Trends In Restructuring Law Firm Business Functions To Increase Profitability

I’ve often wondered why so many law firms insist on keeping business functions run inhouse by lawyers, when they’d be much better off delegating or outsourcing (levering) these functions to someone who knows more about business management than they do.  This behavior can range from the Managing Partner who insists on doing the financial statements himself to the numerous lawyer-run Committees you see operating in many firms.   Many firms would get much better and faster results by having an experienced Executive Director or Administrator perform these functions for them.

Some will say that lawyers won’t listen to someone who isn’t a lawyer regarding management issues.  However, many lawyers are now realizing that they need to streamline their operations further as clients push them on the rates side and squeeze their profit margins further.  I would suggest that more lawyers need to become aware of the option to outsource these functions as well,  given the increasing demands from clients to keep costs down and provide better and faster service.  It also recognizes the need for law firms to focus on their core competency of providing legal services.

One of the main reasons to consider levering business functions is to increase profitability.  This requires that you focus on how leverage of business functions can operate in your firm to release your fee earners from administrative tasks.  Your opportunity costs can be great if you have several partners involved in management and administration functions, when they could instead be doing more productive things with their time.  Things such as getting new, highly profitable work, working on high-end files or performing high level R & D to add value to the firm’s knowledge banks and improve firm profitability.  At $400 to $1,000 per hour opportunity cost, you’d be far better off levering those admin tasks to an experienced COO or Executive Director who could do the job more effectively and efficiently.  Your “real” bottom line will grow substantially after allowing for these recovered opportunity costs .

In a recent survey I conducted with COO’s and Executive Directors of midsize and large US and Canadian law firms, I found that more firms are also looking seriously at outsourcing facilities management, document production,  systems, human resources and marketing functions.  Whole administrative departments are not only being outsourced, but are also being shared with other midsize firms.  This tactic allows midsize firms to compete for much larger files than they’d normally have  a chance at and both firms can benefit from the arrangement.  It’s just another way for firms to extend their reach to be competitive without having to merge or add extra offices, and avoid all the costs and potential heartaches that an ill-thought out merger can entail.

Orrick is an example of a firm that successfully “outsourced” all of their administrative support functions such as HR, marketing, systems, facilities management and document production to a single support center office in West Virginia.  Their global network of offices can access the admin services they need from this Global Operations Center on a 24/7/365 basis.  Through this change, Orrick has reduced administrative costs while improving the quality of these support services.

CMS Cameron McKenna in the UK is the first major law firm to outsource its entire business support function to an outside party, including IT, HR, finance, business development, communications, knowledge management, facilities management and administration services.  This is a major development/experiment and is being watched with great interest by many other firms.

Another administrative service to consider for outsourcing is the search function, such as due diligence, title search, etc.  Why firms have their paralegals do these functions is curious to me.  Paralegals should be focused on higher end legal file functions, and searches should ideally be delegated to clerical staff or outsourced to a dedicated search firm.

Another option for small and midsize firms is to outsource all of their administrative functions to companies like MCG Management Counsel Group in Toronto or Cameron Management Services Group in Calgary (no relation).  These companies can handle all of your administrative and business functions so you can focus on practising law.  I’ve heard this option works very well for some small and midsize firms.

The latest option for outsourcing administrative functions is Face2Face Solicitors in the UK, which provides franchisee solicitor firms with centralized back-office systems – including accounts, IT and regulatory compliance – and central marketing and business development, to enable lawyers to focus on the legal work.  See here for more info.

Outsourcing can done at many levels in law firms and is being experimented with in different ways by forward-thinking firms.  You can theoretically outsource any business function.  One partner I knew once jokingly suggested that he’d like to see his firm’s entire Management Committee outsourced.  Okay, that’s pushing the outsourcing concept a bit, but considering the minutiae that many Management Committees get involved with, perhaps it’s not such a farfetched idea!

Strategic Planning for Law Firms – Key Steps in the Process

So what’s all the mystery about strategic planning for law firms?  Why do so many firms fail to do strategic planning, and if they do try it, why do they fail to implement?

First I’ll address the mystery part.  Most law firms are run as democracies, which allow partners to do what they want with no real accountability.  Strategic planning assumes that you are thinking about your future as a firm, not as a group of solo practitioners.  This is the key to making a strategic plan work.

Here’s some key questions to address in getting the planning process going.

Where Are We Going?

Ideally, you should follow a standard strategic planning process, which involves creating a mission statement and long-term vision for the firm.  The strategic planning process will address the next 3 to 5 years, and should be revisited every 3 to 5 years as the environment changes.

Who Are We?

A core values statement is also essential, to guide all partners and staff on the firm’s expectations of its people.  This will decide who’s in the boat, and who isn’t.  The core values statement is normally created separately from the mission statement, but must support it.

What’s Stopping Us From Achieving Our Vision?

First you need to identify the key issues facing your firm at the moment.  This gives you a place to start turning issues into goals and strategies.  Every issue is a potential hurdle which is preventing you from achieving your firm’s goals.  The firm’s  key issues should be summarized and prioritized.  The top 5 issues should be discussed and ideas exchanged on how the issues are stopping the firm from achieving its mission statement and vision.

What Are The Steps Along the Way To Achieving Our Vision?

Once the mission statement and vision are determined, usually during a strategic planning session with all partners, then you can start eliciting goals from the mission statement. The firm’s goals are normally contained within the mission statement.  Focus on the top 5 goals.

Quantify Objectives

With the top 5 firm goals decided on, you can then quantify objectives which must be met in order to achieve the goals.

How Do We Get There?

Conduct a brainstorming process to consider various strategies to help achieve the goals.  Prioritize the strategies needed to achieve the goals.

Who Will Do What And By When?

This is the action planning stage.  Here we identify who will carry out the strategies and assign deadlines to complete the action plans.  This provides accountability and helps with follow-through.

How Do We Ensure It All Gets Done?

This is where most firms fall down and don’t implement their plans.  You need a management structure with accountability to make it happen.  The Managing Partner will be in charge of executing the firm plan and will ensure every partner does their part in implementing the plan.  The Managing Partner must also be able to impact partner compensation to make partners accountable for their role in the process.

The Top 5 Things Law Firms Need To Do Now To Increase Profitability

Here’s some issues that are common amongst small and midsized law firms that should be addressed now to increase profitability.

1. Management

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.

2. People

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.

3. Clients

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.

4. Vision

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.

5. Systems

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.