legal services

The big squeeze is coming: Why it’s important to know if your practice is bespoke or precedent?

Hall Wang penned an interesting post on the Tom Spencer blog over the weekend that looked at two of the different types of consulting – Bespoke and Precedent (Bespoke and Precedent Driven – Understanding the Two Different Approaches to Consulting).

Wang explains the difference between the two as being:

Bespoke: This approach is like making a custom-tailored outfit whereby the focus is on what is unique about a client’s situation and then crafting a customized solution for the client. The mindset in this approach is to think about what might be possible to best fit the client’s needs.

Precedent driven: This approach is similar to the way you bake a cake using a cookbook; following the recipe, but making adjustments as time and available ingredients necessitate. The mindset is to find proven precedents and use them as a guide to provide reliable client recommendations.”

I like Wang’s terminology. I particularly like Wang’s use of ‘precedent driven‘ – an alternative to the stale and often misused ‘commoditised‘. It’s smart language, but I think it’s really important that lawyers and their support team understand the difference and workout which of the two their practice sits in.

So why is this even important?

Here’s the reason:- because if you operate a predominantly ‘precedent-based practice’, then you’re going to be feeling the forthcoming ‘big squeeze’ way more than is likely to be the case than if you run a bespoke practice.

What ‘big squeeze?’; my practice is already seeing an uptick in legal work you may be asking – see the latest Altman Weil ‘Law Firms in Transition 2019: Change Efforts Stalled in 2018 as Business Boomed‘ report for why this may be the case.

Well, as I recently blogged The State of Australian Corporate Law Departments Report 2019 has stated that “45% of Australian GCs are forecasting a decrease in their 2019 legal spend” – so ask yourself:- “Where is this massive savings going to come from?” Add to this the recent Thomson Reuters ‘Alternative Legal Services Provider Report‘ (February 2019) stat that

In just two years, revenues for alternative legal services providers have grown from $8.4 billion in 2015 to about $10.7 billion in 2017. This represents a compound annual growth rate of 12.9% over that period.

and it doesn’t take Einstein to tell you that a big (or bigger) squeeze is coming and that the middle – precedent-driven – market (where the majority of the market players sit) is going to be the epicentre of that big squeeze.

But knowing and understanding this is very important. It helps take you – as lawyers, business developers or leaders – a long way to understanding that in reality very few people want or need bespoke legal services; but what the really really really don’t want is a precedent legal service dressed up with a bespoke ‘full service’ price.

As always though, interested in your thoughts/views/feedback.

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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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Survey: The role pricing specialists play [or don’t] in RFP responses

Last week the USA’s J Johnson Executive Search, Inc and the UK’s Totum published their combined ‘RFP Survey Responses: U.S. and U.K. Data 2016‘.

A fairly evenly distributed demographic of large (defined as being 600+ lawyers), mid-sized (defined as being 100-600 lawyers) and small (up to 100 lawyers, for the U.S. only) law firm respondents, insights from the survey include time spent responding to RFPs, persons within firms charged with project managing responses, as well as tools and expertise made available to responding teams, in both the U.S. and the U.K.

As with most surveys of this nature however, it is the role that pricing plays that typically grabs my attention and given this survey’s combined U.S. and U.K. perspective even more so in this case.

Given ongoing market pressures, it should surprise no one that responses of “strong” from the U.S. (58%) and the U.K. (64%) to the question of what current “price pressure” for proposal & RFPs were fairly similar.

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A little more surprising to me was the difference in responses between the U.S. (40%) and the U.K. (60%) to the question “when developing proposals and RFPs, I have easy access to” the answer was “pricing guides/professionals“.

 

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Now don’t get me wrong, even these days I think it is particularly progressive and somewhat comforting to know that 60% of my colleagues in the U.K. have access to some sort of “pricing guide/professional”.

