law firms

The ‘2022 Australia: State of the Legal Market Report’

The latest update on how the Australian legal market is fairing through COVID was published by Thomson Reuters Institute and Melbourne Law School yesterday (29 August 2022).

Some of my key take-aways from this ‘The 2022 Australia: State of the Legal Market Report‘ include:

  • FY22 (defined as being 1 July to 30 June) was a tale of two halves. In the first half, 1 July to 31 December, Australian law firms smashed it out of the park (6.4% growth in the first half), but the second half was much harder going and the market declined 2.1%, representing its weakest quarterly return since 2013
  • Drivers of growth were all the usual crowd: mergers & acquisitions, banking & finance, etc
  • Retention – especially at the Associate level – is a major concern with 31.6%, roughly one-third, of Australian associates having decided to move on from their firm over the past 12 months
  • Law firms are trying to counter this attrition rate by offering their star Associates more money, which makes sense when you consider how much it costs to replace lawyers, but more recently Associate demands have included demands outside of pure financial reward – including a belief that the firm is taking a strategic direction that aligns with their values
  • Your firm’s reputation in the marketplace is important if you want to keep your Associates
  • Diversity IS important:

Global research from the Thomson Reuters Institute found that female lawyers and/or those from under-represented demographics, as well as those who identified as LGBTQ+, were the most likely to leave their current firms.

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  • Lawyers in Australia from diverse backgrounds are NOT feeling the love:

lawyers from diverse backgrounds gave notably lower-than-average marks in both their own well-being and their leadership demonstrating the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as compared to lawyers with non-diverse backgrounds

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Anyone who has read the ‘2021 Annual Profile of Solicitors‘ by the Law Society of NSW should be able to tell you why that’s a problem that’s not going away unless law firms demonstrate a change.

  • Innovation remains important, even though we are not actually too sure what that means as we continue to draw a hard line between “innovation” and “technology”

That said, there is a really cool ‘Innovation adoption checklist‘ on page 23 that is worth the download by itself!

  • Partners are leading the utilisation charge – there may be a whole host of reason given for this from “clients want partner time on the matter” to “we don’t want to over burden our associates because they may leave us” but an annual average utilisation rate of slightly over 1,200 billable hours tells me some lawyers out there are working very hard

  • Last, but by no way least, is an amazing graph on pages 26 and 27 that sets out the ‘4 roles of a law firm partner’ which is brilliant and makes me wish I had created it!

Well done it all involved and make sure you read the report.

As usual, comments are my own.

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Some red flags that you likely work in a siloed law firm

Pre-empting this post by saying that I don’t know Akin Gump’s head of litigation Stephen Baldini. In fact, not sure I know anyone at Akin Gump.

In fairness I would also add that emails such as the one Baldini sent to his litigation team internally – that recently went viral – are probably written every single day in law firms across the world.

What does interest me with this story though is how it clearly identifies (in my opinion) that the litigation “team” at Akin Gump is clearly not “A” team but rather several different teams.

Why do I think this? 

Well, let’s take a look at at some of Baldini’s opening comments:

“We have recently had an extremely difficult job getting people engaged on matters”.

“Too many calls for help are either ignored or met with “I’m too busy.” These responses simply do not synch with our productivity, which for 2 months has been extremely low.”

Interestingly, Baldini’s email likely highlights a bigger problem in the Akin Gump partnership deed. That is this: it indicates to me that the Akin Gump partnership deed has a Supervising Partner/Instructing Partner component to it, whereby the Supervising Partner of lawyers in their team are assigned costs, but the Instructing Partner is assigned revenue without needing to necessarily share the costs of the resources they are using outside of their “busy” team (a version of ‘Eat what you kill’ that is played oh so well in many law firms).

To my mind, this accounting issue is a major barrier to internal collaboration in many (if not, most) law firms.

Now I could very well be wrong with that statement, but if you listen to the underlying plea in Baldini’s email:

We need engagement and intensity from everyone on the Lit team across the firm – we also need to act like a team. We need to help each other by easing the burden that is falling on colleagues, and we need to work together to meet our clients’ needs. So when you are asked to help out, please promptly respond, and if you have any capacity please say ‘yes’.

