legal

Is the legal industry undergoing its “Fosbury flop” moment?

Last week the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at the Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute and Peer Monitor published their ‘2020 Report on the State of the Legal Market‘. This annual Report sets out the publishers’ views of the dominant trends impacting the legal market in the United States in 2019 and the key issues likely to influence the market in 2020 and beyond.

The Introduction of this year’s Report looks at ‘Incremental Improvement vs. Radical Change‘, as it might apply to the current state of the legal industry.

Drawing on the story of Dick Fosbury’s performance at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, at which Fosbury stunned the world by setting a new Olympic record in the men’s high-jump event using a technique (the Fosbury flop) that had never been used in competition anywhere else previously, the Introduction to this year’s Report sets a great – and somewhat dramatic – backdrop to what it considers constitutes radical change against incremental change.

The Fosbury flop, without doubt, was radical change to a long held practice in 1968. But, post 1976, when all three medallist used the technique, it can also claim to be the victim of incremental improvement/change, as there hasn’t really been any great leap forward in high jump technique since.

So what has this all to do with the legal industry?

Well, it’s like this, probably since the mid-1980s the legal industry has undergone a series of incremental improvements, without really being the subject of any radical change. But, as the Report eludes, the last 12 to 18 months in the legal industry may have seen a shift here. The re-emergence of the Big 4, growth of legal tech, alternative legal service providers suggest a cusp of radical change is on the horizon (if it hasn’t already arrived).

So has it?

Well, I’m not so sure. Let’s take a look at some of the graphics in the report:

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The graphic above looks at leverage of lawyers in US firms. Aside from the ‘Midsize’ firms, where a type of diamond is forming, the AM Law 100 and 200 look like very traditional law firm pyramids to me.

1 This second graph looks numbers of hours worked per lawyer and this looks to have flat-lined since the GFC in 2008. So no real change there.

4This third – and last – graphic looks at collection realization against agreed worked and, again, has pretty much flat-lined over the past 5 years at a relatively horrid 89.5%.

Collectively these three graphics paint a rather sad story to me. There may be change in the industry. But it is far from radical. And one may argue it really hasn’t even been that incremental post 2008; with the caveat that you also need to be mindful that not all industry segments are now equal, as some are clearly more equal that others!

As always though, read the Report as I’d be interested in your thoughts/views/feedback.

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Peak Load – The Rise of the Contractor Lawyer in Private Practice Law Firms

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We have seen a rise in the use of contractors in more senior legal practitioner roles in recent years. This has been supported by firms moving to introduce their own contract legal businesses to manage fluctuations in workflow.”

Marc Totaro – National Manager, Professional Services Business & Private Banking; Commonwealth Bank of Australia

Earlier this month the Commonwealth Bank published the 2019 edition of its Legal Market Pulse. While the Report relates specifically to law firms and the legal industry in Australia, it contains a number of take-outs and trends that I believe can be applied more broadly across the global industry that is ‘legal services’.

One of these, as the quote from Marc Totaro above indicates, is the documented rise in the Report in the use of contractors within law firms themselves.

Until recently I had not seen much traction with suppliers of legally qualified contractors cracking the private practice market. Don’t get me wrong, I knew who Crowd & Co were and I had read about the arrangement between Lawyers on Demand and DLA Piper. But the actual use of contractors to back-stop in private practice hadn’t really registered with me.  Part of the reason for my scepticism here had been centred around the issue of:

Why would law firms with relatively poor utilisation rates want or need the use of contractors?

My thinking here changed though following a conversation I had with Katherine Thomas, CEO of Free Range Lawyers and  ex-Vario (Pinsent Masons). Katherine assured me – and convinced me – that the tide was changing and that law firms were now making use of access to highly skilled contractors for both locums and projects as part of their core HR strategy. And when I got to thinking about it a little more I realised that poor utilisation rates would actually be a really good reason why you would want to have access to contractors at it would give you greater flexibility in managing your teams’ resourcing.

In any event, the Commbank Report would appear to provide anecdotal evidence to Katherine’s views in that law firms are indeed making greater use of contractors. What’s probably more encouraging – from Katherine’s financial point of view – though is the fact that biggest area of year-on-year increase in usage is at the Senior Associate/Senior Lawyer (4+ years) level.

