profit

10 takeouts from BigHand’s Legal Pricing & Budgeting Report

I’m a cynic, so usually read industry reports published by industry providers with a huge pinch of salt, but every now and then you get an exception to the rule. So is the case with BigHand’s recently published ‘The Legal Pricing & Budgeting Report’, which is full of really insightful information (so read it!).

Here are my 10 take-outs (NA = North America and UK = UK):-

From

The damning:

1.

To the surprising:

2.

3.

To some obvious:

4.

5.

And some knowns:

6.

7.

With a few, “What the?” (as in, only…)

8.

9.

With a great conclusion:

10.

As I said, as a rule I don’t recommended reading these types of reports as they typically are a waste of time; but this is one I have no problem saying “go read it!” – and if you have any thoughts/comments, post them in the comments section below!

Have a great week all.

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#ICYMI – Weekly Digest Issue 278

This week’s Digest has been sent out to subscribers. Some of my highlight’s from the week were:

There has been so much great content this week – check it all out here.

If you don’t already, you can subscribe here.

Have a great weekend all!

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Charging like a wounded bull: 10 things to consider

I came across the phrase “The Marquis de Sade approach to billing clients: ‘Bill them till they scream’” in Ori Wiener’s ‘High Impact Fee Negotiation and Management for Professionals: How to Get, Set, and Keep the Fees You’re Worth’ (a book a highly recommend). It made me laugh, and got me to thinking:

‘What would be some of the things I would want to be looking out for in a law firm’s invoice?

So here’s a quick list of my 10 things, but feel free to add your own 🤪 :-

Being charged [for]:

  • Expenses/disbursement – especially if they are unaccounted for (and particularly on fixed fee matters)
  • Travel time – especially if your lawyer is in the same town/city as you
  • ‘Reading in’ time – especially when a new lawyer joins the team because one of the original team members has resigned or left the team
  • Team meetings to discuss your case/matter
  • Multiple lawyers attending the same meeting – especially if they have different time eateries
  • ‘Out of scope’ work without a corresponding change order
  • Block billing of numerous tasks without explanation
  • Promotions – charge-out rates being increased for lawyers on your case because they have gain an additional year of post-qualified experience without adding any additional value
  • ‘Bill padding’/‘Rounding up’ – when your lawyer rounds their time up to the next billable unit
  • ‘Stickiness’ – where senior lawyers are doing work on your file that could be easily have been done by more junior lawyers, but they do it because they need to meet their internal billable targets.have different time.

As I say, feel free to add some of your own in the comments.

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Does your firm use data as a profitability management tool?

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I’ve just finished reading the latest Altman Weil ‘Law Firms in Transition 2020‘ report.

With all things COVID the Report (as it has done in any event for the past decade) makes for interesting reading.

But, the response(s) to one of the questions in this year’s Report  I found particularly concerning.

When asked:

“Which of the following statements describes your firm’s use of profitability data as a management tool?”*

16.2% of respondents replied:

“We don’t want to use the data because it is potentially controversial or divisive.”

16.2% of respondents believe sharing and using data in 2020 can be ‘potentially controversial or divisive.’

I find that rather sad.

And don’t even get me started on how it is possible that over 13% of respondents don’t even know how to use the data!

As always, the above just represent my own thoughts and always interested to hear the views of others.

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* see page 50 of the Report

[This post first appeared on my LinkedIn feed Thursday 2 July 2020]

‘Annuity Revenue’ – who wouldn’t crave some financial certainty in current circumstances?

Annuity revenue – a predictable revenue stream from new or existing customers who buy products and services associated with new or previously purchased products. 

As the Managing Partner of a law firm today, what would you say if I walked into your office and told you that I could:

  • provide you with a guaranteed monthly revenue income,
  • with a product that creates loyal customers, and
  • where those customers become – at no additional cost to you – brand champions and refer your services to their network, free of charge, via the Holy Grail of marketing – positive ‘word of mouth’ referrals.

Sounds great doesn’t it. Almost too good to be true.

Well all I can say is that if you were anything like one of the Managing Partners servicing customers who responded to the Pitcher Partners recent ‘Legal Survey 2020 Report‘, that’s exactly what you would be saying: “thanks, but no thanks we are happy with the billable hour”.

Pitcher Partners - Billing Methods

The fact that the billable hour remains the ‘go to’ method of billing (not the same as pricing) for Australian law firms and their customers does not, in and of itself, surprise me. I must admit, however, to being a little surprised with the 1% increase in this billing method (up from 58% to 59%) year-on-year.