Until, that is, you get to see who actually gets to sign-off (i.e., the “decision maker”) on the all important issue of pricing in RFPs in the U.K.. Here, and I kid you not, the response in the U.K. of “pricing specialist” (that same person who 60% claim to have some form of access to – either via guides or in person) was 5%.

I think that is worth repeating – 5%.

Put into context, that means in the U.K. pricing in your RFP is more likely to be signed off by Marketing & BD (9%) or Finance (14%). Indeed, in the U.K., “It varies” is likely to have more of a say on final pricing in the RFP response than the so-called pricing specialist.

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I’m not so sure why the results of this particular survey so surprise me. After all, time and time again survey results show that we typically say one thing about pricing, but do quite another.

What I will say though is this: if you have access to a pricing specialist, and pricing by your pricing specialist is being determined in 5% or less of your RFP responses, my guess is going to be one of two things: (a) you have no idea if you are making money from your RFP “wins”, or (b) more likely, you are leaving money on the table big time!

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* images should be enlargeable, apologies if they appear a little blurred.

#BizDevTip: Develop Value Groups

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Over toast and coffee this morning I read a cracking post on the LexisNexis Business of Law Blog by Carla Del Bove titled “Understanding the Science Behind How Clients Think“. The post provides some good tips for law firm business developers and marketers, but includes an absolute gem of a tip: “Develop Value Groups” (number 2 in the list), which Carla Del Bove describes as being:

“A value group is simply a group of influential business professionals (e.g. CFOs of major corporations or office managers of the top five consulting firms across the country, etc.) who meet either quarterly, or three times a year and share a common interest.

The first step involves figuring out who the firm’s target group is and then finding a common theme that draws them in and keeps them engaged. Some examples of this include: inviting members of the group to a prestigious event or using a prominent key note speaker for meetings. Most important, they say, is there needs to be a clear purpose for getting together and participants need to get some value out of the meeting. Lastly, they agree, value groups are less about quantity as they are about quality.”

Really useful tip by Carla that I thought I would pass on to you. Make sure you read the rest of Carla’s post and if you would like to get updates on other business development and marketing related material I read each week, feel free to sign up to my free weekly Mail Chimp update (or email me if you want to be added to the subscriber list).

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

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

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

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

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

Today may just be that day.

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Independence Day & The Billable Hour

Two things got my attention on Friday. The first was the decision by the UK to exit the EU (so-called “independence Day” by some of the more fanciful politicians and “Brexit” to most of the rest of us). On a much smaller scale, the second was an article in The Australia Financial Review that “Ditching the billable hours case a struggle“. (print edition – NB: online the article title is “Billable hours to always hold a place in law firms“).

With the first of these two items, I have very little to no control over and am left at the mercy of others.

The second on the other hand is absolute rubbish!

To be clear, mention of the billable hour in the opening four (4) paragraphs of this article are all to internal metrics; specifically how many hours fee earners need to bill each day to make budget (and a side note here, anyone else note how this changed from an annual figure of 1,400 hours to a daily figure of between 6 and 7.5 hours depending on which firm you work for? Is this because a daily figure is much easier to live with than an annual figure that daunts you by its task? If so, kind of simplistic thinking towards people who are supposed to be in the top 1%).

Anyhow I digress as this has nothing to do whatsoever with how clients are charged, much less how they want to be charged, and whether or not the billable hour needs to remain the “go to” fee arrangement of choice by firms and paragraph five (5) of the article tackles this issue head on when it says:

“However, the majority of firms said they worked with clients and offered alternative fee arrangements if suitable.”

You’re kidding right?

For those of you who have not seen it lately, here is the Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor ‘Chart of Billed and Collected Realization Against Standard‘ for the period 2005 to 2015:

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That squiggly little line in free-fall tells you realization rates have fallen from roughly 93 cents in the dollar in 2005 to just over 83 cents in the dollar in late 2015. It also tells me that you are not doing a very good job if you are working with your clients vis-a-vis how you charge them for the work you do and it puts to rest any attempt to suggest that billable hours are the preferred method of clients to be billed (unless, that is, you’re suggesting that clients know they can get discounts, or just not pay, bills that accrue on an hourly basis).

