realisation

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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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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‘Drive for show, Putt for dough’

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According to a post earlier this week on the LexisNexis Business of Law Blog:

“A new legal spending trends report finds big law billing rates grew notably – pushing a 6% increase in the gap between the top two tiers of law firms, by attorney headcount, from 38% to 44%.”

Indeed:

“Median partner rates at the “Largest 50” law firms – those with more than 750 lawyers – rose to $711 per hour, based on 12 months of data ending June 30, 2015. That number is up from the last report where median partner rates came in at $675 per hour for the 12 months ending December 31, 2014.”

As I have posted before, however, this [rising headline hourly rates] is absolutely meaningless if your realization rates are in decline – an issue this particular report appears to remain silent on.

I have never understood, beyond ego, why a partner would be more interested in their hourly rate than their average realized billable rate (ARBR). After all, the ARBR amount is the amount that clients are willing to pay you – money in the bank – and is a more accurate reflection of your true worth/value.

Eventually you have to ask yourself which you would prefer: a headline charge-out rate of $1,000- with an ARBR of $700-, or a charge-out rate of $800- with an ARBR of $800-?

And that’s without going into how much easier it is to have the conversation with your clients around rising your realization rather than informing them on 1 July each year that you will be raising your rates by 10% again this year!

Alternatively, you can keep on driving for show and not worry too much about the dough you’re making.