And in my view, the contractor trend is probably one of the biggest insights to come out of this Report – although others are writing a lot more around others things contain in the Report so make sure you read it!

Now if only I had been smart enough to read that market trend!

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

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Which would you prefer: the customer you attract, or the customer you pursue?

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This blog post is based on a #2020futureoflawthought I posted last week on social media – ‘Who pays you better, the client you attract or the client you pursue?’.

It occurs to me that law firms are much more willing – and even better resourced – to pursue customers than they are to attract them. We have dedicated pursue customer resources to hand – such as bids, tenders and pursuits teams. And we are willing to offer discounts and other ‘value adds’ to new customers that we would never think of offering to existing and loyal customers.

And what do we get for throwing all these resources and efforts in to pursuing customers?

If we are honest, and have a really good bid/tender/pursuit team to call on, somewhere between 50%-70% win conversion rate! Which is not to say that conversion rate is profitable, because in many cases to get us across the line it isn’t!

Create distinction

Recently I started listening to Scott McKain’s daily ‘Project Distinction podcast. It’s a great podcast that lasts around 10 minutes; around the same time as I made my social media post, Scott ran a week long series on how the ‘hard sell’ had had its day (the $55 million dollar ‘lost’ sale is a funny listen and a serious lesson in to why the 7 touches sales method is dead IMO).

Scott is also the author of ‘Create Distinction’, a book I have just started reading on the back of his daily podcasts that I have really enjoyed.

Anyhow, both Scott’s podcast and what I have read of his book so far have made me come to the realisation that the traditional law firm approach of pursuing a customer is actually the wrong way of doing things. Instead of pursuing customers with great value adds and discounts, we need to get much better at attracting customers – to our areas of expertise and to our superior service delivery.

Become a person of interest
Timely Andrew Sobel – one of the greats in my opinion – also touched on the issue of attracting versus pursuing customers in his blog post last week: ‘C-Suite Strategies Part IV: Become an Irresistible Person of Interest’.

In the post Andrew asks:

What if, however, the situation were reversed, and senior executives were *drawn to you*? What if, instead of you waiting in the long line outside their office, they were waiting in a line to meet *you*?

Fair question: what indeed?

Andrew then sets out six ‘strategies’ (more like ‘tips’ in my opinion) on how to become a person of interest, that include:

  1. Sharpen your expertise while expanding your knowledge breadth
  2. Develop your thought leadership
  3. Be seen as someone who is at the crossroads of the marketplace
  4. Become a person with interests
  5. Build an eclectic network
  6. Develop, manifest, and communicate your core beliefs and values

Something to think about this week then: would you prefer to be attracting or pursuing customers?

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

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Does your law firm use personas in its tender response preparation?

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I first came across the use of “personas”, in the buying-cycle, in ‘This is Service Design Doing’ by Marc Stinkdorn, Edgar Hormess, Markus, Adam Lawrence, and Jakob Schneider. This is one of those books that have a pivotal impact on your thinking and go directly into your Top 20 reading recommendations.

But it has been a while since I last picked the book up. And so when I was reading ‘Personas – A Simple Introduction’ by Rikke Dam and Two Siang  this week (as material for this week‘s newsletter)  it brought me immediately back to Service Design Doing; especially, or probably more particularly, who Dam and Siang define “persona” as being:

Personas are fictional characters, which you create based upon your research in order to represent the different user types that might use your service, product, site, or brand in a similar way. Creating personas will help you to understand your users’ needs, experiences, behaviours and goals. Creating personas can help you step out of yourself. It can help you to recognise that different people have different needs and expectations, and it can also help you to identify with the user you’re designing for.

How many law firm business development / tender / pitch / pursuit / etc professionals use this concept  in their bid/no bid process? Not many would be my guess.

But think of the benefits of your law firm role playing (or at least giving a chair to) the following personas in any tender “bid/no bid” discussion:

  • the Procurement person’s persona
  • the Legal operations person’s persona (increasingly) – CLOC / ACC and the growth of legal operations
  • the Client/user persona
  • the Client/payer persona
  • the GC persona
  • the CFO persona
  • the CEO persona
  • the In-house lawyers persona
  • the Business Managers persona

And the list can go on and on.

