Win-Win Alternative Billing Strategies – Part III

This is the third 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.

What are the innovators doing?

The first innovator I’ll talk about is Patrick Lamb’s firm, Valorem Law Group based in Chicago.  Patrick was formerly with an Amlaw 100 firm, and decided to leave to start his own 9 lawyer litigation boutique to focus on fixed fee litigation services.  

Patrick has two main concepts he promotes in his billing approach.

First, he sets up fixed fee estimates for the various phases of a litigation file, in consultation with his client.  Then, at the end of each phase, the client is invited to add or subtract from the fixed fee for that phase, depending on perceived value provided.  And often the client is premiuming the fixed fee based on value perceived.  

Second, at the end of the file, when all the results are in, the client is invited to again adjust the final bill based on results and Patrick has the opportunity to gain a significant bonus based on results.

Only a handful of firms are doing fixed fee billing on litigation files, so Patrick is certainly at the leading edge here. 

Seyfarth Shaw is a 750 lawyer full service law firm with multiple offices in the US.  They’ve focused on “Lean” Six Sigma techniques in a big way.  Six Sigma is a technique that’s been used by many Fortune 500 companies to improve quality while reducing costs and getting more efficient.  “Lean” Six Sigma is a cut-down or leaner process than regular Six Sigma, which can be very resource and time hungry.  Seyfarth uses Lean Six Sigma techniques to significantly reduce the cost of producing legal work in conjunction with alternative billing and makes clients very happy in the process.

Orrick is a very large firm in the US which is offering portfolio billing, essentially a flat fee to provide all of a Fortune 500 company’s legal work on an annual basis.  Orrick signed such as deal a couple of years ago with a Fortune 500 company for a price totalling 20% less than what the client paid last year.  This will give Orrick tremendous incentive to get more efficient in the way it handles the file in order to maintain its profitability for this client’s work.  As a result of its experience with alternative billing, it is willing to take that chance, and it’s doing what it can to satisfy the client and their needs to reduce overall legal costs. Now that’s innovative.

The Economics of Alternative Billing

A 20 per cent discount with a 40% profit margin is equal to a 50 per cent cut in profit. That’s a big hit.  You’re going to have to really pedal hard to make up for that loss in profit when you get into alternative billing.

Leverage still works, and you should be optimizing where the work is done, making sure it’s done as efficiently as possible, at the lowest possible level, keeping in mind overall cost for the client is kept to a minimum. 

Realization is key to profitability, and you need to get more efficient.  The fact is that’s how many smart law firms track their profitability, it’s the realization on their time.  And that’s an opportunity cost that you have.

Some will say you don’t need your timesheets any more. I say, think twice about that, because you’ve got a lot of valuable information in your time and billing systems and you don’t want to lose that information by not recording time. 

Legal Project Management 

So that brings us to the latest “hot” thing in legal management.  Legal project management.  There are a few consultants out their touting this as the panacea to your alternative billing problem.  They talk about Six Sigma, LPM, getting more efficient while lowering costs and increasing quality, etc.

So, is LPM the solution?

As a first comment, lawyers are not good project managers, and have never had to be since they’ve been doing hourly billing for decades, which doesn’t reward efficiency.  It rewards more hours under most partner compensation systems.  So law firms have to do a total rethink of their partner compensation systems and criteria to operate effectively under alternative billing.

So how do we deal with this? 

I think there are some simple things that can be done to improve efficiency, without going whole hog into project management now.  Jim Hassett of LegalBizDev has some good advice, with just in time training of LPM, as an example. Look at where simple efficiencies can be gained, and experiment a bit.  

Law firms want to be seen as being proactive in reducing clients’ legal costs, so the smart firms are learning about project management now, and approaching their clients with the objective of getting more efficient if clients are receptive.

Legal project management can also be done whether you’re doing hourly or fixed billing, and similar benefits can result without as much risk for either side.

Legal project management is also being looked at as an alternative to alternative billing. Interest amongst law firms has gained rapidly over the last couple of years, as firms are rapidly trying to get themselves more efficient without clients forcing them to do AFA’s first.

Preparing for Alternative Billing

– Go slow at first, and experiment using pilot projects with understanding clients.  Don’t start with “A” clients, as they may get unrealistic expectations, and get upset when they aren’t offered alternative billing after all.  Start with B and C clients.

– Ask clients what they want

– Determine the value of your services to the client as we discussed earlier.

– Add value, as we discussed using 51 ways to add value, etc.

