91 posts categorized "Alternative Fee Arrangements"

November 26, 2014

Book excerpt: The challenge of measuring law firm profitability (Part 2 of 3)

This series was adapted from my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability.

At the 2014 LMA P3 conference in Chicago, Jeff Suhr, vice president of products at Data Fusion, noted that his company currently has 91 clients actively using their tools, including 10 of the top 35 AmLaw firms. Exactly how do these 91 clients calculate profitability? Ninety-one different ways. The fundamentals are the same, but there are important differences in the details, which can have significant implications for the way profitability is interpreted and used to motivate changes in behavior.

Suhr distinguished between the relatively straightforward science of calculating profitability and the art of determining the exact methods that best fit the needs of each firm. He also discussed the different challenges of “macro strategies” for analyzing profits for a firm, an office, or a practice group, vs. “micro strategies” for analyzing a book of business or a particular matter. These sometimes require different assumptions and different approaches.

For starters, you would think it would be easy to measure the revenue associated with a matter, but it’s not. Iezzi’s text notes that:

There are three different revenue numbers you can use. One is the accrual basis revenue number, which is hours worked multiplied by hourly rate. The second is the bills rendered number. And third is the cash receipts number.

The first two numbers reflect theoretical revenue. After client write-offs and write-downs, a significant amount of this may never be received. So a profitability system based on either accrual or bills rendered rewards lawyers for putting in more hours even if they produce no revenue. This is particularly troublesome with fixed fees and other AFAs, where lawyers with too little to do may pile on the hours “since it costs nothing and could help the client relationship.” Not to mention that in many firms attorneys get paid more if they bill more hours, whether the client ever writes a check for the hours or not.

In the LegalBizDev Survey of Alternative Fees, one AmLaw 100 decision maker told us that:

It often happens that alternative fee matters, particularly large ones, end up being adumping ground for individuals who may not be fully employed because you are reportable to the client for the result, not the cost. When lawyers work unnecessarily on a project your profitability looks bad, so in order to really determine the profitability, we need to deal with that issue.

As one chair in this research put it:

What you’re trying to do internally is change the mindset of the attorney who is used to billing hours. In the past, if you billed 2,000 hours, you were better than somebody who billed 1,200 hours. But with an AFA, you have to be more efficient and more concerned with delivering the value to the client in a way that makes this a productive relationship.

That’s why the best measures of profitability must ultimately be tied to cash received. But there’s no way of knowing that figure until a matter is completed and the bills are paid. In a large firm with tens of thousands of simultaneous matters, each on their own schedule, comparisons between matters must be based on a long list of assumptions about what will happen in the future, or postponed until the end of a case, which could take years to resolve. And this can lead to arguments and gamesmanship.

One senior executive at a firm that bases compensation partly on accrual-based profitability highlighted one such problem:

We use dashboard tools including Redwood Analytics and Intellistat to track key metrics and responsibilities for each attorney as a working, billing, and originating attorney. This information is directly used in each person’s annual review and compensation setting, along with qualitative and subjective elements. They have visibility to this key information every day, and it begets a whole different sense of responsibility and accountability.

Determining cost is even harder. In order to truly determine the cost of delivering services for a particular matter, one must answer two basic questions: what was the cost of the direct labor of performing the work, and what overhead indirect costs (such as rent, clerical staff, etc.) should be allocated to that particular matter?

The problems start with how to estimate the cost of each hour of a partner’s time. If a rainmaker partner was paid $1 million last year, how much of that was her direct cost for working on legal matters vs. origination fees, payment for time spent on management, profit distribution, and other factors? A number of different systems of “notional compensation” are used to split compensation between the amount allocated to billable activity and the amount allocated to everything else. The details of how to do this could easily go on for many pages, but in this context the most important fact is that every single system includes arguable assumptions. And if there is one thing that lawyers do well, it is argue, especially if a calculation affects the way their financial results are perceived. And if matter profitability is tied to compensation and perhaps even to job stability, the debates on how to calculate these figures will rapidly get louder and more passionate.

If you think that since associates are on salary, it would be easier to calculate their direct costs, you’d be right. But even there, important decisions must be made. For example, suppose two mid-level associates earn the same $300,000 salary, but Associate A billed 2,000 hours last year and Associate B billed 1,500 hours. To keep this example relatively simple, we will ignore the cost of their health insurance and other benefits and focus strictly on salary. Some firms say that the direct cost of Associate A is $150 per hour ($300,000 divided by the 2,000 hours she billed) while Associate B is more expensive at $200 per hour ($300,000 divided by her 1,500 billable hours).

Now suppose that relationship partners are rewarded for managing matters more profitably. Of course they will try to assign more work to the busy $150 per hour associate than to the $200 per hour associate who has more time available. In this case, the attempt to measure profitability to develop a more efficient system rewards behavior that is actually likely to reduce efficiency by overworking the busiest associates.

Discussions of other aspects of overhead can also get into heated debates about such details as:

  • If one practice group heavily uses the services of the marketing department and another doesn’t, should the first group pay more marketing expenses through higher overhead?
  • If one lawyer has office space in a high-cost city like New York, and another has an office in a lower-cost city like Cincinnati, do they have different overhead rates?
  • If one lawyer in New York has a 600-square-foot office and another has a 300-square-foot office, should that be reflected in different overhead rates?
  • If one lawyer’s assistant makes more than another’s, should that be reflected in their personal overhead?