And, if you have capacity, proactively reach out and let others know. We are all professionals and we need to practice with a high degree of commitment to our clients and each other.

I think you might agree that there could well be a silo team mentality happening here.

As usual, comments are my own.

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Photo credit  Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

What’s hot and what’s not in #Auslaw

My article on ‘What’s hot and what’s not in #Auslaw’ was published in PM magazine this month.

My thanks to Matt Baldwin and the team at PM magazine for giving me this opportunity!

You can read the article here:

As usual, comments are my own and I welcome feedback.

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Kick off 2022 by providing real value to your customers using the 3Es!

Happy New Year to you all, and welcome to the new calendar year that is 2022.

During the holiday period here in Australia (published 13 December 2021) I was fortunate enough to read a really insightful article in MIT Sloan Management Review by Andreas B. Eisingerich, Deborah J. MacInnis, and Martin Fleischmann titled ‘Moving Beyond Trust: Making Customers Trust, Love, and Respect a Brand

which set-out how service providers, like law firms, could provide real value to their customers using the 3Es:

  • enable
  • entice,
  • enrich

Where:

  • Enable = help your customers solve problems in ways that are economically feasible, reliable, efficient and convenient
  • Entice = making your customers feel good
  • Enrich = build self-affirming identities.

And the benefits of using this method?

Evidencing the research outcomes of this methodology, the article sets out 6 benefits you should see:

  1. Higher Revenue
  2. Lower Costs
  3. Higher Barriers to Entry
  4. More Paths to Grow[th]
  5. Stronger Talent Pool (within your firm as lawyers want to do this type of work for this type of client), and
  6. Greater Retention Rates in your firm.

All of which – should – result in higher profit.

Well worth a look, take a read – and certainly food for thought!

As always, the above represent my own thoughts and would love to hear yours in the comments below.

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(ps – I would recommend you add a 4th ‘E’ to this list – Empathy’ 🙃)

Photo credit to Jon Tyson

Will law firms introduce ‘Anchor Days’ in 2022?

You’d have to have been hiding under a rock for past two years not to have seen an article or two on the benefits/pitfalls of remote working. But, as we move into the next phase of this pandemic/endemic, one in which we must start to learn to live with COVID, law firm management now need to be asking:

What does the future of the office look like for our firm?

Truth is, there’s no simple answer to this question. On the one hand, we have those who advocate that “distance breeds distrust” and “out of sight, out of mind”. On the other hand, we have a lot of people saying we’re not going back to the old ways – and if you make us, we will part of the Great Resignation.

One answer to this issue might be in what the Australian Financial Review recently termed ‘Anchor Days’.

As per the AFR article, ‘Anchor Days’ are days on which a group of employees (in the same team) agree to go into the office on the same day each week with the aim of enhancing collaboration and ensuring a more lively office culture.

While I like the concept of Anchor Days, I think I should also point out that, from my reading, it comes with a couple of major misconceptions:

  • we all work in the same physical location (geographically in the same State/Cities, but also on the same floor of a building!).
  • that collaboration is more likely to happen in physical presence, when what we actually find is that collaboration more likely occurs with inclusion, and inclusion is more aligned with trust. QED, if you want more collaboration within your team, then trusting that your team can get it’s shit done here remotely/agile and not dictating collaboration top down, is a big step in the right direction.

My final comment: if Anchor Days become a thing, what day(s) would you chose?

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‘5 Tips to deliver exceptional client services’

The Legal Marketing Association (LMA)’s Strategies + Voices blog has some great insights into what clients’ value in a recent post (16 September 2021) – ‘5 tips to deliver exceptional client service’ by Natasha Tucker.

The post starts out by stating that:

the tips shared are based on internal client feedback interviews and discussions conducted by the author with companies in the oil and gas, chemicals, banking and telecommunications industries in North America.

And the 5 ‘tips’ are:-

  1. Care and Connection
  2. Trust and Honesty
  3. Price and Value
  4. Experience and Expertise
  5. Team and Resourcing

I’l go on record as saying I thought Tucker’s post was excellent. It turned my mind, however, to whether we in Australia would consider the same criteria as being critical to the delivery of exceptional client service?

