law firms

#ICYMI – Weekly Digest Issue 280

This week’s Digest, which was sent to subscribers yesterday, once again contains links to some brilliant posts. Some of the highlights of the week for me were:-

Again though, so much great content this week – so make sure to check it all out here.

If you don’t already, you can subscribe here.

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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

#ICYMI – Weekly Digest Issue 279

This week’s Digest was sent out to subscribers earlier today.

Theme of the Big 3 this week was tenders, with me highlighting:-

Other notable standouts this week were:-

For someone who has been in this game as long as I, surprise of the week was:-

As usual, great amount of content in this week’s wrap so check it out here. And if you don’t already subscribe and want to, you can do that here.

Have a great weekend all!

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#ICYMI – Weekly Digest Issue 278

This week’s Digest has been sent out to subscribers. Some of my highlight’s from the week were:

There has been so much great content this week – check it all out here.

If you don’t already, you can subscribe here.

Have a great weekend all!

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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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Why most law firms don’t need to hire a Head of Pricing

Following a conversation I had recently with John Chisholm, I had reason to revisit Patrick Johansen’s website patrickonpricing.com and re-read both his Continuum of Fee Arrangements™ and his Roll Call of pricing professionals.

Let’s get controversial. Re-reading Patrick’s stuff it occurred to me that there are an awful lot of law firms have hired pricing experts (Patrick has over 300, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that number were closer to 500) on -most likely- really good money who, get this: don’t really need them.

Why do I say that?

Looking again at Patrick’s Continuum of Fee Arrangements, Patrick has sixteen different pricing options available for law firms to offer clients:

  1. Hourly – the ‘go to’ pricing option for law firms. But are hourly rates pricing or billing?
  2. Volume – nope, not a pricing mechanism. It’s a discount. Not even an alternative fee arrangement (AFA).
  3. Blended – isn’t that an hourly rate?
  4. Retainer (Periodic) – okay, now we are talking. Law firms may need some help from a pricing expert on this one. But wait up, how much of a law firm’s revenue is done on a retainer mechanism? Less than 5% would be my guess. Justify the cost of pricing expert on the books (as opposed to freelancing), unlikely.
  5. Capped – OMG don’t get me started on capped fees. Known as the “heads I lose, tails I lose” pricing mechanism for law firms. I understand why clients love capped fees, they cannot lose. But any pricing expert on a law firm’s books who recommends capped fees as an option deserves to be sacked immediately.
  6. Task – okay, but isn’t this really just a fixed fee?
  7. Flat (Transaction) – okay, but again: isn’t this really just a fixed fee?
  8. Phase – sounds like a fancy name for task to me!
  9. Fixed – Nirvana. Now we need a pricing expert.
  10. Contingency – implies it needs to be contingent on something.
  11. Portfolio – my view is that this is one of the most misunderstood and under-used of the various pricing options. I’m not sure there are many pricing experts in commercial law firms who do this well.
  12. Hybrid – yeah right. Are we talking cars now?
  13. Holdback – this isn’t pricing. This is a reward mechanism. I could do all the pricing calculations in the world, but if the legal team provide a rubbish service then the client will withhold a part of the fee.
  14. Risk Collar – is hourly billing with an up and downside calculation mechanism.
  15. Success/Bonus – again, performance related.
  16. Value – right, and how many law firms are really doing this? Few and far between. Hell, most law firms don’t even understand the ‘value’ they provide (see ‘discounts’ and google number one AFA offered by law firms). No, nice to say; but a very long way from getting it.

So looking at this list I ask myself: “How much science is involved in pricing legal services?”. And the answer I come up with is: “Not a lot”.

Taking all this on board, I get why law firms hire ‘pricing experts’ out of accounting teams. And maybe that’s where the real opportunity is being missed.

But trust me, for all but two or three of the above pricing options, you don’t need a pricing expert – you need an accountant. So don’t waste your money hiring one.

