legal fees

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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‘Stupid is as stupid does’

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In the 1994 movie of the same name, Forrest Gump is asked:

“are you stupid or something?”

to which Forest replies:

“stupid is as stupid does”.

Some 20 years later (yes, it really has been that long!), in general parlance this phrase has come to mean that:

‘an intelligent person who does stupid things is still stupid’ – (Urban dictionary)

and I have to say that this thought went through my mind earlier this week when I read that a third of [UK] commercial firms are likely to raise their rates in a bid to boost their profits (Solicitors Journal 6 May 2015 – “Number of law firms planning to raise charge out rates increases“).

Leaving aside the issue of whether a direct raise in your rates will equate to increased profits (for example, the psychological impact of rising rates/budgets on fee earners with no increased salary (cost)) –  what in the world would make 26 (1/3rd) of so-called intelligent finance directors of the UK’s Top 100 law firms say “it is likely their firms will increase their charge out rates in order to improve profitability in the year ahead“?

As I have blogged countless times before (the most popular being: ‘Is it time for law firms to break with the RULES when looking at profitability?‘), hourly rates are but one of the metrics in calculating profitability. And it’s probably not even the biggest metric driving your firm’s partner profit levels, which almost certainly would be better achieved via an increase in your realised rate.

Putting this mathematically (admittedly not my strongest area), say my hourly rate is $100 and my realization rate is 90%, then I’m being paid $90-. Taking this forward I’ve decided to increase my hourly charge-out rate to $110-, but find that my realization rate has now fallen to 80%. If my maths is correct, I’m now being paid $88-.

In other words, in real terms, I’m losing money!

Don’t think this could happen? Then take a look at Charts 4 & 5 from the ‘2015 Report on the State of the Legal Market‘ published by The Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at the Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor (at page 5)

chart 4

 

chart 5

Those charts don’t make for pretty reading.

So when, as the article reports:

“…firms realise this is not going to be an easy sell to clients who are likely to negotiate hard to keep fees down, so their approach to increasing charge out rates is likely to be softly softly, rather than gung-ho”

my response would be: “why bother?”.

Instead,

  • try keeping your charge-out rate the same over the next 12 months;
  • try not to give discounts;
  • try to increase your realisation rate (by 3 to 5 cents in the dollar);
  • try to reduce your lock-up days;

and see where you end up.

You may just find that has a better impact on your partner profitability numbers than the likely impact that is going to come your way when you go annoying and off-siding your clients with the almost obligatory 1 July 10% rate increase letter.

But I could be wrong…

What are Asia regional in-house lawyers looking for from their outside counsel?

 

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The end of November saw Legal Week (legalweek.com) putting on the second of its Asia regional ‘Corporate Counsel Forum’ events in the Gallery Room of Singapore’s Grand Hyatt hotel.  Judging by the impressive collection of 220 regional in-house lawyers who attended, this event is likely now a firm fixture in the diaries of many in the industry. And rightly so. Events of this calibre are few and far between and should not only be welcomed, but encouraged.

Legal Week’s Elizabeth Broomhall wrote up a very succinct account of what took place at the Forum in a post on the Legal Week website on 5 December [2014].

In summarising the day’s events, and following subsequent discussions with Lucy Siebert, international counsel at Australia’s Telstra, and Julia Shtepa, managing director of legal for South Asia at Accenture, Elizabeth’s article highlights the following 5 issues (among more) as issues in-house team in the region have identified as being important to them when selecting outside counsel.

1.  Local or International?

It would appear that in-house counsel in Asia are not immune to a discussion that is taking place on a more global level; namely:- should we be hiring local or international law firms?

On the one hand, there are many benefits to hiring an international law firm to act on your matters. On the other, particularly in the mixed legal landscape of Asia (where common and civil law sit side-by-side), there really is no substitute for – as Siebert calls it – “on the ground knowledge”.

I would wholeheartedly agree that there are complex issues in play here, as it is indisputable that there are very clever lawyers working with leading country and regional law firms. That’s why I was particularly drawn to Shtepa’s comment that:

“Sometimes Accenture will engage an international firm to play a ‘deal coaching’ role, she said. “Depending on the regulatory environment and the language constraints, it may be that the deal is led by an international firm and supported by a local firm”.”

