Law firm

The pointlessness of the ‘billable hour’ set out in two charts

Overnight, Australia-time, the Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute, relying on data from Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor, published the findings of its ‘2018 Report on the State of the Legal Market‘. Reviewing the performance of U.S. law firms in 2017, as well as looking at the trends expected in 2018, this annual report is typically the “first” big report publication of the year and so a trendsetter of where we may be going as an industry over the next 12 months.

As has been the case in other years, the first chart I typically like to see in this annual report is the one setting out ‘Collection Realization against Standard Rates by Law Firm Segment‘ – Chart 9 in this year’s publication – to hopefully give me an indication of how an industry that largely relies on increases in hourly rates each year to boost top-line revenue is fairing.

As you can see, yet again the results here can best be described as ‘disappointing’:

Chart 9

AM Law 100 firms are tracking an ever declining realised recoveries of circa 80 cents in the dollar. All others aren’t doing all that much better at circa 85 cents in the dollar.

Either way, those levels of realisation would have most bank managers in a panic. And the reason they don’t comes down to one small issue: in law firms this collection rate – other than telling you that the market doesn’t see your hourly value as highly as you do – is absolutely meaningless.

What it is, is pie in the sky internal budgetary metrics against market reality cash in the bank.

So we turn to my second “go-to” chart: ‘Collection Realization against Worked (Agreed) Rates‘. This year this is represented in Chart 10:

Chart 10

As the name suggests, what this chart is showing us is “Collected v Worked (Agreed)”. I’m   assuming the “agreed” here is upfront, and I’m accepting that the picture is far from perfect, but there is a far better flatline realisation rate here of 90-ish per cent, or 90 cents in the dollar.

So, what’s my take-out from the two charts?

If you want to try and get a better handle on your projected cashflow, no doubt better to have an upfront conversation with your client about how much you are going to be charging them – however that is (fixed fee, hourly rates, etc) – than having an arbitrary, and less and less meaningful, ‘billable hourly rate’.

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Pitching: ‘Show me don’t tell me’ – is video tendering the future?

Happy New Year to all and welcome to 2018!

One of the more interesting articles I read over the holiday period profiled a Dutch company called Pitchsome.

Heard of them?

Maybe, but I doubt many have.

But they may just end up being a catalyst for of one of the biggest changes to the legal industry in 2018 – namely, how we tender for work in the future.

Under the tagline, “Show, Don’t Tell,” Pitchsome’s business model is a simple one: Show me how your product works in a video and don’t write reams and reams of marketing bluff and expect me to read it in order for me find out what you can do for me/help me fix my problem.

Supporting this business model, the article states that:

Cisco’s Visual Networking Index says video will account for 80 percent of all consumer internet traffic by 2019.

And that got me thinking:

80% of all consumer internet traffic by 2019 will be Visual Networking + pretty much 100% of Government and 70+% of ASX Top100 companies have legal panels in place

so, how long will it be before these government departments/agencies and companies decide to replace the long and tedious word/excel document tender responses with video tenders that ask law firms to:

  • profile key team members,
  • white-board how the law firm can assist the client,
  • evidence how Legal Project Management can be used,
  • visually explain the steps in the pricing,
  • have client referee testimonials,
  • have video of the pro-bono and community activities the firm is involved in, and
  • have other examples of how the value adds being offered are being implemented by other clients in the tender’s industry sector?

Will never happen I’m hearing many in Australia reading this say. “It’s not professional”. “It’s nothing short an advert”, etc., etc.

But I’m left feeling: what, just what, would have happen to the industry if those of us who started down this path in 2008 (and those of you who were involved know exactly what I’m talking about) continued the journey?

It very well may have been disruptive. And that word is a real catchphrase at the moment.

So maybe, just maybe, we will be seeing video tendering by the end of 2019 – and that leaves me asking: what are you doing now to make sure you can met this need?

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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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How long before we see a ‘Red Team’ service in #Auslaw?

Business Development image

Of note overnight (OZ time) was news that Bernero & Press (Wendy Bernero and Aric Press) have launched a service called: ‘The Red Team’.  Described as being “A Lifeline for Marketing and Business Development Departments” the aim of The Red Team is to provide:

“…high-quality, experienced marketing, communications, and business development professionals to law firms on a project basis or to fill temporary needs.”

Sounds very similar to the sort of lawyer placement service we are seeing from the likes of Crowd & Co here in Australia, only in this case the target market is specifically support services.

I have to say that outsourcing back office services such as marketing and business development was something I saw becoming popular in Asia during the Asian Financial Crisis in late 1998 and I have often wondered when we would see such a move take hold in the West.

Today may just be that day.

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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.

AM 1

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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…

AM 3

 

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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:

AM 4

 

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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…:

 

AM 5

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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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Exiting the ‘Valley of Despair’: Tips on rebuilding a book of business

Valley of despair

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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