Increasing law firm profitability – what’s working and what’s not?

Cameron's Profits for Partners Blog

Originally published in Canadian Lawyer

Leverage

One of the fastest and easiest ways to increase profitability is to increase leverage by moving work down to the most efficient staffing level.  I’ve noticed some firms are adding non-equity partners to increase leverage and profitability, and this is a trend that continues to build. Clients are pushing hard on rates and don’t want to pay to train associates.  Non-equity partners, by contrast, hit the ground running and don’t incur training and supervision costs. Firms don’t break even on associates until three to five years of call on average, while non-equity partners are profitable right away.

Other ways to use leverage:

– Large national firms are pushing out underperforming partners with practices that don’t meet their minimum size standards, as they continue to lever themselves for maximum profitability.

– Personal-injury firms are outsourcing legal work to India to reduce costs.  This is quite…

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Increasing law firm profitability – what’s working and what’s not?

Originally published in Canadian Lawyer

Leverage

One of the fastest and easiest ways to increase profitability is to increase leverage by moving work down to the most efficient staffing level.  I’ve noticed some firms are adding non-equity partners to increase leverage and profitability, and this is a trend that continues to build. Clients are pushing hard on rates and don’t want to pay to train associates.  Non-equity partners, by contrast, hit the ground running and don’t incur training and supervision costs. Firms don’t break even on associates until three to five years of call on average, while non-equity partners are profitable right away.

Other ways to use leverage:

– Large national firms are pushing out underperforming partners with practices that don’t meet their minimum size standards, as they continue to lever themselves for maximum profitability.

– Personal-injury firms are outsourcing legal work to India to reduce costs.  This is quite a step forward in Canada, where until recently our privacy laws have made law firms hesitate to make this move.  If the outsourcing company’s servers are based in Canada and the work is being checked by Canadian lawyers, then this option can work well.

– Large national firms have outsourced administrative tasks such as word processing and billing to reduce costs.  Many firms are also outsourcing entire facilities-management, technology and marketing departments to local outside vendors such as Ricoh and Pitney Bowes Inc.

Cost Containment

“New business-model firms” such as Delegatus services juridiques inc. in Montreal and Cognition in Toronto are effectively acting as outsourced general counsel for large clients.  They operate on a virtual basis to contain premises costs and have also stripped down the management infrastructure required to run their operations. Their lawyers spend most of their time at clients’ offices, using clients’ support staff on files, which helps keep overhead costs down to as much as 50 percent of the average large firm.

Some firms are getting into project management in a big way, and find that clients are very happy to work with them to reduce their overall legal costs by getting more effective and efficient in how their legal matters are handled. This is a significant trend, and one that some law firms are using as a warm-up to alternative billing.

Centralized Management

Firms of all sizes are centralizing their governance systems to increase their efficiency and profitability. By giving managing partners the power to affect partner compensation, these firms allow the managing partners to motivate partners to do non-billable tasks that help to achieve strategic objectives.

Setting up file-approval systems under the control of a managing partner can lead to significant gains in profitability. In my experience, top-down, centralized management is the most efficient and effective way to manage.

Selecting the right clients is also crucial to becoming more profitable. Successful firms evaluate clients for their profitability, their ability to pay, and their fit with the firm’s strategic goals.

Utilization

Some firms are using “full-day” time accounting where lawyers track all non-billable time in addition to billable time. The idea is to get lawyers to account for all of their available time at the office, e.g. eight or 10 hours a day.  By having lawyers and staff account for all of their time, firms are capturing 10 to 20 percent more billable time and adding significantly to profitability as a result.

Firms should also attend to this non-billable information to ensure that their lawyers are not just focusing on the short term and their own billable hours. As management guru David Maister would say, how you spend your non-billable time is where your real profit is in the long term—for instance, your business-development efforts.  Tracking lawyers’ non-billable time can also reveal whether project-management techniques are working effectively and efficiently.

Another recent innovation is smartphone time-capture technology that allows lawyers to log their time while they work it, rather than afterwards, when their memory is hazy. This is the key to maximizing time-capture percentage.

Strategic Planning

Firms that proactively carry out strategic planning are more profitable than firms that don’t. Today’s highly competitive legal market demands that firms maintain a continuous planning mindset if they want to succeed. In the successful firm, the managing partner takes charge of executing the strategic plan and focuses on getting partners to follow through on their assigned tasks in order to achieve the goals of that plan.  The most profitable firms reward partners who complete non-billable tasks and penalize those who don’t.

The firms that do the best in today’s market are the ones with a tight vision.  They keep their team closely focused on the firm’s strategic goals, as opposed to taking a silo approach in which everyone operates independently. The days are past when a law firm could make easy money while letting every partner do whatever he or she wanted.

Partner Compensation

Your firm will make better profits if it rewards partners for the value they provide to clients rather than if it rewards them only for hours billed. Partners also need to be rewarded for profitable practices, in addition to sheer volume of billings. Those who expend extra effort in the firm’s best interests should be rewarded the most, and those who lever work down to others and unselfishly lead their practice groups should get special rewards.

Generally speaking, firms with subjective compensation systems are more profitable than formula-based firms. This is because the formulas usually drive partners to focus on personal production, instead of helping grow the whole firm.  An “eat what you kill” approach can stunt the growth and profitability of a firm.

People

Firms with strongly defined core values for their people do better than firms without them. In order to succeed, a firm needs a strong culture, where everyone buys in. This helps it achieve its goals faster, and makes its staff work harder and feel more fulfilled.

As the push to acquire the best talent continues, small firms are capitalizing on opportunities to hire senior partners who are close to retirement and are being pushed out of large firms.  Some are leaving early, taking their clients with them, to join small firms and enjoy better work-life balance. This can be a great win-win for both the senior partner and the small firm, as these partners can bring big-firm institutional clients that are coveted by small firms and can significantly increase their profitability.

