law firms

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?

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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:

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…:

 

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

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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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“Bill clients, get money”

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In my spare time, I’m a keen amateur photographer (note, I didn’t say “good” 🙂 ). Anyhow, because of this interest I follow a number of photography related blogs which, every now and then, include posts that crossover into my professional life.

A post I read this morning from the DIYphotography website (I say “from” because I use feedly as my rss feeder and read all my morning updates on the Ziner app) is just such a post. Titled, ‘3 Vital Tips To Help You Set Your Photography Pricing‘ by Gannon Burgett, the post takes up a call by Sue Bryce that:

“You can’t price yourself when you have no self worth.”

and goes onto suggest that photographers follow the approach of photographers Sue Bryce and Tiffany Angeles and, I quote,:

  1. Charge what you’re worth – be confident in your abilities and know what it is you offer, both in terms of products and aesthetics
  2. Never set yourself at market value – part of knowing what it is you offer helps you better understand what it is you can charge. Don’t base your price purely off of competition. Don’t be afraid to charge more.
  3. Value yourself and your work – this is more all-encompassing than a specific tip, but without the confidence and self-value, it’s going to be a much tougher job to set your pricing.

Amazingly simple and straightforward advice that many lawyers could benefit from – a fact brought home to me in the very next post in my Ziner app, ‘The deep discount attorney and other cautionary tales‘ by Carala Del Bove on the LexisNexis Business of Law blog.

In this post, Del Bove quotes from real life case studies Ms Ann Guinn cites of lawyers willing to offer discounts to clients because, to quote:

“it just felt greedy to me [not to].”

In the post Ms Guinn offers the following two pieces of advice I wanted to share:

“Don’t try to get into your clients’ heads, cautions Ms. Guinn. In other words, don’t let your clients determine the value of your work.”

rather, discuss this with them upfront when you are first asked to quote on the instruction; and

“Instead of worrying about what discounting legal fees will mean for your client, think about what it will mean to you as a small business owner.”

All in all, two excellent posts on understanding the value of the service you provide clients and the dangers you face if you don’t price, bill and collect revenue on your work appropriately.

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ps – I’d also like to credit Ms Guinn with the title of this post.

Report: Do high growth firms share common traits?

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This month saw publication of the 2016 High Growth Study by Hinge Research Institute. Although not limited to law firms, law firms (along with “Healthcare & Other”) made up 12.9% of the 968 respondents who answered Hinge’s survey and, therefore, the Study’s findings help provide some insight into whether or not “High-Growth” firms share common traits.

First, “High-Growth” was defined as being a firm with:

“Over $1 million in revenue and had an average yearly growth rate of at least 20%”.

Not exceptional. Having said that, of the firms surveyed:-

  • 30% generated over 88% of new revenue growth and were 45% more profitable than their No-Growth counterparts

so most definitely desirable.

So, did these High-Growth firms share any traits? In short, “yes”; and these included:

  • Target Clients: High-Growth firms are 75% more likely to have a highly specialized practice – i.e., not all things to all people or full services firms
  • Client base: High-Growth firms are more likely to target the larger clients (over $10 million in revenue)
  • Research: High-Growth firms are 2X more likely to conduct research on their target client
  • Differentiation: differentiators favoured by High-Growth firms are twice as likely to be easier to prove and are more relevant to clients. Importantly, these don’t include “reputation” and “awards won” (favour of No-Growth firms) and do include “culture” and “people”
  • Marketing investment: High-Growth firms invest 23% less in traditional marketing than No-Growth firms. This is because what marketing High-Growth firms do is targeted and measured

While some of these may surprise, they reinforce that in order to grow in today’s market firms need to have a clear understanding of who they are, who they work for, who they would like to work for, and the value/benefits they provide. In short, they’re focused.

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Medibank Idea Exchange

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For my sins I am a member of Medibank Private Health Insurance. I understand it has something to do with having a young family and the Medicare rebate. Anyhow, regardless the reason I get a lot of emails from Medibank that have always gone to straight to my trash folder. That is, until this morning.

What makes this morning any different? Well, I received an email inviting me to join the Medibank Idea Exchange community. In part wondering why they were suggesting the singular rather than the plural, I thought I would take a look.

What did I find?

