Did you know there is a direct link between Knowledge Management (KM) and Profitability for law firms? In addition, did you know that this link exists right at the top of the profit pyramid, where the impact on profitability is the greatest? I’ve heard this link mentioned before, but haven’t heard the reasoning behind it. Here are my thoughts on this very important concept.
So, what is behind the link between Knowledge Management and Profitability?
First, it’s generally recognized that increasing Rates can have the biggest impact on profitability. As David Maister states in his book “Managing the Professional Service Firm“, you can increase rates through specialization, innovation and adding value. The use of properly developed KM systems can significantly increase rates in all three of these areas.
KM systems organize the information that lawyers need to develop and maintain their specialty practice areas. KM systems also allow lawyers to innovate the way they provide legal services to clients. Finally, KM systems add value to legal services delivered to clients. See here for further information from KM experts such as Ann Bjork of Virtual Intelligence VQ in an article from KIM Legal magazine.
I’ve always believed that the use of KM systems has the potential to make law firms extremely profitable. For example, the reuse of past legal work product can dramatically cut the cost of legal services and allow law firms to recover the true value of the legal knowledge they are imparting to clients. This is done by value billing without regard to the number of hours being spent on the legal task at the time. It’s not unethical to value bill for KM if you let the client know what you’re doing up front and give them the chance to “buy in” to a new way to dramatically reduce their overall legal spend. At the same time, this allows law firms to expand their own profit margins by increasing effective rates dramatically. It truly is a win-win situation for the law firm and the clients who embrace this way of doing things.
KM provides clients with exactly what they want – lower overall legal costs – while allowing law firms to increase effective rates on the legal products and services they are providing to clients. KM allows law firms to turn legal knowledge databases into products that can reused over and over. This allows law firms to invest for the future like other businesses, and not just build fiefdoms of partners who are only in the enterprise for their own gain. This is where most KM initiatives usually fail, as many partners can’t get past the short-term impact to their numbers by compensation systems which are driven by short-term results at many law firms. It takes some work to convince partners that the KM initiative will truly benefit them in the long run. Forward-thinking Managing Partners and Compensation Committees will take into account these long-term investments of legal knowledge by rewarding partners who contribute to the development of great KM systems. Firms can start small and simply bonus partners who provide significant contributions to the KM initiative. See the article from KIM Legal article magazine noted above for further ideas on how to approach the KM contribution/compensation issue.
KM contributes significantly to greatly increased profitability in law firms by driving and supporting higher Rates, which is the factor that has the biggest impact on law firm profits. I believe that once law firms truly understand this, you’ll see many law firms revisiting the KM concept. In combination with the drive for alternative billing models which clients are clamoring for today, law firms should be able to utilize KM to help clients reduce their overall legal costs while driving their own profits higher. In this way KM truly can be “the missing link” you’ve been searching for to dramatically increase law firm profits.
Here’s some issues that are common amongst small and midsized law firms that should be addressed now to increase profitability.
Too many firms try to run as democracies where partners have full say on which clients they work for and the type of work they do. They’re not accountable for their actions and effectively act as solo practitioners. This is a sure recipe for mediocrity and substandard profitability. You need to centralize management with a Managing Partner assigned the authority to screen all significant new clients for potential profitability, say no to high credit risks, and impact partner compensation to ensure all partners are accountable for their actions and performance. The Managing Partner will also direct strategic planning and execute the Firm Plan.
You need the right people. Many firms have ill-defined partnership entry criteria and even less understanding of what it takes to remain a partner. As a result, you end up with mediocre people and risk losing your best people to your competitors. You need to have high-performing people to move the firm forward and achieve your firm goals and profitability targets. Ensure your top performers are paid what they’re worth. Define partnership entry and retention criteria and enforce these criteria regularly.
You need to be constantly pruning your client base and upgrading your clients. Studies show that 80% of your profits come from 20% of your clients. You need to figure out who these high profit clients are and how to get more work from these clients. At the same time, you need to review and replace low profit clients with better opportunities. Get a list of your top 50 clients and start reviewing them for profitability and ask them if they’re satisfied. Do some client satisfaction interviews and you’ll generate more work from your most profitable clients simply by going through the interview process.
You need the “right” vision and a process for initiating strategic planning on an ongoing basis. Start with a strategic planning process involving all partners and facilitate the creation of a new Vision and Firm Plan. This will help direct your efforts in the most effective way and will help increase profitability dramatically if you get all partners to “buy in” to the new Vision.
You need to reward partners for cash in, not billings. Many firms focus on volume without looking at the quality of the work being brought in and worked on. You need to examine realization and profitability of all your clients. To do that, you need a system to quickly determine profitability of clients and practice areas and services provided. You also need to determine your cost per billable hour and create strategies to reduce costs and increase your profit margins.
Many firms spend a lot of time trying to collect bad debts instead of preventing them in the first place. You can change that with a good file opening system, with your Managing Partner approving all new clients and files over a certain size.
Why do this? Because many law firms’ compensation systems reward partners for volume of billings or hours generated, not quality of billings or hours. Even firms that reward partners for cash received instead of billings still have to deal with long delays in receiving cash for work billed. The best way to avoid this is to deal with the problem right at file opening.
You need to give the Managing Partner the authority to say no when a new client presents a high credit risk. The Managing Partner is not infallible so you also need to build a simple methodology up front to allow partners to take on new clients on a short leash. This is especially important if they’ve taken on too many flyers in the past and the firm has worn the results.
A credit limit system is the other half of the prevention solution. Combined with a good file opening approval system, the credit limit system works just like Sears or Macy’s in approving your new credit card. You get a credit check done for all new clients and assess the clients’ credit history. You then set a total credit limit for the new client which includes total WIP and A/R. The client is informed of the credit limit system in the initial engagement letter. If the value of total WIP and A/R for the client goes over the set limit, lawyers cannot record any more time for the client and the client is told that work has stopped on their file until they have paid their outstanding bills.
Simple, right? Okay, in practice it takes a bit more time to get all partners on board, but once they see the results, they toe the line gladly. Especially when the reward is more money in their pocket. If you can reduce the firm’s total investment in WIP and A/R from five months to four months using this system, you’ve just reduced each partner’s share of required capital by one month’s billings – a significant sum. And that money stays in partners’ pockets as long as they keep the firm’s total investment in WIP and A/R down at four months. So partners are incentivized to cooperate with the system and do what they can to help prevent future bad debts. This naturally leads to a significant improvement in the quality of the firm’s clients over time. And that’s the real reward, since that leads to many more benefits for the firm and its partners in the long run.