If your firm played this game, do you think you might start to get a little better at wining tenders?

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

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How to spot a bad client and knowing when you should fire them

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I’ve long been a fan of Ron Baker’s ‘Baker’s Law: Bad Customers Drive Out Good Customers’. His comment that:

By viewing your firm as an airplane with a fixed amount of seats, you will begin to adapt your capacity to those customers who appreciate—and are willing to pay for—your value proposition.

is spot on.

But it really wasn’t until last week, when I read an article in smallbiztrends.com, that I’d come across a comprehensive checklist of ways to identify those bad customers from the good ones.

The article –  ‘How to Spot Bad Customers – and How to Deal with Them’ – sets out ’10 Ways to Identify a Bad Customer’. They’re great and should be pinned on every lawyers homepage:

  1. They Don’t Pay On-Time (Or Ever)
  2. They Don’t Pay Enough (Or Don’t Want To Pay)
  3. They Have Unclear or Changing Demands
  4. They Want ALL the Attention
  5. They Aren’t Available
  6. They Aren’t Honest
  7. They are Abusive or Threaten Your Staff
  8. They Make Unreasonable Demands
  9. They Complain to Anyone Who Will Listen
  10. They Don’t Listen to You

How many of us can identify with most, if not all of these!?!?

It’s a great post. As is Baker’s. Read them (while noting that there is a 13 year gap between the two posts and not a lot has changed!)!

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

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It doesn’t pay to be a loyal customer

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The Chanticleer column in this weekend’s Australian Financial Review is titled ‘It doesn’t pay to be a loyal customer’. The article is a post-Hayne, post several reductions in interest rates, look at bank mortgage rates and analysis undertaken by Matthew Wilson at Evans & Partners that suggests:

“In Australia, the banks enjoy a profit benefit of about $3 billion a year from exploiting the difference in mortgage rates between existing and new customers”.

I’m not going to comment on whether or not that statement is correct/true (although a hunch would suggest it is), but it did make me think that in the professional services (read ‘legal’) sector it absolutely holds true that it doesn’t pay to be a loyal customer/client.

What do I mean by this?

Well when pricing services to new customers/clients – especially in tender situations, law firms are far more willing to:

  • Buy the work to cement the relationship
  • Offer volume discounts
  • Deeply discount on rack-rates
  • Agree to discounted fixed fee arrangements
  • Agree to risk-sharing arrangements

Indeed, more often than not the average billing rate (ABR) and the average realisation rate of a long-term customer/client will be higher than a new client, while lock-up days will be lower.

As Chanticleer says, it really doesn’t pay to be a loyal customer these days!

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

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Game: ‘Questions to ask your deal team about why your customer is happy to pay your fee?’

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Came across the bones of a really interesting game you can play with your deal team at your next after action deal debrief/lessons learnt meeting.
Handout a piece of paper to each of your deal team members and ask them to rank, in order of priority, the top 5 reasons – from the following list – why the customer is happy to pay your fees in full (no discounts/write-offs, etc allowed):
  1. Demonstrated an understanding of the customer’s business/industry throughout the deal
  2. Demonstrated an understanding of relevant law
  3. Responsiveness to customer’s requests – phone/email/meetings
  4. Built good rapport and a trusting relationship during the deal (was in the trenches with the customer)
  5. Used expertise to help save the customer money (either on the deal or fees)
  6. Used Legal Project Management techniques to stay within the deal scope and didn’t allow scope creep without first taking to the customers
  7. Used technology, AI, Legal Process Outsourcing and value adds to make the customer’s life easier during the deal
  8. Offered the customer a great discount
  9. Hourly rate was attractive to the customer
  10. Any other reason(s)

Remember, they can only pick 5. And they need to be in order of priority.

I would love to hear feedback on which five were the most popular chosen.

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Thinking of starting a podcast?

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Over the past week I’ve had three different people inform me that they were starting podcasts and ask me if I would be willing to be interviewed. Honoured as I am by such requests, I did also wonder why such interest in me and podcasts more broadly?

