6 posts categorized "Pricing"

February 01, 2017

Tip of the month: Be sure to define the primary decision maker for each matter

In complex matters, especially with large organizations, there are few things that can waste more time and money than trying to satisfy multiple client stakeholders. In a large legal matter, the general counsel, staff attorney, senior corporate management, line manager, and others may have conflicting opinions and needs. It is tempting to try to keep them all happy, but that is sometimes impossible. It may take effort to pin clients down on who is the ultimate decision maker, especially regarding cost, since multiple parties may have differing agendas. But if you are able to establish a single point of contact as the primary decision maker, it will reduce cost and increase client satisfaction.

 

The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple reminder like this to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. This tip was adapted from the fourth edition of our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

January 25, 2017

Engagement letters and statements of work

At the beginning of a new matter, lawyers often specify its scope and fees in an engagement letter. The engagement letter is designed to clarify exactly what work and services are included, and excluded, from a particular matter.

Some states have specific requirements for what must be included in an engagement letter, and many firms have their own requirements as well. For example, in New York State, Part 1215 of the Joint Rules of the Appellate Division requires a letter of engagement in most matters, except for certain exceptions listed in the rule (i.e., an engagement letter is not required if the fee is expected to be $3,000 or less).

From a project management point of view, there is considerable room for improvement in many engagement letters. Consider, for example, this language from the sample letter of engagement published by New York State:

Scope of representation

A claim, dispute or dealings with relating to ______________.

All of our services in this matter will end, unless otherwise agreed upon in a writing signed by us, when there is a final agreement, settlement, decision or judgment by the court. Not included within the scope of our representation are appeals from any judgments or orders of the court. Appeals are subject to separate discussion and negotiation between our firm and you. Also not included in the scope of this agreement are services you may request of us in connection with any other matter, action, or proceeding.

The rest of New York’s two-page sample focuses on fees and client rights. Fee options for the sample include a flat fee, a contingency, or hourly rates.

If a law firm copied the New York State sample exactly and negotiated a fixed fee, they might end up being very sorry when the matter spiraled out of control. They would be better protected if the engagement letter specified timelines and deliverables, such as the maximum number of interviews, pleadings, interrogatories, opinions, and reports, the anticipated scope of travel and research, the use of outside consultants, and so on.

Could a lawyer possibly know in advance how many depositions would be required to settle or plead a particular case? Of course not. But he or she could specify the maximum number of depositions they expected and exactly what would be included within the fixed price.

This failure to provide sufficient detail is quite common. As the executive director of one AmLaw firm recently put it, “The scope of work often contained in our engagement letters is generally no more than one or two lines. Lawyers are missing an opportunity to clearly specify the scope of what is included in each matter and what is not.”

From the client perspective, better specifying the work up front could lead to more predictable costs and a more sophisticated understanding of what they are paying for. From the law firm’s point of view, it could reduce fee disputes, write-downs, and write-offs.

Entire textbooks have been written on how to develop what project managers call a statement of work (SOW), which specifies what a particular project includes and excludes. Lawyers may wish to adapt some of these ideas and write an SOW which could either be included in the engagement letter or be a separate document, depending on the nature of the matter, the lawyer-client relationship, and joint expectations.

 

This post was adapted from the recently published fourth edition of The Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

December 28, 2016

Pricing legal matters (Part 4 of 4)

In the fifth edition of The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing, one of the most widely respected texts in this field, Thomas Nagle, John Hogan, and Joseph Zale noted that:

In many business-to-business markets, where high-volume repeat purchasers negotiate their purchases, buyers are ahead of sellers in thinking strategically…. Buyers have goals and a long-term strategy for driving down acquisition costs, while suppliers rarely have comparable long-term strategies for raising or at least preserving margins (p. 98).

The problem of salespeople discounting too deeply in order to close deals is also common in other businesses:

Customer satisfaction can usually be bought by a combination of over-delivering on value and underpricing products… The purpose of strategic pricing is to price more profitably by capturing more value, not necessarily by making more sales (p. 4).

Nagle’s text goes on to describe five basic concepts that can be used in any profession, including the law, to improve the way prices are set:

1. Differentiate. You may have heard legal marketers use this word quite a bit, and it is just as important to pricing experts. The features of a law firm that add differentiating value must be communicated to the client. Are you different because your legal project management expertise makes you more efficient than others or because you communicate progress better? Let the client know.

2. Communicate value. According to Nagle:

In our research, we have found that business managers rated “communicating value and price” as the most important capability necessary to enable their pricing strategies (p. 72).

Nagle makes special note of the value of an endorsement from a client known to be discriminating. For example, in the health field, Kaiser Permanente has an excellent reputation for being an informed buyer. As a result, “When other hospitals and health maintenance organizations (HMOs) learn that Kaiser Permanente has adopted a more expensive product or service, they assume that its price premium is cost-justified” (p. 75).