So here are my thoughts:

  1. Care and Connection – absolutely spot on. Here in Australia this would come under the banner of ‘responsiveness’, but many of the points Tucker makes are echoed in Australia.
  2. Trust and Honesty – I would say this is a given here in Australia and not really talked about too much. Which is to say, in my experience, clients here don’t see trust and honesty as playing a big part in the perception of excellent client service delivery – because without it, you ain’t my law firm!
  3. Price and Value – I struggled with this one because clearly price is important. And many would argue it is critical to the perception that the client has received good value. But here’s the thing, in Australia ‘price’ is an after-fact – the lawyer’s invoice comes after the deal is completed. So while price certainly plays a retrospective role in whether the client received exceptional client service, it is not a real time barometer – the client could believe they were getting excellent service until they receive the invoice and see how much they paid for that service! So I’m going to disagree with this one.
  4. Experience and Expertise – again, I think this is increasingly a ‘given’ here in Australia. Sure it will have some effect on the delivery of client service, but the cases where it does will largely be the 1 to 2% of ‘top-end’ matters.
  5. Team and resourcing – absolutely critical.

Noting that it is easy to be critical without being helpful, here are a couple of issues that I see as being of increasing importance in the delivery of exceptional client service here in Australia:-

  1. Technology – increasingly clients want your technology to talk to their technology. If they want a Teams meeting and you say your internal systems only allow you to do Zoom meetings, they get frustrated. They are not getting exception client service. Likewise, while ‘client portals’ were all the rage 10 years ago, clients today want this information delivered in their tech echo-system and do not want to have to log-on to your platform to access this.
  2. Process – linked somewhat to technology, clients today look for clear processes from their firms. For example, large institutional clients want one bill per month – not 20 different bills for each of the various internal service lines in your firm that may have acted on their matters. Process however extends to other areas, such as Legal Project Managers, Client Account Managers – so-called ‘non-lawyers’ who can keep the lawyers honest and on track.
  3. Values – increasingly clients want to work with law firms who share their values, and they see this as part of the client service delivery. For example, if the client is passionate about the environment and your law firm doesn’t have a stance on this issue, then you’re likely going to have some issues. In short, in my view, the days of firms saying what they stand for has nothing to do with the service they provide are over – what you stand for is very much a part of the service you deliver in 2021!
  4. Mentorship – clients have always enjoyed working with law firms that are able to mentor the in-house team. What’s changed is that these days this is a formal – out in the open – discussion; and it includes the tough discussion about how law firms manage their own internal mentorship, staff wellbeing and overall happiness.
  5. Retained knowledge – this is a critical one to me. Most law firms have worked with clients for longer periods than the in-house legal team has. Their time with the client either pre-dates the creation of an in-house team or else General Counsel at the in-house team has moved on and that information has been lost. I cannot over emphasis therefore how important private practice law firms can be as the font of knowledge (for legal matters) for their client. But here’s the thing, at this level you are commercial confidants and so relying on legal conflicts as the rationale as to why you can act against a client will sure as Hell kill and perception of ‘exceptional client service’!

As always, the above represent my own thoughts and would love to hear yours in the comments below.

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This week’s photo credit is to Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

If you are going to discount: ‘Discount with dignity’

In Episode 748 (7 July 2020) of HBR’s Ideacast podcast (23.04), Curt Nickisch interviews Rafi Mohammed, founder of the consulting firm ‘Culture of Profit’, on the topic of ‘Pricing Strategies for Uncertain Times‘.

During the course of the conversation Nickisch states that with COVID-19 service/product providers will be under intense pressure from clients/customers to offer discounts, to which Mohammed replies:

Clearly, in the short-run, you have to offer a discount. And what I would be focused on is what I call discounting with dignity in a manner that doesn’t devalue your product in the long run. And so, that’s really important because once you set a low price, it’s very hard to recover when demand eventually does come back.

And so we turn to how this really important concept applies to law firms

Blind Freddy can tell you that clients are under intense pressure to cut costs. I doubt there is a CFO out there who has not phoned (or even Zoomed) his/her GC and told them to cut costs.