Given the times (even pre Covid-19), I was also a little surprised to see that both ‘fixed fee’ and ‘value-based’ pricing remain relatively static (although it should be added that from what I could see the report lacks a definition of ‘value-based’, probably purposely so).

To me this represents a massive lack of foresight on the part of law firms and a significant lost opportunity.

In much the same way as software as a service (SaaS) companies have come to realise that one-off payments around shrink wrap contracts were not servicing the long-term financial interests of the company (unless it’s a legacy product that will no longer be supported), the time has come for law firms (and professional services firms more broadly) to realise that if we want to maximise revenue and, potentially, profit we need to rethink how we generate that revenue.

One alternative that the likes of Ron Baker and Mark Stiving have been banging the drum about for some time is ‘subscription based pricing’.

The benefits of adopting a subscription based pricing model

I have posted previously on this blog about the benefits of subscription based pricing (see here), but leaving all that aside for a second; as Amy Gallo wrote way back in October 2014 in the Harvard Business Review (see ‘The Value of Keeping the Right Customers) with the acquisition costs of acquiring new customers running being between 5 and 25 times more expensive than servicing existing customers, it makes economic and financial sense to find, and keep, the right customers.

How you price this is probably the most important step along that path.

The weakness of having billable hours as your default billing method is that you are pricing to the transaction. Whereas one of the greatest benefits of the subscription based pricing model – or even a retainer based pricing model if you must at the start- is that you start thinking about pricing the customer or even the portfolio.

In other words, you start to think about the customer and their needs first. And for an industry that always talks about the customer being at the centre of everything we do, doesn’t it makes sense that our pricing structure reflect this claim?

But it also makes sense internally, because it:

  • is smarter pricing
  • leads to smarter collaboration
  • moves you away from seasonal end of financial and calendar year pressures, and
  • helps remove any discussion around the ‘commodity’ tag.

Not to say, in these COVID-19 times, when you are talking working capital facilities with your bank, it provides you with a guaranteed annuity revenue stream.

Now who would not want that comfort right now?!

These just represent my thoughts though and always interested to hear your views.

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2018 was a great year for AusLaw firms*!

As we close out the year that was 2018, the graph below – from the recent (December 2018) Commonwealth Bank ‘Professional Services’ report – would appear to support the fact that 2018 has been a financially beneficial one for all those involved in private practice in Australia:

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The question I have though is this: is this a true correction?

And what I’m really asking here is this:

  1. have the underlying structural changes that we all know need to be made been put in place?
  2. if so, are we starting to see the benefits of these, or does this chart represent a false dawn?

And as we entered 2019 I’m going to leave those two questions out there, as I think many of us know what the real answers are here.

As always, would be interested in your views.

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* or was it?

The R.U.L.E.S revisited

In August 2013 I posted ‘Is it time for law firms to break with the RULES when looking at profitability?‘ on my old blog platform Australian law firm business development. It is without doubt the most read post I’ve ever written. And, as the recent publicity around DLA Piper’s decision to make equity partners clock 7.5 hours a day of time (not necessarily billed) shows, it remains one of the least followed and understood.

So what is the “R.U.L.E.S” system – and, three years after I last posted on this: do we, once again, need to promote its demise?

The R.U.L.E.S.

Taken from Robert J Arndt’s relatively short (at 31 pages) 1988 publication ‘Identifying profits (or losses) in the law firm‘, the acronym R.U.L.E.S stands for:

  • Realization – of billing rates
  • Utilization – of attorneys
  • Leverage – of lawyers
  • Expense – control of (both the fixed and variable kind), and
  • Speed – of the firm’s billings and collections.

For more than two decades the R.U.L.E.S have been the foundation for law firms looking to mine their financial information beyond the mere top level question of: ‘Did the firm made any money this year?’. Indeed, it could be argued that they were the precursor to the Balanced Scorecard in that they help determine:

  • which lawyers and partners are making a profit,
  • which practice areas are making a profit,
  • which matters are more profitable than others, and
  • which clients are more profitable than others.

But, in today’s world the R.U.L.E.S are not without fault. For example,

  • Realization is generally accepted as being the amount collected (ie, in the bank) against the effort to produce (ie productivity); or, as Altman Weil defines it: “realization is fees collected divided by the standard value of the time worked“.