 

A slightly edited version of this series was published in the October 2014 issue of Of Counsel: The Legal and Management Report by Aspen publishers.  The complete article can be downloaded from our web page. 

 

November 19, 2014

Book excerpt: The challenge of measuring law firm profitability (Part 1 of 3)

This series was adapted from my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability.

Based on our confidential interviews with managing partners and other leaders from 50 AmLaw 200 firms, there can be no question thatclients are demanding more value than ever before, and it is putting pressure on the bottom line.  There is, however, much less agreement about the best way to measure the bottom line.  Earlier in this chapter, we discussed the many problems of relying on profits per equity partner, realization, leverage and other traditional measures.  So it may seem obvious that the way out of all this confusion is to move toward the approach used in almost every other business: applying cost accounting to measure profit. The basic formula looks deceptively simple:

Profit = Revenue – Cost

Cost accounting establishes rules for defining both revenue and costs, but it’s not as simple as non-CPAs might think.

Before we started working with law firms, my company spent almost 20 years developing training programs for financial services clients and for government agencies. Many of the government contracts we worked under were “cost plus,” in which an hour of a person’s time must be billed at its “true cost,”—as defined by many pages of government accounting rules—plus a negotiated fixed fee.  (In our experience, the negotiated fixed fee on government contracts was typically between three and five percent of cost, which seems laughable by the standards of many law firms.)  So you’d think that if anyone could identify the true cost of labor, it would be a government contractor.

But we gradually learned that government contractors have a number of options for calculating both the direct cost of what a person is paid per hour and allocating the indirect costs of benefits, rent, general and administrative overhead, and so on, to different groups within the company. So there was no single number for the “true cost” of a particular hour of labor, despite all the rules and regulations. The answer depended on a number of assumptions and interpretations.

Still, many law firms see cost accounting measurement of profit as the Holy Grail, with potential benefits to both themselves and their clients. As ACC Value Co-Chair Michael Roster has summed it up:

Once a firm or practice group shifts to a true profitability set of measurements, the firm finally has incentives to:

  • Keep reducing its cost of production—meaning moving matters to those with appropriate expertise while lowering leverage and hourly rates, where hourly rates are now used to monitor the cost of production, not how to maximize what can be billed
  • Measure and deliver better outcomes and be rewarded for that
  • Learn how to fix the cost of any given type of work
  • Along the way, improve profitability

However, in one leading text on law firm accounting, CPA John Iezzi explained that in working with law firms, he learned that this is much, much harder than it sounds:

My first article [on law firm profitability was]… written in 1975… after I had recently left public accounting, convinced that one could apply the same cost-accounting techniques to the service profession as one did to any other industry. [However], this was not the case, as I later determined once I began attempting to apply various cost-accounting practices to the legal profession.

The result for many firms is that, as one managing partner admitted:

We struggle with a standard profitability model, and we don’t really have one right now.

Another managing partner pointed out the underlying problem:

There’s really more art than science as to what you count as revenue, and similarly what the cost allocations are going to be. Lawyers will debate all day long about those things. So it’s important to have uniform or reasonably well-accepted best practices for profitability analysis. I don’t think our practice is there yet.

As far as we can tell, neither is anyone else. When I talked to several members of our Research Advisory Board about this, Don Ware, chair of Foley Hoag’s Intellectual Property Department, said:

I’ve never heard of a law firm that has a good way to measure matter profitability. Many say they do, but when you push on the details it becomes clear that they really don’t.

This is not for lack of trying. A growing number of software programs are available to handle the calculations. The two long-time leaders in the field—Intellistat Analytics from Data Fusion and Redwood Analytics from Aderant—have been providing sophisticated tools to quantify law firm profitability for several decades. But to use these tools, one must make a series of assumptions, and that’s where the trouble starts.

A slightly edited version of this series was published in the October 2014 issue of Of Counsel:  The Legal and Management Report by Aspen publishers.  The complete article can be downloaded from our web page

November 12, 2014

What clients want: New results from Altman Weil’s 2014 CLO survey

Question:  What is the single most important topic for law firms to focus on in today’s increasingly challenging environment?

Answer:  Whatever clients want.

Of course, different clients want different things, so lawyers should start by improving the dialog with their own clients.  There are a variety of free resources on the web to help structure these conversations, including a list of questions from the Association of Corporate Counsel and my posts several years ago in this blog entitled Value questions to ask your top clients

For those who want the big picture on client trends, there is no better source than the Chief Legal Officer Survey which Altman Weil has been publishing for the last 15 years.  (Full disclosure: LegalBizDev is a strategic alliance partner of Altman Weil, but I would have written exactly this same post even if we had no relationship with them.) 

When the 2014 survey was released yesterday by author Daniel J. DiLucchio, the first question I turned to was on page 27: “Of the following service improvements and innovations, please select the three that you would most like to see from your outside counsel.”  The answers from 186 CLOs were greater cost reduction (58%), more efficient project management (57%) and improved budget forecasting (57%). 