And I suspect there are few GCs out there who have not responded by calling, zooming or even emailing the law firms on their legal panel to tell them to reduce rates by X%.

And, having lived through the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 and the GFC of 2008, I suspect there are few law firms partners who have not passed along this request to their Finance Department with a note to “make it happen“.

But if this sounds familiar, and if a law partner you know would or has done this (*because it is never us*), then you would be missing out on Mohammed’s very powerful ‘discount with dignity‘ concept.

Because, as much a I hate advocating or agreeing to discounts, Mohammed is right:-

If you offer a discount to customers/clients merely because we are going through turbulent (or should I be saying ‘unprecedented’ 🙂 ) times, then what you are really doing is devaluing your service/product in the long term.

Because what you are saying to your customer/client when you unconditionally agree to a discount request of this kind is that “you have been over paying me all this time” – I’m not really worth what you have been paying me.

A Suggested Alternative Approach

Much like scoping in Legal Project Management methodology, when it comes to discounting (and I’m realistic enough to know that there needs to be some consideration of discounting in current times), you need to be considering what you take out of the basket when you offer that discount.

Which is to say it isn’t a ‘like for like’ for less conversation – you don’t get the same for less. If you take 15% off, you take 15% out of the basket. And you look to alternatives to how that can be sourced – either in-house or some other way (including LPOs/ALSPs).

And, if it really does need to be ‘like for like, but for less’ then it needs to come with a risk sharing collar. For example, I will accept 80% of my fees, but if we get past COVID-19 and your share price returns to pre-COVID highs within 6 months of completing this deal, then you agree to pay me 120% of my fees.

And, in the very worst of scenarios, your invoice should include a line item that states the discount being given is a one-off COVID-19 discount (and Mark Stiving, of Impact Pricing, has an interesting thought on this issue).

Regardless of what it is, you do need to do something. You cannot standstill for less. Because we will get past COVID. And in the ‘new world’ (even if that is a world where we merely live with COVID) there will be a ‘new, new normal’. And if you have agreed to discount your rates now without taking anything out of the basket, then what you have actually done is recalibrated your value in the new world.

And you won’t recover from that.

As always, the above just represent my own thoughts and would love to hear your thoughts.

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This week’s photo credit is Chrissie Kremer on Unsplash

‘Imposter syndrome’, how it effects your pricing, and what you can do about it

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Imposter syndrome‘:  “The persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.”

For some time, sparked through the conversations I’ve had on the topic with Katherine Mountford, I’ve been interested in the concept, theory, and roll that imposter syndrome plays within the legal profession.

My interest was given a nudge over the past week by a LegalSpeak podcast that included some great thoughts by both Albert Farr and Jay Harrington, who talked about their experiences with imposter syndrome in the early part of their legal profession [noting that Farr is actually just starting out his career in law] (Calming the Imposter Monster: You Don’t Know Everything, And That’s OK.) and a post by Susan Harper on the issue of ‘What is Imposter Syndrome and How May It Be Affecting Your Leadership?‘ which looks at the broader implications of imposter syndrome at a more advanced stage of your legal career.

Read together they give a pretty good balance on some of the major crisis of confidence issues that can plague lawyers.

What am I worth?

While I am in no way qualified – nor do I profess to be – to talk to the diagnosing and/or treating of any medical conditions associated around imposter syndrome, or mental health issues in the legal industry more broadly, with over 20 years’ experience in the industry, I have no doubt whatsoever that most lawyers wake up in the morning and ask themselves (if no one else) ‘What am I worth?‘ – ‘What is an hour of my labour worth?‘.

Adding to these frustrations, and doubts, is the fact that, in private practice, in most cases, a lawyer’s intrinsic value is not determined by them. Nor, importantly, is it determined by their clients in recognition of their craft.

No, more often than not, a lawyer’s worth is determined by the Accounts Department and/or a Senior Management committee who have worked out [this should probably read, “been told”] how much the capital [equity] partners want to be paid this year (including bonus). Having determined this we then work backwards and determine the number of hours that will need to be worked in order to achieve this, taking account of historic realisation rates, and minus any leave, and then looking at the relevant leverage and required multiplier needed to ensure that the required amount is met.

