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.

Multi-Disciplinary Partnerships (MDP’s) Update

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.

Should We Set Up A Sales Team In Our Law Firm?

I have seen it done at one of the major accounting firms. They had a sales team of 3 people that followed up on target clients and made sales presentations directly to clients. That was over 10 years ago now. From everything I heard, it was quite successful and well-received by clients. I’ve also heard that some of the larger US law firms have sales teams in place.

Ideally, your attorneys should be doing the sales.  However, most attorneys aren’t trained in sales and don’t do a good job of it.  I have also seen law firm partners in action who spend virtually all their time on sales and networking activities and are the most highly paid partners in their firms if they get results. If you build the culture to allow this to happen, your young attorneys will recognize this and will be inspired to build their practices rapidly through standard sales techniques.

I know of one large US law firm that bought the rights to a generic sales training course, made only minor edits for law firm use, and now presents it as standard fare to all their attorneys. More firms are starting to recognize the need to develop their young attorneys’ business development and sales skills early on, given the increasing competition for clients in today’s rapidly changing legal environment.