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August 08, 2018

AFA pricing best practices

By Jonathan Groner

At the recent conference of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC), Matthew Beekhuizen, chief pricing officer of Greenberg Traurig, was a member of a panel titled “How to Build an AFA Program: Best Practices in Design, Implementation, and Management.”  Beekhuizen recently discussed the panel and various aspects of pricing and alternative fee arrangements with us in the following interview.

LegalBizDev: Based on your personal experience, what approach do you take in dealing with pricing issues?

Beekhuizen: Earlier in my career, I worked in commercial banking, and I became accustomed to analyzing financial statements and profit and loss statements, particularly for the purpose of assessing the amount of risk for commercial loans. That work was highly data-based, and I still use a data perspective in developing prices in my present position.

I use data as a starting point. For example, in developing a budget for a piece of litigation, we look first at the costs of various tasks, such as depositions, motions to dismiss, etc., in similar matters. We also ask: What is the possible range of costs? This historical data paints a picture, and then I sit down with the attorneys on the matter and I ask them how the present case is different, if at all, from previous cases that were similar. We can go from there.

LegalBizDev: Are firms like yours becoming more data-driven?

Beekhuizen: Yes, firms are much savvier now, for example, about why and how they should use task codes to capture data in a meaningful way. In addition to the well-known ABA litigation codes that have existed since the 1990s, many firms are developing their own coding systems for all types of matters, not just litigation. And Hilarie Bass (current ABA president and a co-president of Greenberg Traurig) has initiated an ABA working group with the goal of creating broader code sets for a variety of practice types, as well as revisions of the litigation code set, aimed at capturing better data and being more useful in AFAs.

LegalBizDev: What is the relationship between task codes and AFAs?

Beekhuizen: The array of data that can be gathered from completed matters by the use of task codes helps a firm develop detailed projections of the cost of an upcoming matter. These projections can then be used to develop a fee proposal that the firm, with a greater degree of confidence, expects will be a valuable arrangement for the client and the firm.  The use of task codes also enhances legal project management efforts once the matter is under way, so firms can monitor what work has been done, by whom and when in comparison to the fee agreement.

One type of AFA that firms are using more frequently when they are truly data-driven, is task-based pricing. An example of this type of pricing would be that the firm and the client agree on a certain price per deposition, regardless of the number of depositions, or on a certain price for the review of, say, each set of 5,000 documents.

LegalBizDev: What is the relationship between legal project management and AFAs?

Beekhuizen: AFAs can really set the stage for legal project management. Say the work is being done for a fixed fee, which is a common type of AFA. That means that when the firm agreed on the fee with the client, the firm had based the arrangement upon specific staffing (how many people would be used for each aspect of the matter, where they are based, experience level) and expected scope (activity such as number of depositions, number of documents to review, etc.).  The firm needs to staff the matter in the way it had planned and monitor that the work is within scope. So the fee agreement becomes, or should become, a work plan to which the firm must manage. That requires regular reporting and assessing of where things stand, which of course involves project management. Project management becomes indispensable in making AFAs work well.

LegalBizDev: What is the relationship between the growth of legal operations within client corporations and AFAs?

Beekhuizen: Because of the growth of legal ops, more sophisticated clients have set benchmarks for what they want to pay for certain specific legal services, just the same way as firms’ use of data has helped firms come up with benchmarks for the prices that offer the most value to all involved. This is actually very good because it makes the relationship and the negotiation between the law firm and the client more transparent in many ways. Now, if the client and the firm have different expectations about the potential costs for a matter, both can review the data behind the expected cost. This helps firms have a more substantial and fact-based discussion with clients about price. When our clients are trying to implement AFAs for the first time, I always tell them to start with data. Having a legal operations professional on the client side helps with this process.

As legal operations continues to grow by leaps and bounds, as it has, we will be seeing a lot more data-driven requests from clients, and I think that’s a great development.

LegalBizDev: Do you deal with aspects of pricing that are not necessarily reducible to data?

Beekhuizen: Yes. Pricing is both a science and an art, and it ultimately is all about understanding your clients’ needs. Sometimes you may come up with an initial cost estimate that you know is beyond what the client is expecting. For example, a price estimate may represent what the firm believes will be required to win a certain litigation, but that cost is greater than the client’s monetary exposure. At that point, you can explore other alternatives that reduce the cost and create value for the client.

In another situation, the client may want to develop a fee arrangement that has the law firm sharing risk with the client, so that the law firm incentives and client objectives are aligned.

In yet another situation, the value for the client is not so much in cost reduction as in predictability of its legal expenses over a period of time.

In all these instances, our job is to develop an understanding of what the client is really trying to achieve. AFAs and data-driven analysis set the stage for the most important part – talking to the client about what they expect and what they consider value.

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