Well, while I have no intention of joining, what I found was an offer to join an ‘invite only’ community where I will be able to share my thoughts and ideas on a variety of different topics and issues and:

  • Contribute to discussions and surveys – so you can tell Medibank what you think and help shape future business decisions,
  • Talk with other members – so you can share experiences and handy tips,
  • Earn rewards for participating – that you can redeem on a great range of products and services.

and I thought to myself: “there might be something in this for law firms to learn from“.

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The Client Cost Conundrum: Legal Service Pricing in a Post-Recession Market – A White Paper by the ALA

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A post yesterday by Patrick Johansen, CLM, CPP, National Practice Manager at Seyfarth Shaw (on his ‘Patrick on Pricing‘ blog) alerted me to a newly published White Paper by the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA) titled “The Client Cost Conundrum: Legal Service Pricing in a Post-Recession Market“.

To start with, if you are going to publish a White Paper titled “The Client Cost Conundrum: Legal Service Pricing in a Post-Recession Market“, then, in my book, you have licence to write an absolute cracker.

Add to that your intent that:

“This white paper will identify economic factors that influenced relationship changes between clients and law firms after the Great Recession; pinpoint current legal service pricing best practices; highlight pricing strategies that can attract and retain clients; and help law firms learn to address efficiency and other factors that may affect many pricing scenarios.”

and throw in quotes from some of the industry’s leading pricing consultants – including Patrick himself, Colin Jasper of Jasper Consulting, Toby Brown of Akin Gump and Timothy Corcoran of Corcoran Consulting Group, and you’ve grabbed my attention.

So what did I find?

A very disappointing read, that had me both wondering what decade I had woken up in and really questioning whether the industry could survive for much longer.

What do I mean by this?

Well, judge for yourself: here are just some of the quotes from this paper:-

  • “Sixty-eight percent of law departments say they received discounts from firms in 2015. The number of law departments that received a discount of more than 10 percent has increased 4 percent in the past two years; the amount of firms receiving a 6 to 10 percent discount grew by nearly 9 percent”

–  Discounts are not a pricing strategy, period.

  • “In an effort to strengthen client relationships, some law firms are working to better understand their clients’ needs. Approximately 29 percent of firms say they’re working to identify each client’s unique pricing preferences to support the firm’s overall pricing strategy.”

–  29% of firms are working to identify each client’s unique pricing preference. Seriously, what are the other 71% doing: throwing darts in a dart board and hoping for the best?

  • “To better comprehend what clients want, 85 percent are initiating direct conversations about pricing and budgets.”

–  “initiating direct conversation”: as opposed to what exactly, being told?

  • “Twenty-two percent of firm leaders say they thoroughly understand their top 20 clients’ business models, earnings and growth strategy”

–  I have no idea what the other 78% are thinking of, but I’m suddenly very glad I cannot invest [financially] in a law firm.

  • “29 percent of firms say their knowledge of their clients’ business and client relationships give them a key competitive advantage”

–  what is the key competitive advantage for the other 71% I wonder?

  • “Sixty-one percent of firms say overcapacity is diluting their firm’s profitability.”

–  that’s too laughable to even be laughable. I mean seriously, are the other 39% saying it’s the Friday Night Drinks that’s the issue…?

And on that note, I shall end this post with this: read the White Paper, it is really well researched and a look at the Index itself is worth the download; just don’t expect to be blown away with how progressive the industry has become towards pricing.

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Do you know your ABR?

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There has been a fair amount written in recent days following an article published in the Wall Street Journal that ‘Legal Fees Cross New Mark: $1,500 an Hour‘. Most of the published articles I’ve read talk to the outrage of commanding such a high hourly charge-out rate, but this article by Stephen Harper caught my attention.

In the article, citing data from ‘The 2016 Report on the State of the Legal Market‘ by Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor, Harper states that:-

“In 2005, collections totaled 93 percent of standard rates, the report found. By the end of 2015, the realization rate was down to 83 percent.”

Although US-based, this sad statistic very much reflects on an issue I touched on in my post on fixed fees in the Australian market yesterday; namely that 25% of Australian law firm revenue is now derived from “discounted” hourly rates.

If we say then that roughly 1/4 of a law firm’s revenue comes from discounted hourly rates, and that the firm is being paid approximately 83c in the $1, [compounded] we have a very serious profitability problem.

