pricing

Okay you can keep the ‘Legal’ tag; but it’s just Project Management!

I’ve been ‘white-boarding’ legal matters since my days helping out on front-end major projects back in 1996; so the concept of ‘mapping out’ how a transaction might progress, what may be ‘in scope’ and ‘out of scope’, the approximate amount of time the transaction may take and how we are going to resource it are not new to me. In more recent times (largely following the GFC in 2008) the legal industry has formalised my approach of ’white-boarding’ matters to become Legal Project Management. 

While I was never really that sure over the years how Legal Project Management differed from the more general Project Management, I have been assured – on numerous occasions – that there is a difference. When asked how, the most common response I received was that:-

  • Legal Project Management is the discipline of project managing ‘tacit knowledge’ – as ‘knowledge workers’, while
  • Project Management is the discipline of project managing tangible products, e.g., the construction of a hospital.

And until the last month or so I thought that was a pretty good answer.

So what changed?

Well, in the last month and a bit I have attended a collective 5 day (2 day and then a 3 day) course on Project Management Fundamentals run by PM-Partners Group here in Sydney.

The two day Fundamentals (essentially, theory) session was outstanding and broken-down into the following nine (9) modules:

  1. What makes projects succeed (and by implication, fail)
  2. The essential project management philosophy
  3. The project life cycle
  4. Project planning – project definition and scoping
  5. Project planning – creating the WBS & schedule
  6. Project planning – estimating
  7. Project risk
  8. Project execution & control
  9. Project closure

In turn, if you were on a course where you learnt all about: 

  • scope creep
  • the difference between what a risk is and what an issue is (hint, one has happened and the other hasn’t)
  • how to do a business case and a project plan
  • the triangle of scope, cost, time and quality
  • the four dependency types [finish-start; start-start; finish-finish; and start-finish], and
  • you get to work on creating a Work Breakdown Structure and Estimating (Optimistic, Pessimistic and Most Likely – also looking at the Cone of Uncertainty)

Wouldn’t you think you had been on one of the best Legal Project Management training courses around?

Well, that’s exactly what the two day PM-Partners run Project Management Fundamentals course taught me and I have walked away from that course thinking to myself that you can keep the classify ‘Legal’, at the end of the day it’s project management and it’s this type of project management we need to get better at.

My biggest take-out though?

Understanding the difference between a risk and an issue, because anyone doing pricing should get their head around this because it really is as important (and probably goes hand-in-hand with) as what happens with scope creep [helpful extra tip: want to understand scope creep, look up what happens with the formula: n (n – 1) /2].

Get in touch if you want to hear/find out more, otherwise get yourself on a really good PM Fundamentals course because I can guarantee it will pay for itself!

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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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The pointlessness of the ‘billable hour’ set out in two charts

Overnight, Australia-time, the Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute, relying on data from Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor, published the findings of its ‘2018 Report on the State of the Legal Market‘. Reviewing the performance of U.S. law firms in 2017, as well as looking at the trends expected in 2018, this annual report is typically the “first” big report publication of the year and so a trendsetter of where we may be going as an industry over the next 12 months.

As has been the case in other years, the first chart I typically like to see in this annual report is the one setting out ‘Collection Realization against Standard Rates by Law Firm Segment‘ – Chart 9 in this year’s publication – to hopefully give me an indication of how an industry that largely relies on increases in hourly rates each year to boost top-line revenue is fairing.

As you can see, yet again the results here can best be described as ‘disappointing’:

Chart 9

AM Law 100 firms are tracking an ever declining realised recoveries of circa 80 cents in the dollar. All others aren’t doing all that much better at circa 85 cents in the dollar.

Either way, those levels of realisation would have most bank managers in a panic. And the reason they don’t comes down to one small issue: in law firms this collection rate – other than telling you that the market doesn’t see your hourly value as highly as you do – is absolutely meaningless.

What it is, is pie in the sky internal budgetary metrics against market reality cash in the bank.

So we turn to my second “go-to” chart: ‘Collection Realization against Worked (Agreed) Rates‘. This year this is represented in Chart 10:

Chart 10

As the name suggests, what this chart is showing us is “Collected v Worked (Agreed)”. I’m   assuming the “agreed” here is upfront, and I’m accepting that the picture is far from perfect, but there is a far better flatline realisation rate here of 90-ish per cent, or 90 cents in the dollar.

So, what’s my take-out from the two charts?