So over the weekend I got to think: like the article says, pretty much all of the reasons why the billable hour continues to be a struggle to ditch are down to internal measurement metrics. So, maybe, just maybe, like the UK did on Friday, it’s time for Australian law firms to opt out of the known and disruptive itself – and maybe the rest of the world with it!

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Will a ‘One Asia’ strategy work for BLP?

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I spent just over a decade in Asia between the 1990s and mid-2000s. In all the time I spent there I never considered the Region as ‘One Market’ – but rather as a multitude of diverse and different markets.

By way of example, almost everything we did in Asia was “ex-Japan“. This wasn’t because we didn’t see Japan as part of “Asia” – as it very much is – but rather because the international legal market there (NB, the Japanese local legal market is a very different issue) has far more in common with the US market than the Asian. As a result, we lumped Japan in with the US when discussing strategy (and you’re free to question that thinking/strategy).

Likewise, any strategy discussions we had that involved Singapore almost always included India, the Middle East and the Philippines. Similarly, strategy discussions that involved Hong Kong included not only mainland China but also Indonesia.

Finally, SE Asia (Thailand – where I was located, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) was its own regional discussion.

All up then, when discussing “Asian” strategy we had four or five discussions – not one.

That said, I worked with (but not for) firms (notably Herbert Smith as it was then) who operated on a fly-in fly-out basis. In my day we called this the “hub and spoke” approach, where the expertise went to the client need and, I have to assume, strategic discussions were done on a Regional basis.

While not criticising firms who took this approach – some did very well out of it – I didn’t think it worked for the firms I worked with as we held the view that, probably more so than any other market in the world, Asia operates on a relationship basis. Our experience was that relationships trumped expertise, and in the very family operated business world of Asia at that time, cost.

So why the history lesson?

Last week, in the Asian Lawyer, I read Bob Charlton – Asia Managing Partner of Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) – comment, following the firm’s Asian retreat, that:

“…in broad terms we agreed we must have a one Asia approach.”

Interesting, I wonder what BLP could mean by “a one Asia approach“?

Fortunately the article sets out exactly what that means:

“BLP’s “one Asia” strategy means the firm is doing away with the concept of geographic and practice area distinctions, focusing instead around sector groups. These groups include aviation, construction, oil and gas, private wealth and shipping.”

Now that really is interesting because, frankly, I’m not sure it is going to work.

A sector focus in Asia is a sensible move. A sector only approach to market in Asia is gutsy to say the least.

I say this for two reasons: (1) ‘relationships still trump in Asia’, and (2) Asia is not now, nor will it be for a very long time (if ever), one economic zone. That’s the case both for inbound and outbound work. And even if you don’t want to have people on the ground (which I would strongly recommend you do), you need to consider the geo-political economic implications separately.

And I’ve said all of this without mentioning the elephant in the room: “AdventBalance”. I wonder if they take a sector approach to their strategic thinking in Asia…

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$180K for a First-Year Associate – so what!

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One of the big news items this week has been the decision by Cravath, Swaine & Moore to raise its starting salaries for first year associates to $180,000. Cries of “Not worth it!” and “What value do first year associates provide clients?” (answer: probably none) can be heard from all four corners of the planet.

My view on this though is so what? I don’t really care what you pay your first year associates. In the same way I don’t really care what you pay your other associates or partners. Nor do I really care what your rent is costing you.

Unless, that is, I get to thinking that: I am the one paying for all this. In which case, I suddenly become very interested.

But here’s the thing: I’d only really start to think that I’m the one paying for all your luxuries – the boat you have moored at the marina, the sports car you drive, the house you live in, the first year associate you can call on day and night – if I didn’t value the service you provide me. In other words: If I didn’t think I was getting value for money.

