Win-Win Alternative Billing Strategies

This is the first installment of a three part series based on my presentation on “Win-Win Alternative Billing Strategies” at the CBABC Sixth Annual Branch Conference in Las Vegas November 18-20, 2011.

Current Situation

Alternative billing has been done in conjunction with commodity work for decades in Canada.  Fixed fees are common for personal services commodity legal work such as residential conveyances, wills, etc.  However, alternative billing is not common for most business law and litigation work in Canada. Canadian law firms are not proactively offering alternative billing to their clients either.  And clients aren’t happy about that!

Alternative billing is growing rapidly in the US and Europe, however.  Large clients are pushing big firms to offer alternative billing and they’re getting price discounts of 20% +.  This is what’s coming to Canada soon as well.  So you need to get ready for how to deal with that.

The New York State Bar Association “Report of the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession”, published in April, 2011, has a set of recommendations on alternative billing, and it predicts that alternative billing will be the dominant form of billing in the future in the legal industry. Clients are pushing for it, and Bar associations are supportive.

The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) is going to be setting up shop in British Columbia and Alberta soon, so it’s coming very fast.

What Do Clients Want From Alternative Billing?

Clients want lawyers to provide more value for money.  Legal chargeout rates have risen dramatically in the last decade, and clients want a price rollback!

Clients also want more predictability in legal costs.  They want fixed fees.  They want to be able to budget their legal costs as close as possible in order to satisfy their CEO’s desire to reduce overall legal costs.

Clients want law firms to share the risk when working for them.  At the moment, clients have all the risks under hourly billing.  Clients want to pay for results, not hours spent. If results aren’t achieved as planned, law firms should be sharing the downside as well.

Many clients are looking for lower overall legal costs.  Legal costs are spiralling out of control, and clients are fed up.

What Do Law Firms Want From Alternative Billing?

Law firms want to maintain or enhance profitability when doing alternative billing.

Law firms want to manage risks, and may prefer not to take on all the risk, but are willing to share risks with the client.  But the risks are a spectrum, and there is a different price all the way along the risk spectrum.  The more risk, the higher the risk premium, just like a stock portfolio.  The higher the return, the higher the risk.  Clients are willing to pay a premium for less risk as well.

Law firms want to retain clients, so they need to offer alternative billing, as clients are looking for it now.  And you want to offer alternative billing before your competitors offer it and steal your clients away.

Law firms want to satisfy clients, and alternative billing offers ways to satisfy clients even more than you are now!

Value Pricing – Part I

So what’s your unique value proposition?  What do you offer that no one else offers for the same value as you do?  Many firms do not focus on this question, and it’s the most important question you need to answer, because it’s the first question a client will be thinking about.  Why should I use you instead of your competitors?

You will need a unique value proposition in order to succeed with alternative billing.  If you don’t, it’s just about price, and that’s a losing game in the end.  You have to distinguish yourself from your competition in order to price at a premium and achieve profitability with fixed fees.

Ron Baker is a CPA who has been talking about the concept of value pricing for over 30 years.  He is the real guru of alternative billing.

Ron presents the formula: Value = Customer Profit minus Price.  What this means is that Value equals the impact your legal work has on a client’s profit less the price of your legal service.   Everything you do for a client will have a positive or negative impact on a client’s bottom line.

Some of the value you provide will be in the form of a tangible benefit, eg. hard dollars recovered or saved, and some will be intangible benefits such as enhanced reputation eg. client gets public financing with the help of your law firm’s blue-chip reputation.

The document “51 Practical Ways To Add Value” on the ACC website is an excellent overview of how you can add value for clients.  It is from a large firm’s point of view, but many of the points are relevant for small firms as well.

For example, ask the client what their strategic plan is. Many clients are very impressed by firms that actually talk to them to find out what their company goals are.  From there you can find out what the client values, and organize your legal services and resources in a way that can truly benefit the client.  And when you start thinking about the client’s profits before your own profits, then you really add value.  If you can help the client become more profitable, your profits will flow naturally as a result.

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!