10 major trends impacting Canadian law firms in 2015

Global firms such as Norton Rose and Dentons have moved into Canada and more are on the way. They have swallowed up mid-tier law firms such as Macleod Dixon, Fraser Milner and Ogilvy Renault. Heenan Blaikie is another casualty of the competition being created by these global giants as corporate and securities deals now have more major players vying for fewer deals. These global mergers also create breakoffs of groups of partners who don’t want to be part of a worldwide firm run from New York, London or Brussels. This creates opportunities for small and midsize firms to absorb these disaffected partners, with their institutional clients, which are greatly desired by small firms, and can be run profitably from a smaller, more efficient platform.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, clients are demanding fee discounts of 10% to 50%. They are under pressure from their CEO’s to cut their legal costs and discounts are the easiest way to accomplish that.

Clients are also pushing for alternative billing as they want fixed fees and some certainty on their legal costs and as a result firms must focus on becoming more efficient.

There’s also a rise of innovative NewLaw business model firms providing legal services with much lower overheads, up to 50% lower than large firms and they are stealing work away from large firms because their charge-out rates and fixed fees are also up to half as much as large firms. This puts a lot of strain on maintaining realization rates and profitability in an increasingly competitive legal market environment.

Legal services are increasingly being commoditized in line with the competition created by more players in the legal market, and more lawyers are being pumped out of law schools that aren’t needed to meet the demand. Clients realize that often lawyers aren’t needed to do many simpler legal tasks, and they’re pushing for work to be outsourced to other cheaper jurisdictions or countries, or pushed down to paralegals, contract lawyers or outsourced general counsel to be done more cost-effectively. The mystique of law firms being the only ones who can do legal work is fast fading. There are many other non-law firm competitors in the legal industry now.

Realization rates are dropping. In the Georgetown Law 2014 Report on the State of Legal Market the average overall realization rate in 2014 was 83.5%, which was down 8% from the 92 percent rate reported in 2007, so that’s a big drop in realization over the past seven years. Clients are rebelling against law firms’ steady increase in their charge-out rates over the past decade, and they’re fed up and just will not take it anymore. Large firms have increased their charge-out rates much more than small and midsize firms, so that’s another opportunity for small and midsize firms to steal clients away from large firms.

Technology focus – LegalZoom and other automated legal service providers are quickly picking up market share and commoditizing most routine legal forms and documents. Law firms are automating more of their predecents and routine legal documents to increase their efficiency for fixed fee quoted commodity work.

Client focus is a term you’re hearing more and more, as clients demand that law firms think about client needs and profitability, not just their own. Clients want law firms to focus on their KPIs and their strategic goals.

Finally, mid-tier law firms are under continuing cost pressures as global firms are pushing hard from the top and NewLaw firms are nipping them from underneath. Mid-tier firms such as Heenan Blaikie, Macleod Dixon and Ogilvy Renault didn’t have the sophisticated management structure or the resources needed to compete with the global firms, and the NewLaw firms have cut their overheads in half. So mid-tier firms are increasingly in a Catch-22 situation, with nowhere to run. They will either be swallowed up or blown up, unless they change their business models.  Again, here’s another opportunity for small firms and midsize firms under 50 lawyers to steal clients away from their larger counterparts and hold the NewLaw firms at bay by reducing their overheads and updating their business models.

 

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.

5 Major Trends Impacting Canadian Law Firms Today

1) The Norton Rose Phenomenon

One of today’s key trends affecting law firms of all sizes in Canada is the Norton Rose phenomenon. Norton Rose is a 2,900 lawyer global giant, organized as a Swiss Verein, which has just gobbled up Ogilvy Renault and Macleod Dixon in two quick bites. Within a matter of months, they have singlehandledly changed the face of the Canadian legal industry, creating the third largest legal firm in Canada and they’re just getting started. That’s incredible, and scary for some at the same time. This is the new order in Canada’s legal industry.

