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.
I’ve always thought that law firms missed out on a major opportunity to take advantage of Multi-Disciplinary Partnerships (MDP’s) over the years. The current economy, the recent changes in British Columbia’s MDP guidelines and the coming UK regulation changes re: Alternative Business Structures (ABS’s) may be a great opportunity to get the ball rolling again.
In the 1990’s, the MDP discussion was very hot as law firms reacted to the possibility that accounting firms might steal their legal business as they developed global MDP consulting firms. In some cases, this led to law firms expanding into national and international legal firms to prepare for battle with the accountants. The opportunity was there for law firms to capitalize on global MDP consulting business as well. Alas, Enron came along and the accounting firms sold off their consulting subsidiaries due to conflicts with their audit client base. Law firms then quickly forgot about the MDP issue and went back to focusing on their core legal business.
However, it’s now possible for law firms in most countries to build their own MDP’s to gain market share from global consulting firms and accounting firms. The British Columbia and UK regulation changes simply highlight this potential even more. The downturn in the economy provides a perfect opportunity for law firms to gain market share in previously unexplored markets and gain from the potential synergies of combining legal practice with other professional disciplines.
Will law firms be proactive and take advantage of the huge opportunity they have available to them now? Let’s hope so.