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December 18, 2019

Legal Project Management: The Year-In-Review (Part 1 of 2)

In 2019, three major papers were published summarizing data collected from over 500 law firms and 250 law departments: 

  1. Altman Weil’s Law Firms in Transition survey (“LFiT”)
  2. Altman Weil’s Chief Legal Officer survey (“CLO”)
  3. The CITI Client Advisory report (“CITI”)

Based upon these reports, and also upon the multiple webinars, interviews, and informal discussions that we held with LPM decision-makers in 2019, we believe that law firm leaders should concentrate on five key issues to improve profitability, as discussed below.  One of our major takeaways from 2019 is that, if a law firm aggressively seeks to implement an LPM program and works to change lawyer behavior, it can make great strides towards resolving the challenges described in this blog series.

(1) For non-hourly alternative fee arrangements (AFAs), increase efficiency to reduce costs

It’s difficult to obtain unanimous agreement on anything, particularly among law firm leaders.  But not a single leader predicted that there would be a decline in the use of AFAs in 2020 (p. 8, CITI).  A huge majority (87%) predicted that the use of AFAs will increase in 2020, while 13% said that the use of AFAs will remain about the same (p. 8, CITI). 

From the client perspective, CLOs consistently report that one of the best management techniques for improving outside counsel performance is to negotiate fixed, capped, or alternative fees.  Over 75% of CLOs say that the use of AFAs significantly improves outside counsel performance (p. 47, CLO).  This too suggests that the use of AFAs will increase in 2020.

But any firm that has ever offered a fixed fee knows how easy it is to lose money on them.  The key to maintaining financial performance is to increase efficiency, so that the work can be completed at or below what it would have cost at standard hourly rates.  And this in turn will require significant improvements in LPM at most firms.

(2) To reduce discounting, law firms must accelerate the use of LPM

We were floored when we read the statistics on the percentage of legal fees that are derived from discounted hourly rates.  “Nearly one in five law firms (18%) receive 50% or more of their legal fees from discounted hourly rates” (p. 27, LFiT) [emphasis added].

Altogether, just over 75% of law firms receive a substantial portion (11% or more) of their legal fees from discounted hourly rates.  A paltry 2% of firms receive the full amount that their lawyers charge.  Amazingly, 3% of law firms do not collect this data and have no idea what percentage of their legal fees are derived from discounted hourly rates (p. 27, LFiT). 

Large firms offer more discounting than smaller firms.  The median for firms with 250 lawyers or more is that 41% to 50% of legal fees are derived from discounted hourly rates, while the median for firms under 250 lawyers is 11% to 20% (p. 27, LFiT). 

These results are validated by CLOs.  The number one strategy for controlling law department costs (at 57%) is to receive reductions on hourly rates from outside counsel (p. 26, CLO).

If law firms want to reduce discounting, their lawyers must embrace LPM.  The more efficient a lawyer or legal team becomes, the more valuable their time becomes (when compared to lawyers at other firms), which reduces discounting.  Moreover, the LPM tactic of properly delegating work ensures that the right person is handling the work, which again establishes efficiency and reduces discounting.  And even when clients are simply unwilling to pay standard hourly rates, LPM allows firms to increase profitability by embracing fixed fee work and using LPM tactics to ensure that matters are managed profitably. 

(3) Use LPM to better utilize financial data and increase profitability

Survey results confirm that most law firms are investing time and money obtaining better financial data.  For example, 52% of law firms have invested money to develop data on the cost of services sold, though only about one-third of those firms report any clear corresponding improvement in performance (p. iv, LFiT).  The data shows that merely gathering data does not necessarily translate into improved performance.  Instead, as Altman Weil notes: “Real achievements can and must be made in using cost data and project management techniques to improve matter profitability.” (p. iv, LFiT) [emphasis added]. 

One project management technique that could improve matter profitability is to use collected profitability data in conjunction with the firm’s LPM efforts.  For example, only 55% of law firms that collect profitability data currently use that data to manage their practice groups (p. v, LFiT).  If profitability data is readily available, the natural next step is to use that data to actively manage practice groups in conjunction with LPM efforts.    

(4) To increase new business, law firms must differentiate themselves

Anyone with a marketing background can attest to the importance of differentiation in the marketplace when selling goods and services.  Differentiation is what allows one law firm to stand out from another. But nearly half of law firm leaders cannot point to a single compelling differentiator that significantly elevates their firm above others (p. iii, LFiT).  

Using the old standby “our lawyers are better than theirs” doesn’t cut it anymore.  True differentiation allows one law firm to contrast its services with competing services and emphasize the unique aspects that make its services superior. As Altman Weil writes: “Establishing a credible means of differentiation should be a key area of attention for all firms and each group within a firm” (p. iii, LFiT).  Using the LPM tactic of client communication (e.g., conducting “lessons learned” reviews with clients) may be a good place to start if a law firm wants to identify the ways in which it separates itself from other firms.

(5) Be realistic about how clients perceive the quality of your firm’s services

When it comes to the delivery of client service, perception often does not match reality.  Firms tend to overestimate the quality of their services.

53% of law firm leaders say that their firms are significantly ahead of the competition in terms of delivering client service (p. iii, LFiT).  In summarizing this data, Altman Weil notes: “It is mathematically impossible and logically inconsistent for most firms to lead the pack on these or any other factors.  If everyone’s ahead, there’s no pack to lead” (p. iii, LFiT).

Of course, overestimating the quality of client service likely means that many firms do not take appropriate action to improve the delivery of client service when, in fact, they should.  The tendency for law firm leaders to inaccurately assess client service is highly significant because unsatisfactory client service has consistently been one of the top reasons that clients shift a large portfolio of work ($50,000 or more) from one law firm to another (p. 50, CLO).

*****

In Part 2, we will examine the tactics that law firms use to become more efficient and why the LPM change process has been so slow at some firms.

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