Since better legal project management (LPM) leads to cost reductions and to improved budget forecasting, you could say that the top three client requests were LPM, LPM, and more LPM.  Interestingly, these same three issues were at the top of the list in Altman Weil’s CLO survey last year although this year the percentages were a few points higher.

The main conclusion of this year’s report was that “corporate law departments are wielding their buying power to drive down expenditures on outside counsel” (page i.)

The survey included a number of questions related to cost reduction, starting with the fact that 91% of the law departments in this survey received price reductions from outside counsel in the last12 months.  The median discount – or halfway point -- remained in the 6% to 10% range, just where it was in the 2013 survey.  But for those above the median, the percent of law departments that got discounts over 10% increased substantially in the last year (from 28% to 36%).

The summary also noted that “The survey asked about preferences for outside counsel pricing on work other than ‘bet the company’ matters. Thirty-seven percent of CLOs said they prefer transparent pricing in which they understand how and why the price is set and have the opportunity to discuss changes. Twenty-seven percent chose guaranteed pricing, and 26% opted for value-based pricing, defined as a variable price based on the CLO’s assessment of value received. Only 10% of respondents said they wanted the lowest price available.  Initially it may seem that law departments just want to pay less for outside counsel. But these results show it’s more complicated.” (page ii)

I respectfully disagree with this interpretation.  I don’t think it’s that complicated at all.

Cost is certainly not the only element in value, but it is by far the biggest one.  In our recent research on Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, when we asked, “When your clients ask for more value, roughly what percent of the time are they simply asking for a lower price,” the average response was 63%. In other words, nearly two-thirds of the time, “value” is nothing more than a request to pay less and all other interpretations pale by comparison. 

In our experience, all of the pricing approaches mentioned in the Altman Weil survey – transparent, guaranteed, and value-based – are not alternatives to lower prices, they are usually part of a larger negotiation to reduce price.  Soon after clients ask for transparent pricing, the next thing that happens is that they point to line by line examples of ways to cut the price.  When they want a guaranteed price, it may come as a result of a reverse auction in which all bidders are required to guarantee a price, and the lowest price wins.  And when clients look for “value pricing,” somehow that almost always seems to mean “give us more for less.” 

Meanwhile, the demand for outside counsel is going down (26% plan to decrease the use of outside counsel while only 14% plan to increase it), placing still more downward pressure on prices.

What are firms doing in this increasingly cutthroat environment?  Some are burying their heads in the sand in the hope that the good old days will return.  Some are giving bigger and bigger hourly discounts in the kind of “suicide pricing” that Bruce MacEwen has described as unsustainable in his book Growth is Dead. And some are getting serious about increasing efficiency and cost-effectiveness through LPM, so they can deliver the same quality at a lower cost in hours and dollars.

Which approach makes sense to you?

October 22, 2014

Book excerpt: What should law firms do to improve profitability and LPM? (Part 4 of 4)

This series was adapted from my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which was published at the beginning of this month.

Given all the options and competing claims about LPM, what should a firm do to get started? Our answer is explained below at the end of this book: embrace experimentation and, as one of our clients put it, “just do something.” Start small, and find out what works for your firm.

Once you have grassroots support from influential internal champions, then you will be in a position to decide whether you might benefit from professional project management staff, depending on the unique needs of your practice area and your clients.

Remember that in this study’s ranking of LPM issues in Chapter 4, the two most critical were defining scope and communicating with clients. Neither can be delegated to project managers. Lawyers must first be committed to changing their approach before it makes sense to hire others to help them.

The big picture recommendations in the next section about starting “one practice group or lawyer at a time” include evidence that the development of internal champions and quick wins has proven its value in changing behavior in a wide variety of professions. So it is not surprising that a number of participants in this research cited the same approach:

I try to find an internal champion to move things forward. I worked with a partner in one department that bought into LPM and we gave a joint presentation on it. Word got out and another department asked to provide the same presentation to them. Many times once attorneys get a taste of LPM they get interested and want more. – Senior executive

We’ll have to have to have some guinea pig partners who are willing to try it and then be willing to testify as to how it has helped their numbers and their client relationships. – Senior partner

Because we’ve had some demonstrable LPM successes, enthusiasm for it is growing. – Senior executive

However, even with the support of champions, LPM is not quick or easy to implement. As one senior partner emphasized, there are no magic solutions:

Top management has to make it a priority and communicate it all the time, make it part of the culture. It will have to be ingrained in people, and it’s slow. When people use the tools and the resources, and they are successful, they will communicate their success to their partners. Others will want to use it, and LPM will work its way around. But that will take some time. We don’t know exactly how long it will take.

Some firms will find it valuable to hire professional project managers to support lawyers’ efforts, as in this quote from one chair:

We’re going to start hiring different people to manage the non-legal aspects of the practice, not the relationships. That’s what has to be done. Lawyers are notoriously bad managers. You could be a fabulous trial lawyer but not be able to get your hours in on time or bill on time. You might not be able to collect on the bill. With all these different components, it’s better to look to a project manager on accounts receivable, on AFAs, on collections, rather than the lawyer.

