A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

How your law firm can limit virus hit to bottom line

In Articles, Commentary on 7 August 2020 at 3:42 pm

The full text of my 7 August 2020 opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review.

There is every chance that COVID-19 will mean a big hit to your firm’s revenue for the 2020-21 financial year. So, what levers are you using to limit the downside impact on profitability?

Greg Keith, the chief executive of accounting firm Grant Thornton, recently indicated he was anticipating a decline of 8.5 per cent in revenue and 33 per cent in profit.

It means that for every 1 per cent drop in income, they are forecasting a fall of nearly 4 per cent in profits.

Accounting firms, like law firms, are mostly high fixed-cost businesses that are super-sensitive to changes in revenue – both on the downside and the upside.

To limit the profit impact, firms tend to first cut non-essential spending like travel and entertainment. After these “easy” savings are exhausted, reducing staff numbers comes into the frame.

While there are obvious short-term benefits – staffing can comprise 60 per cent of all expenses – there’s a significant risk of not having enough of the right resources on hand when demand picks up. So, the 2020-21 saving needs to be weighed up against the full cost of re-hiring and training in the future.

In my view, there are two areas where firms could do a lot better to enhance profitability without letting people go – pricing and the sharing of resources.

Pricing for profit

Over the last few years, most mid-sized and large firms have worked on their pricing practices.

With a significant market downturn and price war on the cards, one firm recently redoubled its support for partners to preserve and capture value through price. This included video training modules on value articulation, gamified programs around price negotiation, improved analytics, new pricing tools [like Price High or Low 😀] and more direct hand-holding for new business pitches.

Some firms are adopting a range of creative strategies to meet client needs rather than merely dropping price. They include:

  • Adjusting payment terms and conditions so strapped clients are more willing to brief the firm rather than others;
  • Offering non-time-based pricing structures such as subscriptions, contingency fees or amortising fees;
  • Special promotions in ‘ring-fenced’ service areas to avoid across-the-board rate cuts and safeguard the firm’s brand position; and
  • Offering options at different price points.

One law firm offers its clients three pricing options on every new matter. They’ve adapted Qantas’ pricing approach by offering the equivalent of the airline’s Red e-Deal, Flex and Business Class options.  As with Qantas, each option has the same core benefits around quality and reliability but differ in terms of the format of the deliverables, roles, timing and scope.

Another firm analysed their top 100 clients to determine how each was being affected so they could tailor messages and offers. In one instance, this led to a new digital service offering as some clients moved to virtual selling and distributed operations. In another case, they shifted to a self-service model for a client going through a major cost-cutting exercise.

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Resource sharing

I was recently advising a law firm where analysis of time records revealed that some individuals and teams were extremely busy while others were well below capacity.

When I asked why resources were not shared to even out workloads, the most common response was that lawyers could not easily work outside their area of specialisation.

Not satisfied with that objection, I delved a bit deeper. My enquiries revealed a range of constraints – cultural, structural and personality – to collaboration. For some partners, “letting my people go” was a sign of failure. For others, they didn’t see any direct financial incentive to share resources, so they didn’t bother. In one office, each practice team saw itself as a self-contained business, and the prevailing mindset was more competitive rather than co-operative.

In good times, there’s often enough fat in the system to ignore these problems, But if your firm is looking at an equation that means every 1 per cent drop in revenue leads to a 4 per cent drop in profits, then you might need to change your thinking.

Will new partners need to keep grinding away?

In Articles, Commentary on 13 July 2020 at 6:18 pm

Full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 9 July 2020.

Most practice teams in the larger law firms have been set up with partners as the “finders” and “minders” and associates as “grinders”.

A decade’s worth of time records analysed by Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor shows that associates have around 10 more billable hours per month on average than partners in the same firm.

However, in April and May 2020 – the first full months of the COVID-19 lockdown and remote working – this long-term trend reversed and partners recorded more billable hours than associates.

There are two questions worth asking. Why are partners producing more now? Can all the new partners in the Financial Review Law Partnership Survey expect a permanent change in their role? In other words, will they have to be finders, minders and grinders?

AFR July

Why now?

Many law firm clients went into crisis mode with the onset of the coronavirus. Deals needed to be completed quickly. Funding needed to be secured urgently. Disputes on unfulfilled contracts needed rapid resolution. Almost daily changes to government regulation needed interpretation and action.

To deal with these pressing and complex issues many clients indicated a strong preference to get more direct access to partners. This meant fewer opportunities for delegation to associates.

Cost-conscious clients also had less tolerance for juniors being allowed to learn on these matters. As one general counsel put it to me: “I was happy to see one maybe two people [from the law firm] on [Microsoft] Teams, but not a football team.”

Another factor that has led to the increase in partner hours at some firms is partners holding on to more work due to fear of a broader market slowdown so they can hit their personal billing targets.

During the GFC, many large firms cut partner numbers through a combination of de-equitisation, early retirements, dismissals and reduced promotions.

While many firms now prefer measuring the contribution of a team rather than an individual, having a healthy personal practice can strengthen a partner’s case for retention if things get tough. In recent weeks, it appears that some partners and associates have been getting a little tired of working from home.

After the rush of adrenalin in dealing with the crisis and keeping connected during March and April, there’s now slightly less enthusiasm for the weekly video drinks – and growing frustration with the clunkiness of a distributed workforce.

Supervision, training and delegation is hard enough when everyone is co-located and physically present in a purpose-designed city office. It’s that much harder when associates are working from a kitchen table in a shared rental apartment with variable NBN speeds.

As time moves on, some partners might resort to the easier – though strategically flawed – option of doing most of the work themselves.

Will there be a permanent change?

No, and yes.

Leverage of non-partner fee-earners is at the heart of the law firm business model. The economics of having lots of associates doing lots of production will not change in the years ahead. Effective and efficient delivery of larger transactions, projects and disputes will still require teams of lawyers, paralegals and legal technologists at different levels.

Over time, firms that don’t tailor their approach for each project will lose out to those that do.

When demand returns, the issues around less delegation should ease. Intransigent hoarders will get caught out and move on – or be moved on.

As technology and workflows improve over time, the clunkiness of the remote workforce should diminish and become less of a handbrake.

One change that will hopefully stick is that of the law firm partner as the client’s primary strategic risk advisor. The coronavirus crisis has revealed the relevance of experienced lawyers in assisting clients on things that matter. This period should hopefully build their confidence as strategic advisors from a legal perspective and not just narrow technical legal specialists.

The discussion above suggests that perhaps the finder minder grinder characterisation is a little out of date.

A better description of the role of partner is that of a strategic advisor and leader – a thought leader, a team leader, a client account leader, a project leader and a sales leader.

The winners will be those firms that recruit and develop outstanding legal leaders and not just see their associates as high-billable grinders.

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