If you can afford it, then this seems to me to be a very clever approach to take.

Alternatively, a case could be made that in-house counsel in Asia, as is the case in other parts of the world, look to instruct the lawyer and not the law firm.

2.  Panel or no panel?

Client legal panel arrangements are the bane of many a private practice lawyer and their marketing team. Many an hour is spent responding to these and Australia, the home of Telstra, has undoubtedly played a major role in the development of this arrangement. Indeed, many of the ASX 200 have both Australia and Asia legal panels in place. So I was surprised to see Broomhall write that:

“many regional counsel believe these [panels] remain difficult in Asia given the limited capacity foreign law firms have compared with in their home markets, the different practice restrictions on foreign law firms across jurisdictions, the high turnover of partners in the region and the fluidity of the markets.”

While each of these is valid in their own right, none are unique to the region – and certainly would not seem to me to be an impediment to implementing a panel arrangement if the desire was there to do so. No, I would contend that there are two additional factors that mean panel arrangements are not, yet, as prevalent in Asia, which are: (1) relationships still trump all when assigning work; and (2) the rise of procurement is still to come.

That said, as Broomhall herself says: “An increasing number of companies, including Chinese state-owned organisations, have been moving in this direction in a bid to control costs” – and given the number of tender writing jobs that require local/regional language skills (notably Mandarin) that I have seen advertised in the last 3 months, my guess is that this [implementing panel arrangements] will be one of the major growth areas in 2015. Indeed, I will be interested to see what the position on this issue is at the Forum in 2015!

3. Where are all the Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs)?

Throughout my time in Asia, law firms have had to be very conscious of their cost-base as clients have always been value drivers. And with annual ROI profit margins of around 20% (which translates to probably the lowest ROI returns in the industry globally), many would say rightly so.

Leaving this aside however, I found myself in total agreement with the comment that when it comes to innovative fee arrangements, Asia lags behind the West.

Actually, with my interest having been spiked in this issue I went online to try and see how many firms had ‘on the ground’ regional Pricing Directors (a role that has seen phenomenal growth in both Europe and America, and less so here in Australia) and I couldn’t find one law firm that had an on the ground head of pricing present in the region.

All of which screams: law firms who can create opportunities to genuinely discuss the value exchange and AFAs with their clients have a massive opportunity to differentiate themselves in what is currently an extremely tight market.

4.  Secondments and other value adds

It was interesting to note that both Siebert and Shtepa agreed that “secondments are also an opportunity to add value”.

In my experience, the staffing structure of law firms in Asia – which need to necessarily be tight because of the control on costs – has, historically, not leant itself to law firms offering secondments to corporate clients (historically, as part of a global offering, financial institutions have tended to fair better here).

Clearly, going forward, one of two things will happen: either law firms will need to revisit this discussion, or New Law providers –such as Lawyers on Demand and Riverview Law – are going to find a very nice gap in the market – indeed, many may argue that Advent is already taking advantage of this exact situation.

And law firms who doubt this should note Siebert and Shtepa’s comment that:

“secondments help lawyers in private practice gain a better understanding of their businesses. Indeed, they believe this is the key overall message to get out to firms: get to know our business; understand our drivers.”

and one of the best ways to do that – a secondment.

5.  A more diverse profession

I wanted to finish this post on what I consider to be an important note of hope from Siebert’s comment that:

“We [Telstra] specifically look to see that they’re ensuring the best possible talent pool for us – not just white Anglo-Saxon males. We’ve got a very strong diversity policy and so we expect that to be something that is also important to our panel firms.”

If you haven’t already read Elizabeth’s article, I would like to strongly recommend that you wander on over there now…

The hidden dangers of discounting your fees

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Today’s post is a short rant about the practice and dangers of discounting your legal fees, followed by a useful collection of 20 questions I found earlier that you should be asking yourself if you are discounting your fees.

I’ll start off by disclosing that I hate it when lawyers discount their fees. I especially hate it when this is done without any request by the client – a far more prevalent practice than is perhaps admitted – or consultation with others in the firm (including the practice of discounting on other lawyers’ rates in your firm without even asking them if this is OK!).

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