Another firm chair that has gone down this path has been very satisfied with the results:

I think that project management skills are absolutely critical to achieving value and managing well, which is why we have people who actually make this their life’s calling. People who are certified project managers, who are trained in it, who actually know what it means when you talk about Agile Scrum, as opposed to somebody thinking it’s a flexible rugby player. Project management is a profession, and the people in the profession need to understand how the legal business works, how lawyers think. How you would manage a project at IBM is not the same way you would manage a project in a large law firm. But when we have good project managers working as part of the client service delivery team with the clients, clients love it. They just love it. It adds so much value, it’s unbelievable.

(Agile Scrum is an approach to project management that starts from the assumption that customers often change their minds about what they want and need as a project proceeds. It therefore replaces extended upfront planning with rapid development of partial solutions which can be tried out on clients and adapted until they meet true needs. Many professionals believe that this will become an increasingly common approach to LPM as it evolves.)

There can be little doubt that the trend of using LPM professionals will continue to grow, especially in large firms. It is also safe to predict that the level of LPM sophistication needed to compete effectively will continue to increase.

In the next few years, the most interesting developments in LPM are likely to involve moving away from traditional project management models to cutting edge alternatives. For example, in one of the most widely quoted texts on LPM, Robert Wysocki talks at length about how traditional project management solutions apply only when the client’s goal is clear and the steps required for a solution are clear. In many legal matters, neither precise client goals nor complete solutions are known at the start. These complex and ambiguous situations will therefore require the more modern LPM approaches explained in Wysocki’s text, notably Agile project management that is derived from the “Agile Manifesto” signed in 2001 by 17 influential software developers and says in part:

We are uncovering better ways of developing [products] by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiations
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Agile project management is an iterative trial and error process that focuses on continuous improvement and responding rapidly to situations when they change in order to minimize the total work required.

But before firms can get to that level of sophistication, they need to start with the basics. And as one chairman in our research summed it up:

Most of our clients are no better at understanding or applying legal project management than we are. But in the future, the fact that you can actually do something on time and within budget is going to become an important indicator of whether or not you really are a good lawyer.

A pdf of this entire series can be downloaded from Altman Weil Direct, where it originally appeared.

 

October 15, 2014

Book excerpt: What should law firms do to improve profitability and LPM? (Part 3 of 4)

This series was adapted from my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which was published at the beginning of this month.

As law firms struggle with internal pressure to retain and improve profitability and external pressure to satisfy client demand for greater value, one tactic has risen to the top of most law firm lists: legal project management.

As discussed previously in this blog, the field of LPM is so new that experts have spent quite a bit of time arguing about what it does and does not include. If you accept the very broad definition that we have been using for the last several years—LPM adapts proven management techniques to the legal profession to help lawyers achieve their business goals, including increasing client value and protecting profitability—it is easy to see that the vast majority of law firms could benefit from implementing LPM in some form.

Which brings us back to the question of exactly how to do that. Educating is relatively easy, but changing behavior is very hard. It is also the central problem in legal project management. The Association of Corporate Counsel and the ABA conducted a meeting a few years ago, “at which leaders of corporate and law firm litigation departments rolled up their sleeves and tackled the complex issues surrounding present day concepts of value in litigation.” In an ACC Docket article summarizing the event, the authors noted that progress will not be based on improved understanding or increased knowledge. Instead, “The challenge is change/behavior management.”  It’s not a question of knowing what to do, it’s a question of getting lawyers to do it.

In this research, the managing partner of one firm that invested heavily in education but failed to see much behavior change had this to say:

Project management will probably have the longest-term positive impact, but it’s been the biggest challenge, because it’s something that hasn’t been easily absorbed by a lot of the lawyers. When busy lawyers start scrambling around, the inefficiency creeps right up. At our firm, project management has not met expectations. But it’s improving, and I do think long term it will have a really big impact.

If there is one thing that participants in this survey agreed on, it is that it is difficult to get lawyers to use LPM, as seen in these comments from five more firms:

Project management is not natural to lawyers. We’ve always been trained to get the case done well to win, but now we also have to get the case done efficiently, and that is not part of the natural toolkit for most people. – Managing partner

Getting people to manage engagements is very difficult in this business. So we’re at the discussion rather than the implementation stage. – Chair

We’ve done a better job on the front end, on the developing and pricing piece. Where I don’t think we’re doing as much as we could is on the legal project management end, thinking about whether there are more efficient ways to actually complete certain kinds of work. – Senior executive

We have clients, especially in litigation and corporate, who are saying we need to implement LPM. But it’s hard to get our lawyers off the dime. – Senior partner

I think that it will require a lot of work, and daily support from the top, not just lip service from the partner team twice a year. – Senior executive

Given that the formal field of LPM is so young, and that many lawyers resist its fundamental ideas, it is not surprising that there are still disagreements about what approach to implementation works best. Several major vendors—including my company—offer different solutions. Each believes strongly in its own approach and frankly has a vested interest in proving its effectiveness.

Generally, implementation approaches fall into three broad categories: training, coaching, and law firm staff. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive and many firms use all three, along with software, as described in the next section. All of these approaches can have positive effects. The hard question that every firm faces is one of cost-effectiveness: which approach will produce the greatest impact today for the lowest cost.