If you want to try and get a better handle on your projected cashflow, no doubt better to have an upfront conversation with your client about how much you are going to be charging them – however that is (fixed fee, hourly rates, etc) – than having an arbitrary, and less and less meaningful, ‘billable hourly rate’.

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Pitching: ‘Show me don’t tell me’ – is video tendering the future?

Happy New Year to all and welcome to 2018!

One of the more interesting articles I read over the holiday period profiled a Dutch company called Pitchsome.

Heard of them?

Maybe, but I doubt many have.

But they may just end up being a catalyst for of one of the biggest changes to the legal industry in 2018 – namely, how we tender for work in the future.

Under the tagline, “Show, Don’t Tell,” Pitchsome’s business model is a simple one: Show me how your product works in a video and don’t write reams and reams of marketing bluff and expect me to read it in order for me find out what you can do for me/help me fix my problem.

Supporting this business model, the article states that:

Cisco’s Visual Networking Index says video will account for 80 percent of all consumer internet traffic by 2019.

And that got me thinking:

80% of all consumer internet traffic by 2019 will be Visual Networking + pretty much 100% of Government and 70+% of ASX Top100 companies have legal panels in place

so, how long will it be before these government departments/agencies and companies decide to replace the long and tedious word/excel document tender responses with video tenders that ask law firms to:

  • profile key team members,
  • white-board how the law firm can assist the client,
  • evidence how Legal Project Management can be used,
  • visually explain the steps in the pricing,
  • have client referee testimonials,
  • have video of the pro-bono and community activities the firm is involved in, and
  • have other examples of how the value adds being offered are being implemented by other clients in the tender’s industry sector?

Will never happen I’m hearing many in Australia reading this say. “It’s not professional”. “It’s nothing short an advert”, etc., etc.

But I’m left feeling: what, just what, would have happen to the industry if those of us who started down this path in 2008 (and those of you who were involved know exactly what I’m talking about) continued the journey?

It very well may have been disruptive. And that word is a real catchphrase at the moment.

So maybe, just maybe, we will be seeing video tendering by the end of 2019 – and that leaves me asking: what are you doing now to make sure you can met this need?

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What the year 2081 will mean for law firm discounts

Business Development image

Over the holiday’s I finally got time to read D. Casey Flaherty’s ‘Unless You Ask: A Guide For Law Departments To Get More From External Relationships‘ published by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC).

Casey’s publication is excellent and very insightful. Although written for in-house legal departments, it contains information that every private practice lawyer should be across. If for no other reason than it has an array of sample questions they may be asked.

But, it is a brief piece in the publication on asking for discounts on hourly rates/bills that I wanted to share with you all. Because Casey has managed to put into words, both succinctly and comprehensively, my own feelings on discounts.

So here it is (see pages 64 & 65):

Without some grounding in value, discounts just become a game.

First, you can only push the discount lever so many times. A recession hits or you run a convergence initiative. You get your firms to take a big haircut. What’s next? It will probably be a few years before you can return to that well in any meaningful way. Continuous improvement, on the other hand, should be a constant. There is always some process to refine, some assumption to question, or some technology to take better advantage of. Discounts can be part of a strategy. But a strategy that relies entirely on discounts is hollow.

Second, there is a huge volume of data that suggests that while most clients see themselves as negotiating progressively deeper discounts, what they are really doing is negotiating down the size of the rate increase. Last year, the client got a 10% discount off a $500 rate. This year, the client gets an 11% discount off a $520 rate. What really happened is that that firm increased the rate from $450 to $463. You can perform this trick—4% rate increase, additional 1% discount—for a quite long time before the rate flattens out. How long? 66 years. In 2081, the paid rate ($1,600/hr) would finally stop increasing as the discount (75% off a published rate of $6,399/hr) caught up to the rate increase.

Third, while almost every law department will proudly refer to the deep discounts they’ve negotiated, only about half even get one. That’s because a true discount is not calculated versus a lawyer’s published rate—of which there may be several—but is calculated by reference to something called a standard rate, an internal firm number used to determine realizations, profitability, etc. With a few exceptions, almost no one pays published rate and therefore everyone thinks they are getting a discount. But only about half of clients actually pay below standard rate. And even they are not getting as deep a discount as they think.