Trends in Partner Compensation Systems in Law Firms

An increasingly competitive legal environment is resulting in changes in how law firms pay their partners.

In my experience there are three main types of partner compensation systems:

1)      Equality/lockstep – Compensation is determined mainly by seniority. I’ve seen this system used by many small firms and some large US and UK firms.  The advantage is it encourages partners to work as a team, while the disadvantage partners may not feel it’s fair if other partners don’t pull their weight yet are paid the same as high performers.  This can lead to a lack of incentive for high performers, and creates a risk they may leave.

2)     “Eat what you kill” – Compensation is determined mainly by personal production. This system is used by small and midsize firms.  Objective systems like this usually focus on just the numbers, which makes it clear to all partners the expectations, and is fairly simple to determine compensation.  The downside is these objective systems also encourage partners to “game” the numbers to their own advantage.  This can lead to breakdowns in team-building, where partners act as “lone wolves” and talk about “my clients”, not firm clients.

3)     Subjective Merit – Compensation is determined by subjective analysis supported by objective factors. It usually involves a compensation committee of 3 or 4 partners, and is used mainly by midsize and large firms.  This system has the advantage of encouraging partners to operate at a higher level and get compensated accordingly.  The subjective merit system may have an objective component as a starting point, but subjective analysis reduces the potential for “gaming” the system in a purely objective formula system.

Depending on the culture of the firm, any of the above systems may work effectively.  However, my experience and research indicates the most effective system for increasing profits is the subjective merit compensation system.

Compensation System Trends

One of the major trends I see is towards more “pay for performance” in law firms, with an emphasis on rainmaking results.  Rainmakers are paid big bucks to switch firms, especially commercial lawyers able to command and move a large client base.

Compensation compression ratios (the $’s paid to the highest paid partners compared to the lowest paid partners) are increasing, as firms accommodate rainmakers at the top end of the pay scale.

Law firms are requiring an increasing minimum practice size to remain as an equity partner.

Non-equity partnerships are growing in popularity as firms attempt to maximize their leverage and equity partner compensation.

Large firm compensation systems are becoming more “corporate” in nature, as firms grow in size and scope internationally.  The larger the firm, the more corporate the model.  Managing partners and executive committees are wielding more power, and are providing more input to the compensation of individual partners, who are becoming more like employees in large firms.

Managing partners and practice group managers are being compensated more for their management accomplishments.  Some firms are compensating their managing partners using balanced scorecard techniques, for example.  Law firms are trying to run like real businesses, and are delegating more and more of the firm’s business functions to their management partners.

Many firms are requiring pre-retirement phase-downs in compensation and have established retirement policies at a set age eg. 65.  There is some controversy here, however, given challenges to the legality of forced retirement. Firms are continuing to try to enforce these retirement policies to maintain increasing equity partnership leverage and profitability objectives.

There is a trend for senior partners with portable practices to move from firms where they have spent their entire careers, after being forced out by the imposition of set retirement age policies.

Most firms have fairly “open” compensation systems, where partners know what other partners are being paid.  The trend is towards less compensation transparency in larger firms, however, with power and information centralized within a few management partners.  Compensation discussions can be too much of a time distraction for large firms.

More non-equity compensation arrangements are being used for hiring lateral partners and retaining good “up and comers” with long-term potential for building a practice.

Buy-in requirements are growing as firms grow and partner leverage increases.

More flexibility for balanced lifestyles and part-time partner arrangements are being demanded and received by the new generation of partners.

Compensation Criteria Trends

There is more emphasis on teamwork, and less emphasis on personal billable hours. This also ties in with growing recognition for the need to lever work, and the growth of alternative billing practices.

More firms are doing strategic plans in response to increasing competition, and this is leading to a need to recognize partners’ non-billable efforts in implementing strategic plans at the firm, practice group and individual partner levels. This also means more recognition of training, supervision, quality control, and various other non-billable tasks performed by partners.

More firms are recognizing client origination results, and firms are tracking client and matter origination more diligently.  Sales skills are being taught to partners and associates.

More peer evaluation is happening, especially in larger firms. There is also more emphasis on client feedback, realization and profitability of partners’ practices. More emphasis on cash in, and less on billings.

Compatibility with firm culture is becoming more important. Non-conformists with firm culture are punished, leaders are rewarded.

Summary

The key trend is toward more “corporate” compensation models, driven by competition and the corporate style of growth of large national and international firms.  Compensation is driven more by the strategic goals of the firm, and partners who contribute to firm goals are compensated at higher levels.  There is more emphasis on pay for performance as well.

Compensation compression ratios are widening, as firms attempt to accommodate and retain the rainmakers in their firms.  This has resulted in major dollars being spent to lure new rainmakers to the large firms.  Business development is more and more highly prized, and rainmakers’ compensation is increasing significantly.

The danger of a high compensation compression ratio is you could end up like Finley Kumble a few years ago.  They hired many rainmakers and paid them exorbitant dollars for their client originations without a sunset clause, and the whole firm came crashing down. Several factors were involved, but the extremely high compensation compression ratio was pointed to as a major factor in their demise.

Firms are also trying to encourage partners to lever more to others, and in the process institutionalize clients so it is more difficult to move clients when partners are offered more money by other firms to lure them away.  Buy-in requirements are rising as firms lever more and reduce the % of equity partners relative to non-equity partners and associates.

Large firms favor subjective merit systems, while smaller firms favor more objective systems. Large firms are increasingly profitable, and the gap is widening, so there may be some correlation/cause/effect with subjective merit systems which leads to increased profitability.