Historically, most firms have started with some type of training. Lawyers love precedent, so when Dechert announced in 2010 that it had trained its partners in LPM, a number of firms jumped in to do the same thing. This led to some great press releases about how these training programs proved that firms were committed to LPM, but precious little in the way of results. Consider these comments from three firms that invested in extensive LPM training programs:

Every shareholder and top level associate has had a full day of project management training. I’d like to tell you that they use it, but they don’t. – Chair

Training raised awareness, but I think it will take a longer campaign to significantly move the needle in terms of our ability to change the way we do business. – Managing partner

I don’t want to say it’s stillborn, because that’s too fatalistic, but it has not taken hold like I had hoped it would. I think that there are some attorneys who probably are using it in their own way, but as an institutional concept it has really been put on a back burner. – Senior executive

It took a few years for it to become clear that training every lawyer in the firm was not a cost effective way to go, and that led people to less ambitious programs such as short sessions of “awareness training” that set stage and identified the lawyers who need to dig in more deeply.

In our experience, the most effective way for firms to build LPM momentum is not with large group training, but rather with one-to-one coaching for influential partners to enable them to directly experience the benefits of LPM. As a result, they will become internal champions who will lead efforts to adapt LPM to the particular needs of their firms, practice groups, and clients.

A pdf of this entire series can be downloaded from Altman Weil Direct, where it originally appeared.

October 08, 2014

Book excerpt: What should law firms do to improve profitability and LPM? (Part 2 of 4)

This series was adapted from my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which was published today.

The key to success is to come up with information and systems that increase the behaviors that are of greatest benefit to the firm. But it isn’t easy:

When you start digging into profitability at the matter level, you get set back. You can make the numbers say whatever you want, but did you consider headcount or overhead? Some of the offices might not be as busy so you want to spread the work to them. We’re willing to take a little hit. There’s a big picture we’re trying to achieve, and when we’ve tried to get into the weeds a little bit too much, it can backfire because we get bogged down with some of this stuff. So my idea is to take the long view. It’s very difficult to understand profitability at the matter level, and in some ways that’s a misguided approach because there are just so many factors to take into account. If you can slowly start to chip away at all these areas, then that will have a beneficial improvement upon your profitability. It’s all about improving your portfolio. – Senior executive

The real challenge is to use our profitability tool in a way that motivates all of the partners to their maximum effort toward profitability, without creating the wrong sorts of behaviors, like hoarding work or fighting unduly over origination credits. – Chair

Many firms are getting serious about training their lawyers to think differently about revenue, discounts, and profitability:

Our firm has really invested a lot of effort in arming ourselves with the tools to try and deal with understanding profitability. – Chair

Our CFO visits offices and trains people on profitability. – Managing partner

We fully intend to educate our attorney base to be more aware of these things. In particular, when attorneys approach our AFA subcommittee with a project that involves an AFA, part of the response is to address the profitability of that proposal and to explain to them when the particular pricing doesn’t make sense for us to take it on. – Senior partner

Left to their own devices, most lawyers are probably at a 5, on a 1 to 10 scale of understanding. But we educate them up to a 9. So it’s something in the middle. We have a very keenly-focused financial accounting regimen at the firm that is constantly preaching this, that all work and all books of business and all new clients are not the same. And consequently, our lawyers have a better than average instinct on this. At the end of the day, our pricing reflects this because we don’t give our lawyers total carte blanche to open up a new client at a new rate. We encourage them to bring in the clients, but then we work with them very closely as to whether that client at that rate makes sense. And sometimes it’s very timekeeper-dependent, what kind of leverage we’re going to have on the assignment. – Chair

In summary, while there is still much uncertainty about the most effective tactics, there can be no doubt that firms are increasingly focusing on questions such as:

  • How should our firm define profitability?
  • How should we communicate this definition to our lawyers?
  • How should we train lawyers to manage legal matters more profitably?
  • How should we compensate lawyers for bringing in and managing more profitable work?

Of these, the last question is by far the hardest. It is simply not possible to create a compensation system that makes everyone happy. The trick is to figure out which lawyers are most essential to the continued health of your firm, and how much do you need to pay them to keep them from leaving. Basically, my advice is to ask around and find the best compensation consultant you can. You’re going to need help.  (This is not an advertisement. LegalBizDev does not provide compensation consulting. It’s too hard.)

Last year, an AmLaw 100 firm that was just beginning to think seriously about those questions invited me to speak at a practice group leader meeting about pricing trends. When one participant asked what I thought was the most critical issue, I said it was determining the difference between low prices that are acceptable and prices that are simply too low to make business sense for that firm. “Where do you draw that line in the sand?” I asked. The chairman replied, “We don’t even know where the sand is.”

But that was then. Now that same firm has a number of new pricing and management initiatives in place and a new pricing director. Clearly, firms are making progress. It is just very, very hard.

A pdf of this entire series can be downloaded from Altman Weil Direct, where it originally appeared.

 

Today’s publication of my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability

For months, I have been writing in this blog about my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability.  Today, it is available on our web page for $95, with volume discounts on orders of two or more copies. The book can also be ordered from Amazon, in both paperback and Kindle editions.

Here is part of the press release that came out with the book:

About two-thirds of the time, when legal clients say they want “greater value,” law firm leaders believe it is nothing more than a request to pay less. Although profitability is essential to law firms’ success and survival, about one-quarter of major law firms don’t measure it formally but only assess it intuitively. For those that do measure profitability, the two most consistently effective ways to preserve it are legal project management and adding new staffing in pricing, value, and related areas. 