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Is putting profit before culture such a bad thing for law firms?

In 2004, while working at Linklaters, Tony Angel – the then recently appointed Managing Partner of the firm – introduced a new strategic direction that was to become known as ‘Clear Blue Water-– A Vision for Linklaters in 2007‘. Much as was being advocated in Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim’s Blue Ocean Strategy, published around the same time, the intention of Angel’s Clear Blue Water strategy was to create a clear space (as opposed to red oceans) between the firm and it rivals.

For many of us who worked in the firm at the time, this represented a high-water mark. It was made very clear to all that Linklaters was now very much a business: profit trumped culture.

Sure culture was nice to have, but not if it had any material impact on profit.

But was this such a bad thing?

As someone who lived through the 2004-2007 era at Linklaters, I can honestly say “no”.

To be clear, there is little doubt in my mind the firm became more “professional”. Many of the business development, marketing and knowledge management work that had traditionally been done by lawyers was taken off them and given to dedicated teams. The firm introduced key account programs around their top clients. Blue Flag (Linklaters online client portal – that included early use of HotDocs) was a flagship program. Precedents and ClauseBank were core strategic projects.

But importantly, financial analysis was undertaken to determine the difference between revenue and profit and how both revenue and profit could be increased (which didn’t necessarily mean a reduction in costs – for example, the business case behind Blue Flag was the first example of an alternative revenue stream I saw in a law firm).

All of this was then extended to sectors when clients started to say they valued, and appreciated, sector specialists (Linklaters was the first place I worked at that had a virtual practice – The Indian Desk, back in 2005-ish which operated from London, New York, Singapore and Dubai).

Despite – or even because of – an overall strategy to significantly increase profit, large amounts of money were invested in putting in place strategic teams that could help implement and execute on this strategy. Professional KM, marketing and business development people came in to the firm from all walks of life and people who had never worked in professional services firms previously were now doing so.

Importantly, my personal experience was that their voices, counselling and advices were being taken onboard. Sure partners may disagree – and ultimately we all knew that the buck stopped with them, but it was also made clear that they appreciated and valued our input.

Another important aspect of Angel’s Clear Blue Water strategy though was transparency.

Everybody in the firm knew what we were trying to achieve. We knew what was required to get us there (including I might add an absolute understanding that this would involve an incredible amount of hard work). We knew how we were tracking and which parts of the business were struggling to achieve their goals. From my memory (and it was 10 years ago now), this wasn’t done with malice but so that we knew who needed help.

In short, the strategy bred a culture. A culture that many who were not in the firm may have considered elitist, but a culture nonetheless: to be at Linklaters at that time was to know you worked among the best (and if you doubt that, track the CVs of many of the leading BD/Pricing/KM people around the world and see who they worked for during that time).

So why, 10 years after I left, have I decided to bring this all up now?

HSF

The answer to that lies in the decision this week by Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) to open a second office in Sydney.

This second office will be at 66 Talavera Road, Macquarie Park, while the principal office will remain at 161 Castlereagh Street. It is currently being reported that between 200 and 300 support staff (that may not – for now – include BD people) will be moved to this Macquarie Park office.

To my mind, this move eradicates all pretence of a ‘one firm’ culture having anything to do with the running of this firm. Conversely, it cements the ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture. If you are in Castlereigh Street, you’re ‘in’. And if you are in Macquarie Park, well you’re not! Worse, if you get moved from Castlereigh Street to Macquarie Park, you could consider it a demotion (especially given there will be no train line servicing that office for 10 months in the next year or so!).

But again, as someone who has advocated for the outsourcing of support services in law firms (in much the same way as a number of firms in Asia did post the Asian Financial Crisis) for more than 10 years the question should be: is this such a bad thing?

And my answer to that is “no”.

But my answer comes with an important caveat from someone who has been through similar strategic processes, and that is this: everyone at the firm in now on notice – perform, or you’ll be in Macquarie Park – or even out altogether – before you know it!

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