So if you’re one of the many private practitioners questioning the move by Cravath, Swaine & Moore, my only comment/question is this:

If you are providing your clients with a value for money service offering – and you are able to communicate this, why should it bother you?

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Report: Collected realization plummeted to 82.2% in Q1 2016

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Thanks to an article by Dave Galbenski of Lumen Legal – ‘Overcapacity, Underutilization and Realization Rates Plummeting‘ – I have just been made aware of the publication last month (May ’16) of the Q1 2016 Executive Report (.pdf download) undertaken by Peer Monitor Index (Report).

While the Report gives glimmers of hope (demand slightly up for certain practice areas), the overall message is bleak. And none so more than this:

“After showing some recent signs of stabilizing, collected realization took a sudden and sharp drop in the first quarter. For most of the past two years, collection rates have hovered around the 83% mark. But in Q1, collected realization plummeted to 82.2%. Not only is this a new historical low, it was the largest quarterly drop in more than three years.”

OK, two things here:

  1. a collected realization rate of 83% is not a benchmark we want to be heading to, but away from.
  2. if you keep putting your hourly rates up (recently BTI Consulting’s The Mad Clientist asked: ‘Is $5,000 an Hour Next?‘) but your collected realization rate is “plummeting”, then you’re most likely losing money (as well as the respect of your clients I might add).

My only other thoughts are:

  1. why do we insist on the hourly rate model as our primary means of charging if our collected realization amounts to 82 cents in the dollar? Seems absolute madness to me; and
  2. how many law firms out there can continue to operate on such an “historic” low collected realization rate? I know a number of accountants and bankruptcy lawyers who’ll happily tell you: “not many”.

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AFAs accounted for less than 10% of all matters in the US last year

This month saw publication of the End-of-Year 2015 edition of the Enterprise Legal Management Trends Report by LexisNexis and CounselLink.

Based on data derived from outside counsel invoices – accounting for US$21 billion in legal spend in the USA – processed through the CounselLink platform, to my mind what makes this Report different to others is this: it provides insights others might miss because while talk can be cheap, the numbers rarely lie.

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From an Australian perspective, a couple of surprising statistics come out of this year’s Report.

  • the use of AFAs, to govern the service payment of matters, only accounted for 9.4% of matters processed through the CounselLink platform. Given all the chatter and whining you hear from law firms, I would have expected this rate to be much, much higher.
  • Employment and Labor (at 17.3%) is a fairly significant practice area leader in the number of matters (but not revenue – see below) using AFAs, but Real Estate accounting for something less than 2% of its practice area matters using AFAs seems out of whack.
  • Nearly 10% of Regulatory and Compliance matters are done under AFA arrangements. At first this seemed a little strange (given the grey hair nature of the advice being sought), but then I thought a large number of compliance programs could be sold using retainers, fixed fees and other AFAs.

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Moving on to percentage of “billings” executed under AFAs and things start to get really interesting.

  • at 12.4%, by far the biggest practice area using AFAs by billings is Corporate, General and Tax (excluding Mergers and Acquisitions, which is a separate line entry). Not sure I would have guessed that.
  • Finance, Loans and Investments ranked third highest practice area using AFAs by billings last year. Again, don’t think I would have picked that.
  • by billings, only 7% of Employment and Labor practice area matters are executed under AFAs. So, 17.3% of Employment and Labor matters were conducted under AFAs, but only 7% of billings. Might just be me, but that seems strange and I’d want to dig deeper into why that might be the case if my practice was showing these numbers. Then again, may just be the Pareto Theory in practice!
  • At roughly 2% of practice area billings, who says Real Estate has become a commoditized practice area? Because these numbers aren’t showing it.

Interesting numbers showing through this Report. Lots of chatter around the rise in M&A activity/revenue and the fact that “New Law” isn’t being hired to do big ticket work, but the use of AFAs and rationalization of legal panels (which I may well blog on later this week) were my two big takeouts.

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