 These are just a few of the findings of a study of law firm leaders I conducted in 2013 and 2014 for my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which is being released today. I confidentially interviewed law firm leaders from 50 AmLaw 200 firms. Forty-two percent were chairs or managing partners, and the rest were senior partners and executives.

Since the participants in the study were promised that they would not be quoted by name, they were unusually frank in their responses, including the law firm chairman who said that “lawyers are about as dumb as you could possibly be about understanding how our product is made. The lawyers who understand how to make it and who can manage that process efficiently are going to be the winners.”

The interviewees also felt free to speak about both the business problems they face and possible solutions, like the managing partner who noted that “I have a $10 million practice. But that could be a disaster for a firm, because it could cost them $11 million to get $10 million. But nobody ever talks about it that way.”

 

September 24, 2014

Book excerpt: What should law firms do to improve profitability and LPM? (Part 1 of 4)

This series was adapted from my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which will be published in a few weeks.

This research was designed to help lawyers make the best possible decisions about how to adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace by providing insights into the actions and opinions of their peers.  In the months preceding this book’s publication, a number of conferences have been held by law schools to discuss the challenges facing the legal profession.  Countless articles and several books addressing these changes have also been written by law school and business school professors.  And consultants have written far more – probably millions of words on how client demands are changing and what law firms should do about it.

The only thing that’s been missing from the conversation is public statements by the people who run large law firms.  These senior decision makers rarely publish anything on their tactics and strategies, or even attend conferences.  They are the ones who deal with these issues every day, and whose very livelihood depends on coming up with the right answers.  What do they think?

To answer this question, I interviewed chairs, managing partners, executive committee members, CEOs, CFOs and other senior executives at 50 AmLaw 200 firms between June 2013 and January 2014.

Based on those confidential interviews, there can be no question thatclients are demanding more value than ever before.  There is, however, much less agreement about the best way to remain competitive in an increasingly challenging environment. 

There are many signs that as times get tighter, firms are paying more attention to profitability and to its role in compensation:

I think you’re going to see the pressure in law firms increase about how the pie is split. When things were going well, it was easier to take care of the worker bee partners, who are great lawyers. It’s going to be tougher now, because everybody’s strategy is through lateral hiring, and you don’t want the great brief writer. What you want is the person who has five to eight million dollars following him or her, or the group that’s going to bring 20 to 30 million dollars. – Senior executive

As the pressure goes up, the emphasis on total revenue is being replaced by an emphasis on profitable revenue:

Historically, virtually all law firms overweighted revenue. Often two partners who produce five million dollars each are treated equally for compensation, even if one of those partners used six and a half million dollars of resources to produce that revenue, and the other used three and a half million. – Senior executive

We merged a few years ago with a firm that principally focused on total dollars in the door and allowed billing attorneys to set their own rate exceptions without much oversight. We focused on those decision points that reduced realization, and the lack of profitability in a million dollars received that takes two million dollars of effort to generate. Consistently reinforcing these basic concepts through our BI tools and in the compensation system has resulted in significant margin improvement. – Senior executive

There are still far too many lawyers who respond to cost pressure by offering discounts, without understanding the implications:

Most of our partners have been doing things in a particular way for a long time. And the carpet is moving under them, because the market is changing. A lot of times, their reaction to competitive pressure is to just cut rates but not examine the way they deliver the service—not change the way they practice to be able to offer more value for the same price, or reduce the cost to deliver the same value at a lower price. Demand is down. Price pressure is up. So some lawyers will just say, “I don’t want to talk about value based billing arrangement. I’ll just give clients a big discount. They’ll be happy, I’ll be happy….” It’s really remarkable how few attorneys appreciate the economics of discounting. They just don’t get the math. They never had to before. – Senior partner

It is easy to make clients happy by just cutting the cost.Not enough lawyers have really embraced building a better mousetrap that makes clients happy while at the same time maintaining profitability. – Senior executive

Lawyers are proposing a 10% discounted deal or a 20% discounted deal, or a blended rate deal, but then they’re going to literally do everything the same way they’ve always done it. They don’t think about it in terms of profitability yet. So we’ve got a lot of catching up to do. However, at one recent conference I attended, it sounded like there are still a lot of firms that aren’t much ahead of us. – Senior executive

Many firms are working to fill this gap and develop new tools and approaches:

I’ve been with the firm a little over a year, and part of the reason that the firm brought me in was that we needed to look at our operational infrastructure and basically get caught up with the rest of the AmLaw 100. We didn’t have the ability to really measure profitability. We could just barely measure it at the firm level and at the office level, but not at the practice level, not at the client level, or matter level. About three months ago we finally started using a business intelligence platform that allows us to measure those things, and we’re still trying to make that part of the culture. – Senior executive

Life used to be so much easier. The world has changed, and I think in the new environment, to preserve and enhance existing client relationships and to get our nose in the door for new client relationships, we’ve had to be more flexible on pricing, particularly in the alternative fee context. I think we’re in a brave new world here, where we have to learn a lot of new sciences and employ a lot of new techniques. – Senior partner