– Don’t throw away your timesheets, as they will be invaluable for tracking the profitability of your alternative billing files, and will also help you with costing and pricing future AFA’s. 

– You don’t have to be profitable on every AFA file.  This is a tough one for many partners to get their minds around.  With fixed fee billing, you will make some mistakes at first, so treat those as learning mistakes.  Just reduce the amount of risk at first by trying this out on smaller files until you get the hang of alternative billing.  The idea is that you will win some and lose some, but you are sharing risk with the client, and you will get better at it the more AFA’s you do.

– Improve your fee budgeting skills.  Lawyers aren’t good at budgeting, as they’ve never had to be under hourly billing.  You must do more work on this up front to optimize your profitability and produce a win-win result for your law firm and the client.

Call to Action

Prepare for alternative billing now.  It’s not going away anytime soon, so get educated on the topic and start looking at ways to implement alternative billing in your firm.

Look for ways to add value.  There’s many ways to add value for your clients, so start looking at this area now.  Clients are getting more demanding and want more value for their dollar, which they haven’t been getting in many cases under hourly billing.

Become more efficient.  You can do this in various ways, but start simple and work with your clients on ways to reduce wasted legal steps and get more efficient.  Learn more about Legal project management and how it can be applied in your firm.

Communicate with clients.  Find out whether they’re interested in alternative billing, and give them options.

Finally, partner with clients on alternative billing.  You can work together on this and hopefully create a win-win situation with a very satisfied client for a very long time.  That is the ultimate goal.

Different Incentives for AFA’s – GC’s vs. Managing Partners

Recently Bruce MacEwan of Adam Smith, Esq. did a great post on his blog on the different incentives that General Counsels (GC’s) and Managing Partners have regarding Alternative Fee Agreements (AFA’s).  GC’s are accountable to their shareholders, while Managing Partners are accountable to their partners.  Bruce’s point was that GC’s are incented by their shareholders to reduce costs and push AFA’s, while managing partners are incented by their partners to run a profitable firm.  I’m paraphrasing a bit, but here’s the full post for your info.

So given the current difference in incentives for GC’s and Managing Partners, is there a way to reconcile the two points of view and come to some agreement for a mutual goal and appropriate incentives for both sides?

I think there is.  I would suggest as a start that law firms start reducing the emphasis on billable hours in their partnership compensation systems.  By doing so, this will encourage lawyers to focus more on the profitability of their practice, not on their own personal billable hours.  It will also incent them to lever more work down to associates and paralegals, or to outsource legal work where it makes sense.  These actions make good business sense whether an AFA is in place or not.  This will make your firm more profitable, produce high realization and reduce the overall cost of legal work.  Any resulting efficiencies from this approach which produce extra profits can be shared with your clients in the context of an AFA.

And there is much inefficiency in the way that law firms produce legal work now.  The fact is that partner compensation systems that incent partners to maximize their billable hours encourage “bloat” in the overall cost of legal work.  It also encourages firms to keep too many partners around billing at high rates.  It’s no wonder that clients are rebelling against this type of system.

Emphasis on partner hours billed has created law firms that are too top-heavy for their own good. Many firms have too many partners compared to associates and paralegals, and partners are “hoarding” work that should be levered down.  As a result, the cost of the legal services goes up due to higher chargeout rates on average.  The answer is that most firms could probably do with, say,  20% fewer partners (admittedly a number totally off the top of my head), and still handle the same work volume, but in a far more efficient way and at a lower overall cost for the client.  The tricky part is that law firms’ overall billings will go down, and partners have a vested interest to keep the compensation criteria as is to protect their own interests.   It won’t be easy, but forward-thinking firms are  addressing this issue now.  And if you don’t address this issue, these forward-thinking firms will steal your clients from you.

So the firm’s partner compensation system is the best place to start.  The smart firms that de-emphasize billable hours and focus instead on value, efficiency and reducing overall legal costs have the opportunity to take work from firms who are simply too lazy or greedy and won’t change unless they have to.

Admittedly, GC’s are incented to reduce the overall cost of legal services, so there is a conflict here with law firms’ incentive to grow the size of their practice.  But, if there is the potential to grow profits in a properly constructed AFA arrangement, then this should satisfy law firm partners who are rewarded for increasing profits for the firm and the client, not just the size of their practice.

And if the choice is to lose a good client playing big annual fees, even at a discounted rate, then partners should really get focused here.  As well,  by the time the client decides that it wants an alternative fee arrangement, it will probably have been approached by several other law  firms offering the same thing, and you’ll be yesterday’s news.