All of this is then wrapped around a completely meaningless ‘industry survey’ that costs a fortune and suggests your law firm’s hourly rates are 10-20% less than your competitors and you really should be doing a better job!

If this sounds convoluted and over complex, or if you have any doubts about my sincerities here, read ‘Associates Want a Break on Billable Hours as Pay Cuts Roil Law Firms‘ by Dylan Jackson.

Little doubt then, in my opinion, as to why lawyers would suffer from imposter syndrome (or mental health issues more broadly).

Taking back control – how to demonstrate value to your customers

Adding insult to injury, having not had much say in the hourly rate they charge, and with little or no training, lawyers are then asked to go to market and justify why they are worth the amount they charge.

So can lawyers take back some control?

The short answer is: ‘yes’; there are several ways that lawyers can take back that control – one predominately relates to internal processes and the other to external communication.

Change the internal process: Establish a Value Council

If you want to adopt greater transparency and conversation around the amount that your lawyers charge – relative to the value they are delivering to your customers – and at the same time get greater collective buy-in from your lawyers, then I would suggest you take the power away from your Accounts Department and establish a Value Council.

The mission statement of your Value Council should be to establish:

‘a collaborative platform to discuss and exchange views and information about value to ensure outcomes that are mutually beneficial to all.’

Progressive law firms will include customers of the firm in their Value Council and consider adopting a Pricing Charter.

To be effective, it is suggested that your Value Council consist of no less than six and no more than 10 participants who, crucially, are willing to invest time in the process.

Change the external communication

For years lawyers have liked to brag about the hourly rate they charge. It’s up there with the mount of billable hours they have worked this year as ‘badges of honour’. The reality that most lawyer’s Average Billing Rate – the amount clients are actually paying for that lawyer’s time – are nowhere in the region of that lawyer’s hourly rate is conveniently forgotten.

But there is an alternative. Rather than going to market bragging about how much you cost, why not change the conversation up and talk about how much value you bring to your customers. How you help your customers? How you change outcomes to their benefit.

Dare I say it, you move the conversation away from you and onto them. In doing so, it is hoped you will take a critical step down the path of the Value Conversation; because, as John Chisholm wrote back in 2018:

“Before we price, we need a scope of work; before we have a scope of work, we need to have a scope of value and you cannot have a scope of value without first having a value conversation.”

That seems like a good place to put a line in the sand to this week’s post. I will add though that if you are one of those lawyers who questions their value, who may question if they deserve to be where they are or who suffers some form of imposter syndrome, keep in mind that around 90% of the profession is right there with you (and listen to Episode #182 of the Soul of Enterprise) .

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‘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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18 questions to ask when analysing your client stickiness

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Recently I was listening to an encore episode of Season 2 of Scott McKain’s Project Distinct podcast on how to analysis your current client situation. In the podcast Scott suggests applying what he calls his ‘cub reporter’ questions to any stress test you undertake on the strength of your current client relationship, by asking:

  • How?
  • Why?
  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?

Applying Scott’s approach to law firm client relations has me asking some of the following foundation questions:

  1. How did the client hear about you?
  2. How well did you do when you first talk to the client about their problem?
  3. How serious are you about investing in this relationship?
  4. Why did your client need your services in the first place?
  5. Why did the client chose you?
  6. Why would they stay with you [over the competition]?
  7. Who [at the client] decides to send work to you?
  8. Who [from your firm] talks to that person?
  9. Who, from your firm, should be talking to that person [and is not]?
  10. What services [at your firm] are they using?
  11. What other services [at your firm] should they be using? 
  12. What would cause the client to change firms?
  13. When did you last talk to the client?
  14. When did the client last use your services?
  15. When is the client’s busy season (secondment opportunities?)?
  16. Where does your clients use your services (Their office? Your office? The internet? All of the above?)?
  17. Where can you improve the client experience?
  18. Where else could your clients use your services?

Hopefully a useful starting list and if you have not previously listened to Scott’s Project Distinct – a daily podcast that runs for a relatively short 10 minutes, I would like to strongly suggest you do.

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