Some firms are providing lawyers with very detailed reports, like these:

We developed a real-time report on our intranet that is role-based. For example, if you are a client attorney, then your report will show all the clients on which you have any client credit on any matter, and it will show you the components of profitability. The report shows you collected revenue, the costs associated with that revenue, the profit, and the profit margin. Then it shows you the number of hours that are in it, the revenue per hour, the cost per hour. Then it breaks down timing differences on billing and collecting time. And then it shows you the traditional measures of profitability such as realization rates at the various levels. You can click on a client and it drills down to the matter level, so you see it for every matter. And then you can click on every matter and it drops down to all the timekeepers, and you see it across the board for all timekeepers on each matter, all those same metrics. We built the database to go back 10 years. You can do it for time periods of year to date, rolling 12 months, from inception, or for any other time period. – Senior partner

Other firms are concerned that too much data can be counterproductive:

One of the traps you can fall into is giving people a lot of data but not giving them information. Simply revealing realization or matter profitability, just putting it out there, would not really advance the management goals of getting people to focus more on profitability. What you would engender is more questions about “How come she got paid more than I did?” That kind of stuff. – Chair

Merely sending canned reports to partners will not result in many partners changing the way they manage their practices to improve profitability. We need to better develop a process whereby partners with profitability challenges receive the help they need to improve profitability in a manner tailored to the issues presented by that partner’s specific practice. Otherwise they look at the report and say, “This is crap. It’s wrong.” – Senior executive

A pdf of this entire series can be downloaded from Altman Weil Direct, where it originally appeared.

 

September 17, 2014

Case Study: Update on LPM’s benefits at Bilzin Sumberg (Part 2 of 2)

Jose Ferrer is a commercial litigation partner at Bilzin Sumberg who has an extensive practice in international disputes and arbitration. As noted in Part 1 of this post, a majority of Bilzin Sumberg’s partners completed our three-month individual coaching program, but Jose is part of the “other half” who attended an initial retreat presentation, and then developed LPM tactics on his own, and in collaboration with partners who were coached. 

As a litigator, Ferrer says, “you always work with your strategy in mind, and LPM helps you better define your strategy. It tells you what the next 90 days will involve and it enables you to think through your case.”

“Sometimes we compete with firms that have lower hourly rates, and then we have to provide something else to our clients. Part of that “something else” is certainty and the ability to budget. Of course, most clients’ litigation departments see outside counsel as a cost item. Our ability to produce and adhere to a budget improves a company’s ability to predict its own bottom line, which is of great value to the client.”

“We track every hour billed by an attorney or any other timekeeper by task code. It takes longer to put your time into the system, but it represents a significant value-add to any client,” Ferrer says.  This task-code system was developed at Bilzin Sumberg starting from standard ABA task codes and it is extremely well suited to the types of litigation they specialize in.

“The task codes force you to think about your strategy,” Ferrer says. “If you see that in the past 30 days, you have used only the discovery task codes, it forces you to think, ‘Did this discovery add or detract from your progress in the case?’”

“I have an icon on my computer that represents our budgeting software, ENGAGE. If I click on it, it will help me compare the planned budget with actual expenses, for example. It is relatively simple software and is easy to use. The benefit of the software is that it draws on past experiences in similar cases and tests how realistic the budget is when compared with them. We’ve been populating that system with our cases for two years, and we now have a reasonable amount of data in front of us.”

“ENGAGE offered training in the software, and it’s very hands-on.  For example, for one footwear chain client, we are using it to budget for current cases – breach of contract cases, landlord-tenant cases, other commercial cases – based on prior experience in similar cases. We have prior history that we can draw upon. Not only do we have an idea of what the current case will cost; we also can have an educated conversation with the client in advance about how the case will go and what strategy to use.

Al Dotson is a government relations partner and leader of the land development practice group at Bilzin Sumberg. His work primarily involves public-private partnerships in economic development in South Florida. It involves securing land use, zoning and other key government approvals and permits for large real estate developments. 

Al was one of the three lawyers in the initial pilot test of LPM coaching, and says he is now using LPM principles “in just about every matter that I have here. These principles are flexible and important enough to apply to nearly everything that I do.”

One key area is communication with the client and among team members. “Early communication with the client is absolutely essential for us to mutually understand what the expectations are,” he says. “In addition, I routinely set up non-billable team meetings  to ascertain the status of the work at any given stage, to avoid duplication of effort, to identify issues sooner rather than later and to communicate quickly with the client if there are any issues. This is done early and frequently throughout the project.”

“You really can’t say you are engaging in LPM,” Al says, “unless the budget and the assumptions are continually being reviewed and updated on a going forward basis. It’s an ongoing process, not just the mere act of creating a budget for a project. For example, changes occur regularly within a project. The initial assumptions will change, and we will need to change the staffing on a matter. Similarly, changes in a project will even begin to change how we define the concept of success for the project. Because of our use of LPM, all of these matters are now top of mind.”

Al shared that he has access to the LPM reports and budget tracking for the matters on which he is working.  To ensure consistency of data and to provide additional "eyes on the target," Bilzin Sumberg has a centralized process supported by finance staff who input budget information into the budgeting software.  One of the finance team's responsibilities is to “provide us with ticklers when certain milestones are reached.”