This is also a defining moment for the legal industry in Canada, and might drive more mergers and changes in national and regional firms as Norton Rose presses its influence. It could force Canadian national firms to get bigger or they’ll be swallowed up as well. Other global giants such as DLA Piper are waiting in the wings.  At 4,000 plus lawyers it’s the largest law firm in the world.  Discussions are happening amongst multiple potential Canadian merger partners, with other global firms no doubt interested in Canada’s lucrative resources legal work as well.

There are many similarities to what the large accounting firms such as KPMG and Deloitte went through in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as they used Swiss Verein structures to build their global presences as well.  The Swiss Verein structure provides limited liability, world-wide branding and consistent client service standards as some of its features.

Large Canadian law firms are being influenced by the large accounting firms in many ways. In the 90’s, large Canadian law firms went national to protect against the feared onslaught of accounting firms, which fizzled out when Enron happened, but the large national law firms remained. Now there is pressure  again being exerted from the outside, and large firms will have to restructure to fight against this new enemy.  Rumour has it that the large accounting firms are looking to get back into the legal industry again as well.

As an adjunct trend, the rise of the ABS regulations in the UK is putting an even more interesting spin on Norton Rose’s arrival in Canada. ABS allows public ownership of law firms, which is happening right now as UK firms are lining up to go public. If this trend catches on in the UK, even more resources will become available to UK-based firms like Norton Rose, and the US may have to consider the possibility of allowing public ownership for US firms to compete with publicly owned UK firms. This could lead to the ultimate showdown of publicly-owned global law firms, which may lead the legal industry to look something like the big 4 accounting firms when the dust settles, or…? Stay tuned on this one :).

2) Move to Corporate Model

Another trend happening simultaneously is the move to more corporate models of firm governance amongst large Canadian firms. McCarthy’s moved to a board of directors and a full corporate business model a few years ago, and other large and regional Canadian firms are now going the same way. Practice groups are consolidating nationally, similar to what the large accounting firms have done for decades.

3) Alternative Billing

Fee pressures from clients are being experienced by firms of all sizes in Canada. It ranges from the small firms that do commodity work such as residential conveyances for less than what notaries charge in British Columbia, to large firms that are being pressed by large clients to offer alternative billing arrangements such as fixed fees to provide more certainty and less risky billing options.

Alternative billing is not as advanced amongst large firms in Canada as it is in the US and Europe, however, it is coming and firms need to prepare. It is being felt in the banking and intellectual property areas already. It has been prevalent in commodity work in Canada for decades eg. personal services law, residential conveyancing, wills and estates, etc.

Project management is another trend that midsize and large firms are embracing, as a forerunner or as an adjunct to alternative billing. To get as efficient and effective as you can, then use this efficiency to compete in the fixed fee arena, and hopefully maintain or enhance profitability.

The whole concept of value is being embraced by clients, who are looking at the high chargeout rates that law firms have brought in over the last decade, and they now want retribution and rollbacks, or at the least a stop to the increase in their legal budgets. The rise of the ACC Value Challenge is just one indicator of their resolve here.

If the economy worsens in a possible double-dip recession, clients will exert even more pressure on law firms. Firms must prepare for this change and must demonstrate more value to satisfy clients.

There is also a movement to reduce the recovery of soft costs such as photocopies and fax charges, which irritates some clients, and law firms are pulling back on this somewhat.

4) National Firms Cleaning House

National firms are cleaning house and cutting partners with practices below minimum $ practice size and clients that don’t meet minimum $ billings levels. This is a great opportunity for small and regional firms, who are picking up these senior national partners who have been pushed out or who have left national firms for better work/life balance.

This can be a great boon for the smaller firm, as they acquire new talent and institutional clients, who will remain with the smaller firm after the partner finally retires. Many national partners have established long relationships with their clients, and can transition their clients to their new smaller firms and make them profitable with the lower overheads of a small firm.

5) The Rise of Innovative New Legal Business Models

The rise of innovative new business models such as Delegatus, Clearspire, Axiom, Cognition, etc. The concepts of outsourced in-house counsel, no partners, franchised firms and virtual firms are threats to national and regional firms and an opportunity for small firms.

Presented at the Seventh Annual CBA Law Firm Leadership Conference held October 24-25, 2011 in Vancouver, BC