On an individual fee earner basis, what this means is that if you set your fee earner a standard billable hourly rack-rate of [say] $100, and they charge the client $90 per hour (after write-offs etc) for work done, and for which the client pays $85 per hour (after asking for a discount etc) for the work, then the realization rate is 85% [I note that some firms adopt the practice of looking at realization as being the amount paid against the amount billed (94.44% in this example) but this is not the methodology used in RULES].

On the other hand, if the same fee earner does a fixed fee job for $1,000 and it only takes them 5 hours to do the job (cost of $500), then the realized rate is $200%.

While this may have been a good indicator of individual lawyers’ profitability in the past, increasingly it isn’t – not least because clients see through this BS and will not pay for their lawyers on a fully rack-rated hourly basis.

  • Utilization is the yardstick by which we determine how busy fee earners are. To determine this we look at the annual budget of hours the firm has set each relevant fee earner against the amount of billable time they have put on their time-sheets (daily, weekly, monthly or annually).

As I mentioned in 2013 – and nothing has changed – there are two principal flaws with this use of utilization:

  • the first, as shown by the likes of Crowell & Moring and others, is that the annual billable hour figure is a moving goal post.
  • the second, and more important, reason is that utilization sees an hour billed as “king” – it trumps all.

Today, where clients are looking for, among other things, an understanding of their business (non-billable hours spent attending industry events) and corporate social responsibility, utilization seems an outdated profit related performance metric.

  • Leverage is the number of fee earners you have to partners.

A reading of Maister’s Managing the Professional Service Firm will tell you, leverage is a key component of a law firm’s profitability. In order for a law firm to be more profitable, the maximum amount of work possible must be pushed down the chain to the more junior ranking lawyers.

Unfortunately, today this cannot be done so easily. Clients are simply not willing to pay for you to train your junior fee earners!

  • Expenses are both fixed (ie rent) and variable (ie salaries and bonuses) and are always going to be an important factor in determining a law firm’s profitability.
  • Speed of collection is generally determined as being the time from when you did the work to the time you are paid for that work.

Sometimes known as “lock-up” days, speed of collection will have a massive effect on the firm’s profitability.

Having bagged the R.U.L.E.S – again, the question remains: ‘What are the alternatives?’ The answer to that is that there are probably far more now than there were three years ago, but they are start from the same place:

(a) Do you have a satisfied client, and (b) Do you understand the value you bring to that relationship?

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Does your firm need a Head of Growth?

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I was away in the delightful Nelson Bay last week and so missed the opportunity to join the webinar co-presented by  John Grimley (@JohnGrimley) and Ivan Rasic (@Ivan_Rasic) on the issue of ‘Supercharge Your Law Firm Revenue With NewLaw And Big4 Sales Methods‘. Fortunately a recording of the webinar was made and you can now listen to this on YouTube (approximately one hour long, including the no-holds-barred Q+A session).

Anyhow, listening to John and Ivan’s webinar reminded me of a post on the Harvard Business Review website last month (February 19) titled ‘Every Company Needs a Growth Manager‘. In the post, the authors Jeff Bussgang and Nadav Benbarak set out very compelling reasons why every company (and not just Silicon Valley Tech companies) should have a growth manager or Head of Growth, many of which apply equally to professional services firms and so prompted this post.

Borrowing from Bussgang and Benbarak, the job description (JD) for the Head of Growth role at a law firm would likely say:

Oversight of client acquisition, activation, retention and cross-selling; working cross-functionally across the firm with Marketing & Business Development, IT, HR, Finance and Knowledge/Precedents to design, implement and execute on profitable growth initiatives within the business.

Although a number – if not all – of these functions are already happening with initiatives such as Key Account Management, Business Development, etc. I believe it is fair to say that it would be rare for these to be centralised under any one person’s control.

More to the point, many firms would benefit from giving an individual or team (depending on size) oversight to monitoring the right data and behaviours to ensure these key initiatives move forward without roadblocks. In turn, this should hopefully install a profitable growth mentality (aka, “profit principal”) within the firm as a whole (rather than the more traditional approach of having “star” teams).

It goes without saying that underlying all of this needs to be a well defined firm-wide strategic plan, which includes clearly defined growth objectives/targets. In addition, any firm looking to implement such a role/scheme would need to have a robust and honest client feedback program in place, as client insight needs to underpin any growth program.

Finally, the Head of Growth would need to work very closely with the Knowledge / Library team to implement a state of the art competitor intelligence analysis program – after all, it helps to know what’s going on in the market if you want to grow!