“Bilzin Sumberg provides attorneys with access to real-time information and this is critical to LPM.  It enables better communication with the client and allows me to be  even  more timely and efficient on my matters.”

 This post was written by Jim Hassett and Jonathan Groner.

 

September 10, 2014

Case Study: Update on LPM’s benefits at Bilzin Sumberg (Part 1 of 2)

Last December I wrote in this blog that “no law firm on the planet has achieved more LPM behavior change, more quickly or more efficiently” than Miami firm Bilzin Sumberg.  Since then, the firm’s LPM success has been featured by others in books and at conferences.

As explained in my book Legal Project Management, Pricing, and Alternative Fee Arrangements, their breakthroughs were built on a foundation of providing LegalBizDev’s individual coaching program to the majority of their partners (26 out of 51).  That coaching was completed in May 2013.  By then, the LPM had reached critical mass and had developed enough momentum that no more coaching was needed.  The partners themselves and Bilzin’s internal staff took ownership of moving the effort forward.

No one at Bilzin Sumberg would say that their LPM work is done.  As the chair of one AmLaw 200 firm put it in my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability:  “It’s an evolving process.  I don’t think there’s ever going to be a point at which you can say: ‘Now I’ve arrived.’”  But Bilzin Sumberg’s continuing experience provides valuable lessons in the best and most cost-effective ways to get started, and what happens next, so we will continue to update their results from time to time in posts like this.

Jon Chassen, a partner in the real estate group at Bilzin Sumberg, was one of the three lawyers in the firm’s original pilot test of LPM coaching at the beginning of 2012 with LegalBizDev principal Steve Barrett, and his success encouraged other partners to give it a try. Jon’s practice focuses on complex real estate deals  and on real estate deals with unusual twists. He often works closely with litigators to solve his clients’ problems, although he is not a litigator himself.

Jon says that a lot of things that he learned in the LegalBizDev coaching were similar to techniques that he had been trying to implement throughout his career.  The coaching crystallized and formalized these methods and techniques.

In Jon’s practice, LPM works best for larger transactions, where at the very outset, you need to design an engagement letter that spells out what you will and will not do for the client. “This way, the engagement letter guides the entire project. It establishes the scope of the project so that everyone in the transaction, outside lawyer and client, knows what role they will play. Then, as the transaction changes in unexpected ways, the engagement letter can be modified to reflect changing expectations.”

“Sometimes it’s relatively easy to anticipate that the scope of work will change and that the project will become larger or smaller than originally anticipated,” Jon says. “Sometimes, the changes are completely unanticipated. Either way, LPM techniques permit the lawyer and client to make changes pretty much on the run. I can now see at a glance who needs to be added to the team, who is dropping off the team, and so on. I see immediately when we’re at a fork in the road, and what the possible choices are at that decision point.”

“LPM also permits me to delegate more effectively. Since all the assignments to attorneys are made well in advance and carefully specified, I don’t need to be the funnel point on everything. If I have a lawyer working on a particular set of documents, I can trust that he or she will complete that assignment.”

“I am a bit technologically challenged in terms of creating charts and work flows. But with the use of LPM techniques and with people in the firm who can help me, I can now create these charts in a very useful manner. The chart will tell me what happens next. Who needs to get involved? LPM helps me come up with answers to those questions.”

Carter McDowell’s practice as a Bilzin Sumberg partner involves land use, zoning, environmental, and other regulatory approvals for major building projects, including regional malls, resort hotels, industrial complexes, professional buildings and marinas. Carter completed LegalBizDev’s three month coaching program in its second wave, after the pilot test.

“At the end of the day,” Carter says, “LPM is mostly about organization.”

“It enables you to step back and look at the process and compartmentalize it. It also enables you to look at it in the largest possible sense, from the very beginning.”

For one major project on South Beach that Carter has worked on, he made a very specific LPM outline of all the aspects of the project and of the budget associated with each aspect.

“We separated the project into several parts,” Carter says, “and we made several updates to each part as we went along. The government, after all, doesn’t take a linear path in granting approvals, so this LPM document has helped us plan each step. Our client used the LPM document on an ongoing basis.”

“In the South Beach project, there have already been seven hearings at which some sort of approval was granted, and two more approvals remain to be granted,” says Carter. “Each hearing is before a separate board. So the LPM document was helpful in documenting and managing the whole process.”

“We actually prepared the LPM document as soon as our client acquired the property. It was that long ago.  The client had asked us to put together a list of the most likely tasks that needed to be accomplished. So we used the LPM document to prepare that and we have updated and expanded it on an ongoing basis.”

“The firm now has sophisticated budget software (ENGAGE). On this project, the financial department staff at the firm established the outline of the document before the current software was available. So in this case, I don’t manipulate the software myself. I do receive reports from the financial people. They have been very helpful and responsive.”

“The document has led us on more than one occasion to go back to the client and to say, Here’ s a hearing that we hadn’t anticipated, so we updated the budget to include that process.”

“The LPM process is working well to enable us to provide our clients with better service at a lower cost.  Some of the procedures that we documented repeat themselves in other projects, so I can reuse this outline for other clients and efficiently tailor it to fit their needs.”

 This post was written by Jim Hassett and Jonathan Groner.

 
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