On these numbers alone, any law firm looking at its profit margin should be rushing into fixed fees – while admittedly upskilling themselves (including tracking data) on how to do this better.

And part of this process should also include an understanding of, as well as tracking, what each individual lawyer’s Average Billing Rate (ABR) is.

In the many hundreds of tenders I have done and the numerous conversations I have had with lawyers over the years, I have never once come across either a request for what the particular lawyer’s ABR is, nor heard the lawyer freely admit this rate. I have, on the other hand, heard daily the hourly rates that particular lawyers charge as if this were the reason why they were hired (there being an assumption that the higher your charge-out rate, the better value you provide!).

And therein lies the problem, as Harper says:-

“How much a firm bills doesn’t matter; what it actually brings in the door does.”

Too right. So the next time you hear a lawyer talk up their hourly rate, you might want to ask them what their ABR is – because that’s going to be a far better indicator of the value their clients see them providing. And if you get an answer, you might then want to talk to them about the benefits of fixed fee pricing.

When will a law firm have its Enron moment?

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I’ve just read an interesting article about how disruptive Dyson has been. More specifically, the subject of the article was whether #NewLaw (as it is being called) will be as disruptive on the legal industry as Dyson was to vacuums?

But my outtake on reading the article was this: law isn’t ready for positive disruption (innovation), as we’re yet to have a really shockingly bad, client related, negative shock-wave (failure in client service).

What am I talking about?

Simply this, to my knowledge law has yet to have its Enron/Worldcom moment in the same way Arthur Andersen did for the accountants (anyone remember ‘Big 5’?).

More specifically, in our haste to be the “extension of your in-house legal team“, or “your trusted adviser“, or any one of about a million other fad terms out there today, I believe we may be forgetting one of the biggest (if I remember rightly it made #3 on the list) recommendations in the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s “Report of Investigation” into the collapse of Worldcom to [in the future] “… cure the principal failing that gave rise to the fraud: a lack of effective checks and balances on the power of senior management …“:

A corporate culture in which the advice of lawyers is sought and respected; and

So while, as a business developer, I whole support and encourage “getting to know your client better”, in doing so I would ask that you keep at the back of your mind this question:

Are we trying to “pillow talk” our clients?

Because almost two decades after the collapse of Worldcom, my takeout is that we need to have an Enron/Worldcom moment before we have a Dyson moment in order for the profession to move forward.

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Report: ‘HSF bets growth on Asia’

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The Australian‘s weekly Legal Affairs section is reporting (subscription required) today that global law firm “Herbert Smith Freehills will seek to more closely integrate its Australia and Asia practices.

Sorry to be blunt, but what!?!

According to the Lawyers Weekly website, HSF officially merged on 1 October 2012 to open as the “largest fully integrated law firm in Asia Pacific based on number of lawyers“.

That was 3 years ago.

This begs the question: are all of the recent global law firm entrants to Australia going through the same issues?

My guess here is “yes”. Even though nearly all of them (arguable K&L Gates used US-Australia as its strategic reason for opening in Australia) made specific mention of using Australia as a springboard into Asia, pretty much none of them – to my knowledge – has a specific liaison Business Development Manger person (or higher) located in Australia who assists with joint business development activities.

As I understand it, there may be cost related issues involved in this (who pays for the resourcing – Australia or Asia). There may also be personnel issues involved.

Who knows; but the short answer is that for the life me I cannot understand how 3 years or more (in some cases) on from when the global firms arrived in Australia they still don’t seem to:

  • have dedicated Asia-wide practice and support teams
  • be able to tell you the number of referrals across jurisdictions (inbound and outbound)
  • be able to tell you which partners are referring work [championing] across jurisdictions
  • be able to tell you how many referrals are going to other firms within the jurisdiction where they have an office – particularly where there may have been a relationship prior to the merger (in Australia’s case, would you like to take a punt that Gilbert & Tobin gets referrals from international firms with an on the ground presence in Australia?)
  • know which of their clients are referring work to them across multiple jurisdictions.

To me, this says that both the back-end and front-end operations of the merged firm are still working in geographic and practice group silos (which they most certainly would appear to be from today’s article).

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that HSFs is seeking to more closely integrate its Australia and Asia practices. I hope other firms follow suit. I’m just frustrated that this initiative is probably about 2 and half years late!