3. Have a clear and consistent pricing policy. It is important to have a clear and consistent pricing policy and to avoid commonly granting price exceptions. Discounting to win business creates client expectations of future discounts. In setting up your policies it is important to keep in mind that people are more affected by perceived losses than perceived gains, and you should frame your pricing with this in mind. If the client is offered a service package, it is better to have a policy that allows a reduction in cost if a service is dropped (a perceived gain) than a policy that requires an extra fee to get that service (a perceived loss).

4. Know your market segments. Clients are not all the same; they fall into different market segments. The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing gives an example of a company selling a scientific device to be used in DNA analysis. The device is a great improvement over existing competitor products and the company estimated the differentiation value in order to set a price. However, the company sold to two different market segments—the industrial market and the academic/government market. The differentiation value was not the same in industry and universities, so the ultimate pricing strategy involved different pricing policies in the two segments. As long as this policy is clearly stated it does not violate consistency requirements. Airlines do this all the time when they distinguish between refundable fares for business travelers and nonrefundable fares for vacationers with flexible schedules.

5. Know your client types. Within a given market segment there may be different classes of clients, and knowing their classification may help you to deal more intelligently with each group. The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing divides clients into four categories:

a. Value-driven clients have sophisticated analysis strategies for studying value-added, and you will need to work to establish your value-added for them.

b. Brand buyers (also known as relationship buyers)—For this group, the cost of analyzing value-added is perceived as too high. This “buyer will buy a brand that is well-known for delivering a good product with good service without considering cheaper but riskier alternatives” (p. 105). This is an easier client to deal with so long as you do not disappoint them.

c. Price buyers are looking for a specified service at the lowest possible price. Here you will need to “strip out any and every cost that is not required to meet the minimum specification” (p. 107). It is also important to fence off this job so that more lucrative clients who receive a higher level of service understand that this lower-priced work is at a different level.

d. Convenience buyers “don’t compare prices; they just buy from the easiest source of supply” (p. 108). They know that they are paying a premium for immediate convenience and will not complain.

But whatever price strategy a law firm uses, the simple fact that they are paying more attention to this area will have positive effects. In their book, Law Firm Pricing: Strategies, Roles, and Responsibilities, Toby Brown and Vince Cordo give this example:

Lawyers live in a reputation world, and [financial] monitoring exposes that reputation to risk. Once lawyers realize that others in their firm can see their financial performance on matters, their behavior often changes. In one example, a lawyer was losing money on the first phase of a fixed fee arrangement. Once a monitoring program was put in place, performance on the second phase dramatically changed, leading to a reasonably profitable result (p. 39).

This post was adapted from the recently published fourth edition of The Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

December 21, 2016

Pricing legal matters (Part 3 of 4)

If law firm management has trouble defining profitability, it can hardly be surprising that lawyers are confused by the concept. Several of the AmLaw 200 firm leaders I interviewed for my book, Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, expressed frustration with the implications, including these two:

Lawyers don’t understand what profitability means or how they can influence that number. So it’s a case of sometimes being focused on revenue, but not necessarily the right revenue, because they don’t understand the profit trade-off. They say they’ve got an account that’s giving two million dollars a year. Well that’s fine. But if you’re getting a three-percent profit margin, stay in bed.

We’re still struggling with trying to communicate to our billing attorneys that when you agree to a 10% discount or a 20% discount, you’ve probably given away 100% of your margin. They don’t get that. They say, “It’s only a 10% discount.”

In the interest of improving understanding, Stuart J T Dodds, the director of global pricing and legal project management at Baker & McKenzie, has proposed in his book, Smarter Pricing, Smarter Profit, that when lawyers price matters, they focus on his simple 1-3-4 Rule™:

For every one percent improvement in price, the potential increase to profitability is three percent. To get the same level of improvement in profitability without increasing price, you would need to work four percent more billable time (p. 36).

Dodds goes on to explain that these numbers are an approximation and that the precise relationship depends on the firm’s margin (p. 38). He even provides a table showing exactly how discounts from 1% to 20% reduce margin for firms whose margin before discount ranged from 20% to 50%.

But for the vast majority of lawyers, the 1-3-4 Rule™ will be enough and will be a great way to simplify a mathematically complex relationship.

Smarter Pricing, Smarter Profit goes step by step through everything lawyers need to know to survive and prosper in today’s rapidly changing marketplace. It is divided into four main sections: set the price, get the price, manage to the price, and review the price. So setting an initial price is just the start of the process. LPM is vital for actually living within that price and collecting profit. Dodds notes that:

When getting started on a project or matter, there are three important themes it is important to address at the outset… better communication, greater clarity, and easier review. These break down into 10 key steps for those responsible for leading a matter:

  1. Confirm what the client wants and expects
  2. Group the work into the main areas
  3. Agree how to address changes of scope up front
  4. Develop and agree on the matter plan
  5. Agree on the fee and fee approach
  6. Agree on the engagement letter and share with the team
  7. Agree on the reporting format and schedule
  8. Establish your matter phases and tasks
  9. Approve new timekeepers
  10. Staff the core team and agree on client responsibilities (p. 222)

Taken together, all of the observations in this discussion of pricing could be interpreted as reflecting a glass half-empty (so much remains to be learned) or half-full (firms are moving quickly to focus more on the pricing function). It may make you feel better to know that the law is not the only profession that could greatly improve its pricing strategies.

