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:
- Confirm what the client wants and expects
- Group the work into the main areas
- Agree how to address changes of scope up front
- Develop and agree on the matter plan
- Agree on the fee and fee approach
- Agree on the engagement letter and share with the team
- Agree on the reporting format and schedule
- Establish your matter phases and tasks
- Approve new timekeepers
- 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.