz). Because while attrition will never be zero, if you can get your own staff on board as brand advocates you may find it a lot easier to convince your clients to hang-around.

‘Client in-housing work’

Without a doubt the biggest change in my working life has been the increase in in-house practitioners. A career in-house is now a very viable option for someone leaving university, something that was never even thought of in my day!

My take: the biggest competitors most law firms are not other law firms. It’s not even the #Big4. Don’t get me wrong, these are competitors, but nothing compared to the CFO of your major client working out its cheaper to hire a new lawyer in-house than pay your fees (see here for more on my views on your in-house competitors).

‘Clients directly using legal process and services outsourcing’

Not 100% sure what is meant by ‘outsourcing’ here. If this includes ‘on-shoring’, then I agree it’s a real threat.

My take: law firms in Australia will face a number of challenges over the next 12 to 24 months. Outsourcing, on-shoring will be among them, but I’m not sure I give them the same weight as the Commonwealth Bank Report does.

Some of the other issues I believe law firms here need to be aware of include further consolidation of the market (it remains too big for such a small market), staff retention issues, profit squeezes, technology and process improvements (and how, through change management champions, these are being handled within law firms because currently we are failing badly).

And finally, some 750 words into this post, we can mention the “innovation” word 🙂 .

Anyhow, guess you get the gist of where I am going with these so best of luck for 2019!

As always, would be interested in your views.

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Why asking someone to work 2,000 billable hours a year will kill their spirit

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According to a post by Casey Sullivan of Bloomberg, earlier this week US law firm Crowell & Moring announced that it would increase its billable hour requirement for associates, from 1,900 hours per year to 2,000 per year. This new target will take effect 1 September 2016, but on the plus side 50 pro bono hours will count as billable.

15 Years ago I would have cried out “all kudos to you”. Back then my yearly billable target for an English ‘Magic Circle’ firm was 1,400 hours and I flogged my guts out to achieve that. So if you can effectively put 50% of billables on top of what I was doing (and trust me when I say I wasn’t going home at least one day a week), then you’re a better person than I (or so I would have said then).

But if you really need validation of what asking someone to work 2,000 billable hours a year means, then I would like to recommend you read “The Truth about the Billable Hour” by no less an institution than Yale University. In that publication, Yale caution aspiring lawyers that if you are being asked to “bill” 2201 hour, you need to be “at work” (includes travel time and lunch, etc.) 3058.

Taking that further, from an Australian law perspective, if you are being asked to bill 2,000 hours a year then you need to bill 8.3 hours a day (assuming a 48 week year and you never get sick; which, if you are being asked to do this, you most likely will be). That means you are very likely going to need to be “in the office” around 12 hours a day – and that assumes no write-off by your partner or leakage.

But here’s the question: “What difference does this make?

I ask this because I wholly agree with the following comment my friend Kirsten Hodgson made when I posted a link to this article on LinkedIn:

“why would you reward the number of hours someone spends working? Surely it would be better to focus on how to deliver value smarter and more quickly. This doesn’t incentivize innovation or any type of process improvement.”

Exactly right, you’re measuring all the wrong things!

Leaving aside the Balance Scorecard argument, asking someone to do 2,000 billable hours a year doesn’t take into account:

  • client satisfaction
  • realisation (it’s a utilisation metric)
  • working smarter
  • innovation

or many other metrics.

And for those who may point out the benefits of this including 50 hours pro bono I say this: the Australian Pro Bono Centre National Pro Bono ‘Aspirational Target’ (ie, where we would like to get to), is 35 hours per lawyer per year.

But probably more importantly than all of this is this:

–  if you ask someone to do this, then you really leave them very little time to do anything else.

This really should be a concern, on the business front because you leave almost no time whatsoever to train them in the business of law – ie, you kill any entrepreneurial spirit they may have. And, crucially, the only metric that really counts to them is that all important 2,000 billable hours (keep in mind that like I was, they’re very young). Which for a profession that has the mental health issues we do, is not good.

For all of these reasons, I’m hoping no other law firm follows this. But sadly I think they will.

Oh, and if you are a law firm client reading this post you might just want to look up whether your local jurisdiction has a “Lemon Law” rule that applies to provision of a service.

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#BizDevTip: Develop Value Groups

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Over toast and coffee this morning I read a cracking post on the LexisNexis Business of Law Blog by Carla Del Bove titled “Understanding the Science Behind How Clients Think“. The post provides some good tips for law firm business developers and marketers, but includes an absolute gem of a tip: “Develop Value Groups” (number 2 in the list), which Carla Del Bove describes as being:

“A value group is simply a group of influential business professionals (e.g. CFOs of major corporations or office managers of the top five consulting firms across the country, etc.) who meet either quarterly, or three times a year and share a common interest.

The first step involves figuring out who the firm’s target group is and then finding a common theme that draws them in and keeps them engaged. Some examples of this include: inviting members of the group to a prestigious event or using a prominent key note speaker for meetings. Most important, they say, is there needs to be a clear purpose for getting together and participants need to get some value out of the meeting. Lastly, they agree, value groups are less about quantity as they are about quality.”

Really useful tip by Carla that I thought I would pass on to you. Make sure you read the rest of Carla’s post and if you would like to get updates on other business development and marketing related material I read each week, feel free to sign up to my free weekly Mail Chimp update (or email me if you want to be added to the subscriber list).

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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?

AM 2

 

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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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