This post was adapted from the recently published fourth edition of The Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

December 14, 2016

Pricing legal matters (Part 2 of 4)

There are many challenges in defining law firm profitability and then managing the firm to become more profitable. For my book, Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, I conducted in-depth interviews with managing partners and other leaders of 50 firms from the AmLaw 200. One question I asked was, “If you compare profitability for two lawyers in your firm, is there a software program or formula used to calculate profitability or is the comparison more intuitive?” (p. 52). Seventy-four percent said profitability in that case was defined by a program or formula, but 26% said it was more intuitive.

As one senior executive put it:

We don’t calculate profitability by formula. It’s really seat of the pants.

The managing partner at another firm put it this way:

Profitability is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. We’re still looking for good tools to evaluate what is profitable and what is not.

Other evidence suggests that even the firms that have formulas are measuring profitability in a variety of different ways. 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 Technologies 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 lies.

At the LMA P3 conference a few years ago, Jeff Suhr, senior vice president of products at Data Fusion Technologies, noted that his company then had 91 clients actively using their tools, including 10 of the top 35 AmLaw firms. Exactly how did these 91 clients calculate profitability? Ninety-one different ways. The fundamentals were the same but there were 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.

As Suhr summed it up:

The right way to measure profitability is one that is accepted in your firm. The art is to measure it in a way that keeps everybody happy.

In an email exchange, Donald Ware, chair of Foley Hoag’s Intellectual Property Department, summed up the state of the art more critically:

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 post was adapted from the recently published fourth edition of The Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

November 30, 2016

Pricing legal matters (Part 1 of 4)

When it comes to offering fee estimates at the start of a matter, far too many lawyers still rely on ballpark estimates that they sometimes pull out of thin air. But even if you follow the “high detail” estimation techniques described in our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide (p. 152), the fact that you have a budget does not necessarily mean that you have a price which should be quoted to a client.

Wikipedia lists 25 different pricing strategies suppliers use in other businesses, ranging from loss leaders to premium pricing. The two that are used most often in law are cost-plus and value pricing.

Cost-plus pricing is similar to the traditional hourly billing approach and is exactly what it sounds like: a price is based on the cost of delivering a service plus a markup or profit margin. Normally the markup is already built into the hourly rate, so with this approach you could in fact quote your budget as the price.

Some of the most popular new alternatives for lawyers are built around the idea of value pricing, where the client’s perception of value is the most important factor. The best-known proponent of this approach is Ron Baker, author of several books on the topic. In practice, value pricing is much harder than it sounds. (For details, see chapters six and seven of my book, Legal Project Management, Pricing, and Alternative Fee Arrangements.)

In today’s highly competitive marketplace for legal services, where some firms seem downright desperate for new work, price competition is a giant wild card.

In his book Growth is Dead: Now What? legal consultant Bruce MacEwen has described:

“Suicide pricing” in response to RFPs. These are bids—from name-brand firms, mind you—that are so breathtakingly low one wonders how they could possibly make any money. The short answer is they can’t. These bids come in 5, 10, 20, 40% under what my clients think would be reasonable for the matter. But… firms in an industry with excess capacity face an almost irresistible compulsion to cut prices, even to unprofitable levels. The goal is simply to keep people busy, in service of keeping the firm alive and satisfying clients, and in the hope that once market conditions recover, everything can get back to normal.

The bad news for most law firms is that low prices are the new normal.

When Altman Weil’s Law Firms in Transition survey asked 356 managing partners and chairs of US law firms about current trends which represented a permanent change in the legal landscape, the top trend was “more price competition.” Ninety-five percent of respondents said this was a permanent change in the legal profession. (Interestingly, number two on their list was a “focus on improved practice efficiency” or LPM, which was rated as a permanent change by 93% of respondents.)

Another challenge is posed by the growing popularity of alternative fee arrangements. When the same survey asked, “Compared to projects billed at an hourly rate, are your firm’s non-hourly projects more profitable or less profitable?” 28% said non-hourly matters were less profitable. Of the remaining respondents, 18% said non-hourly arrangements were more profitable, 42% said they were about the same as hourly, and 13% were “not sure.”

Would you invest in a company that didn’t know which deals were profitable? Of course not. But if you are a partner in a US firm with 50 lawyers or more, there’s a 13% chance you already own one.

A few years ago, an AmLaw 100 firm that was just beginning to think seriously about pricing 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 pricing director and a number of new pricing and management initiatives in place.

This post was adapted from the recently published fourth edition of The Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.