Fourth, if you count discounts as savings, please stop. If you’ve reduced rates below what you were paying previously, that’s one thing, especially if you also have a mechanism to monitor and hold the line on hours. But if you are just counting the delta between the published rate and your paid rate, it introduces some bizarre incentives. It encourages firms to jack up published rates so they can offer you the optical illusion of a bigger discount. It encourages you to select higher priced firm so you can report greater ‘savings’—i.e., you show double the savings by paying $700/hr to a lawyer with a published rate of $900/hr than you do paying $350/hr to a lawyer with a published rate of $450/hr. And your savings accumulate with every extra hour of work the firm bills. There is something inherently perverse about a savings metric that makes you look better the more you spend.

Fifth, finally, and most importantly, undue emphasis on discounts tends to confuse unit price with total cost. Rate differences are linear. Hours can differ by orders of magnitude. The $350/hr associate might look relatively cheap until it takes them ten hours to deliver work half as good as what the $800/hr partner delivered in one. Attention to the unit price ($350 v. $800) will obscure both quality and total cost ($3,500 v. $800). We intuitively understand the difference experience can make. Systems—the proper integration of process and technology to augment expertise in delivering legal services—are experience institutionalized. Systems merit attention in trying to understand the relationship among quality, unit price, and total cost. Discounts are only a small fraction of one piece of that puzzle.

There you have it: why discounts should not be anywhere near the front of your pricing arsenal.

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R.I.P. AFAs in 2017?

I thought I would start my calendar year of blogging off with a slightly controversial post:

Will 2017 be the year that we finally sees the demise of so-called Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs)?

For those unfamiliar with the various types of AFAs currently in use – and there cannot be many of you out there, then Patrick on Pricing’s Continuum of Fee Arrangements is a good starting point.

Okay, so a fair amount was made of a chart in a ‘ACC Report – Law Department Management: Establishing Value In An Evolving Business World’ published late last year which predicted a 50% increase in the use of Alternative Fees this year. Given the ACC is the leading voice for in-house counsel globally, including, now, Australia, pretty clear evidence of the future direction of AFAs you’d think.

But, to my knowledge, little has been made of the fact that the same chart foresaw a 30% decrease in the use of Alternative Fees this year by those same in-house counsel.

use-of-afas-image

And so I asked myself: Given their popularity, what could possibly be driving in-house to contemplate a reduction in their use of AFAs? This is especially so given that the ACC has very much been at the forefront of championing their use? And, potentially, in such large numbers?

The truth is, I don’t know the answer to this question. It could be as simple as the fact that in-house counsel expect to instruct out less work that fits the AFA model. But I also hazard a guess that with some in-house counsel it will have something to do with one or all of the following three possible reasons:

  1. AFAs are not transparent – no one, apart from the person who sets them, knows how they got to tat price. As such, it’s really difficult to compare them.
  2. AFAs don’t represent value. Despite a belief that they represent value over hourly billing, in the view of many in-house counsel they simply don’t. Therefore, much easier to use the foe you know (hourly billing with discounts).
  3. AFAs are not alternatives. Simply put, the core to most AFAs proposed by law firms remains: Units of Labour (manpower) x Time x Rate = Price. QED, they are not “alterative”. Indeed, their very names even suggest it with “blended”, “phase”, “task”, “volume”, “flat”.

To be clear, I don’t want to see the demise of value pricing. Indeed, quite the opposite. Nor am I particularly an advocate of hourly billing. I am however, wholly against the use of the term “alternative” when they clearly aren’t. And so I’m not overly surprised that 30% of in-house counsel are saying they will see a decline in their use this year.

Given the glacial speed of change in the the industry, I’ll wait to see if there is any change here this year. My gut tells me though not to hold my breath and that we are likely to be in the same place next year as we are now.

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What percentage of legal spend is via alternative fee arrangements?

The Ninth Annual Law Department Operation Survey was published late last month (Nov 2016). A survey of – a record number of – 133 law department professional, one of the questions asked in this year’s survey was:

‘What percentage of legal spend is via alternative fee arrangement?’

Unlike other legal market surveys undertaken during the course of the year, the results here are telling in that they are from those running the legal department, as opposed to those practising, and therefore, arguably, are more reflective of the market’s aptitude to Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs).

Overwhelmingly – at 87 percent – US in-house law departments make some use of AFAs with their private practice suppliers. Tellingly though, only 14.1% of this is over 50% of spend and more than a third – 34.4% – is in the one to 10 percent space (making me wonder if this is just discounts disguised as AFAs).

 

afas-9th-ldo-survey-2016

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