In mulling this over I recalled a recent podcast (5 June 2019, Podcast #227) between Sam Glover and Bob Ambrogi on ‘The State of Legal Blogging & Podcasting‘ on the Lawyerist podcast.  Listening to this again today it struck me how many great tips these two give out (for free) to anyone looking to start a podcast; some of which are (fast forward to 29 minutes into Sam’s talk to really get the best out of these):

  • are podcast a fad or here to stay?
  • has the revenue model for podcasts been worked out?
  • have we really thought through the market penetration issue (more people don’t listen to podcasts than do)?
  • is there too much content already out there? if there is, what are you doing to be a little bit different?
  • how often should you be producing material – daily, weekly, monthly?
  • should you be framing your podcast with music at the start and end?
  • what equipment should you be using?

Taking all that on board and still want to produce a podcast? Then these are three things that Sam and Bob say in their podcast that should also be considered:

  1. it’s more work than you think it is going to be
  2. it’s really tough to build a subscriber base
  3. the right people over lots of people (love this saying)

On that last point, independent of Sam and Bob’s chat, I also heard this week that the average podcast lasts 7 issues.

To help you overcome this, Bob makes a brilliant suggestion in the podcast – if you are attending a conference take your recording equipment with you. And someone who does that really, really well is Ari Kaplan.

I hope you enjoy all the links. Listen to them – they are great (and free!); and, as always, love to hear your thoughts/views/feedback.

Secondments, labour arbitrage and a new race to the bottom

Follow me:

  • In-house teams have been the biggest ‘growth’ area in legal post 2008 and some in-house teams are now bigger than the law firms they previously outsourced worked to
  • Most GCs report to the CFO
  • GCs are increasingly under pressure from the CFO to reduce their ‘cost’ (including bonuses now linked to reducing cost – note: not external legal spend)
  • GCs have effectively two cost centres: ‘labour’ or ‘ external legal spend’
  • Procurement tells GCs they can reduce both ‘labour’ and ‘spend’ at the same time – secondments (heavily discounted at daily or weekly rates in RFPs – don’t need to advise out and don’t need to hire in-house!)
  • Law firms enter the discounted labour arbitrage market

And a new race to the bottom starts*…

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

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*welcome to the party LoD

What is the biggest pricing problem law firms are facing today?

This week’s episode of the Impact Pricing podcast (episode 20 – ‘Mastering SaaS Pricing: How to Price and Package Your Service’) sees host Mark Stiving talking with Kyle Poyar, Vice President for Market Strategy at OpenView. By their own admission, Mark and Kyle geek-out over SaaS pricing theory and its KPIs, so this podcast is not for everyone.

What is interesting, however, is the response Kylie gives to a question Mark asks at the 23 minute 37 second mark.

Mark’s question:

What do you see as the biggest pricing problem that subscription companies are having today?

Kylie’s response:

…structurally speaking, companies are not spending enough time on pricing, they don’t take a scientific or rigorous enough approach to optimising their pricing and testing it and collecting data on it. And we have gotten smart about just about everything in technology and if you look at the level of sophistication of the operations of a technology company it’s like just so different from where we were a few years ago. But pricing hasn’t really changed and I’ve just started to hear of companies that are trying to bring on pricing talent and make their first dedicated pricing hire and have that happen earlier in their lifecycle; but then those companies are having trouble figuring out what’s the right profile to hire for, who is going to do a good job in this role, and then finding that talent and so I think like, structurally, their biggest challenge is just lack of great pricing skills…

In my opinion, that sums up pretty well the pricing problem that we have in law firms:- we’re in such a rush to show everyone how serious we are about the pricing issue/problem facing the industry (as in, alternatives to the billable hour, project management, process improvement etc), that we have hired Heads of Pricing by the boat loads, but a niggling issue remains – industry report after industry report that has sought feedback from clients indicates (some might even say, shows) that we haven’t gotten all that much more sophisticated or even better about how we price. If that’s the case, we have to ask: is there just a lack of great pricing skills in the industry?

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

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NB: please ignore all comments Kylie makes about volume discounts prior to his comments above, as regular readers will know I don’t hold with those views!