Ultimately, your Head of Growth would have the creative, analytical and strategic skills to work closely with the firm’s partners and leadership to get a clear understanding of your clients’ and target clients’ needs with the direct authority to implement a program or set of initiatives to target these needs and profitably grow your firm.

To sum up, although it would be a little unfair to say that, historically, professional services firms have not seen a need to grow their book of business – regardless of whether that was profitably or otherwise –  today’s highly competitive market certainly warrants your firm employing a Head of Growth position who is charged with oversight on growing the revenue and top-line profit of your firm.

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Are the legal press letting the importance of revenue get in the way of a good story?

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An interesting news item appeared on the Global Legal Post website overnight (Australian time). Citing a recently published (January 2015)  Legal Services Market Research Report by IBIS World, the Global Legal Post item, which is titled “Australian firms on the hunt for increased revenues” states that:

Pressure on revenues is forcing Australian firms to look overseas in a bid to increase turnover.

First of all, if I’m allowed to say, this is irony in action!

Given the number of international (mostly British) law firms that have entered the Australian legal market in the past five or so years as a result of perceived or real limitations on growth in their own domestic markets, to now be informed that one of the consequence of this action is that Australian firms now need to look overseas to grow their own revenue is, well, ironic.

More importantly – aside from being wrong as the IBIS Report clearly states that the market in Australia is growing (if admittedly at a snail’s pace) – is that it misses a crucial point; namely, increasing turnover for turnover’s sake is nothing short of a wasted effort!

But don’t take my word for it, as the prominent industry strategist and pricing expert Richard Burcher rightly points out in his comment to the link I posted to this on LinkedIn last night:

Surely it is bottom line growth that matters? And the assumption that this can only be achieved through top line growth is profoundly flawed. The application of a more sophisticated firm-wide approach to pricing can yield a demonstrable increase in revenue by on average 5% to 8%. For most firms that produces a profitability increase of 15% to 25% with the same clients and the same work. No wonder more than 50% of post merger firms report that it failed to deliver to the bottom line.

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Precisely Richard.

Unfortunately, however, this is not the only example of this type of legal press reporting/thinking.

Only the same day (Monday) The Australasian Lawyer reported – citing (wrongly in my opinion) another UK website – that the Australian arm of DLA had been “fingered for [the] law firm’s drop in revenue” as if huge levels of shame needs to be attached to this [revenue drop] given that it

follow[ed] a transition period where underperforming partners in the region [Asia] departed.

Well I happen to know a number of the partners who left DLA last year and one thing I can say with absolutely certainty is that they were anything but underperforming. More accurately, what they were was in practices that were no longer strategically aligned to where DLA sees the future of its business (something I think is made clearer in the UK version of this news). And, in a partnership sense, there is nothing wrong with having conversations like that. Indeed, they are to be encouraged.

So as with the discussion around revenue and profit, the discussions around revenue and strategy, while related are two different issues.

And all of this before we even get into the very real discussion of whether or not one law firm’s growth has to come at the cost of another law firm.

#BizDevTip: The only KPI that matters is client satisfaction

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Whether you are a newly admitted lawyer or an old-hand, in an industry that revolves around a 12-month cycle the one thing that you can be sure of is that you’ll be subject to a lot of internal and external reporting metrics.

These might be the service standards imposed by clients, such as the need to respond to phone calls or emails within a certain number of hours. Or they could be driven by the firm you work for, such as meeting an annual revenue budget. More than likely, they’ll be a combination of both.

And the metrics may even change over time, to determine whether you are being efficient or effective.

But the one thing you can be absolutely certain of is that the only key performance indicator (KPI) that has any meaning whatsoever is whether or not your client is satisfied with the job you are doing.

Sure you need to worry about revenue. You even need to worry about profitability. Pro bono and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are important. But none of this matters a darn if your clients aren’t satisfied.

Which is why it is absolutely astonishing that as much as:

 “94% of global law firms clients were not asked for any formal feedback from their primary law firm”

–  Acritas Sharpelegal2013

By all means, keep big data. Even mine the information and undertake data analysis. Do whatever it is you need to do to keep your law firm running.

But remember, giving your client the opportunity to provide you with formal, and impartial, feedback on your performance is one of the very few real differentiators left.

And if you are one of the 6% of global firms that are doing this, then there is every chance your firm really is one of the few that is standing out from the crowd.

And if not, you’re really only providing an easily commoditized service.

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