This series was adapted from my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which was published at the beginning of this month.
As law firms struggle with internal pressure to retain and improve profitability and external pressure to satisfy client demand for greater value, one tactic has risen to the top of most law firm lists: legal project management.
As discussed previously in this blog, the field of LPM is so new that experts have spent quite a bit of time arguing about what it does and does not include. If you accept the very broad definition that we have been using for the last several years—LPM adapts proven management techniques to the legal profession to help lawyers achieve their business goals, including increasing client value and protecting profitability—it is easy to see that the vast majority of law firms could benefit from implementing LPM in some form.
Which brings us back to the question of exactly how to do that. Educating is relatively easy, but changing behavior is very hard. It is also the central problem in legal project management. The Association of Corporate Counsel and the ABA conducted a meeting a few years ago, “at which leaders of corporate and law firm litigation departments rolled up their sleeves and tackled the complex issues surrounding present day concepts of value in litigation.” In an ACC Docket article summarizing the event, the authors noted that progress will not be based on improved understanding or increased knowledge. Instead, “The challenge is change/behavior management.” It’s not a question of knowing what to do, it’s a question of getting lawyers to do it.
In this research, the managing partner of one firm that invested heavily in education but failed to see much behavior change had this to say:
Project management will probably have the longest-term positive impact, but it’s been the biggest challenge, because it’s something that hasn’t been easily absorbed by a lot of the lawyers. When busy lawyers start scrambling around, the inefficiency creeps right up. At our firm, project management has not met expectations. But it’s improving, and I do think long term it will have a really big impact.
If there is one thing that participants in this survey agreed on, it is that it is difficult to get lawyers to use LPM, as seen in these comments from five more firms:
Project management is not natural to lawyers. We’ve always been trained to get the case done well to win, but now we also have to get the case done efficiently, and that is not part of the natural toolkit for most people. – Managing partner
Getting people to manage engagements is very difficult in this business. So we’re at the discussion rather than the implementation stage. – Chair
We’ve done a better job on the front end, on the developing and pricing piece. Where I don’t think we’re doing as much as we could is on the legal project management end, thinking about whether there are more efficient ways to actually complete certain kinds of work. – Senior executive
We have clients, especially in litigation and corporate, who are saying we need to implement LPM. But it’s hard to get our lawyers off the dime. – Senior partner
I think that it will require a lot of work, and daily support from the top, not just lip service from the partner team twice a year. – Senior executive
Given that the formal field of LPM is so young, and that many lawyers resist its fundamental ideas, it is not surprising that there are still disagreements about what approach to implementation works best. Several major vendors—including my company—offer different solutions. Each believes strongly in its own approach and frankly has a vested interest in proving its effectiveness.
Generally, implementation approaches fall into three broad categories: training, coaching, and law firm staff. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive and many firms use all three, along with software, as described in the next section. All of these approaches can have positive effects. The hard question that every firm faces is one of cost-effectiveness: which approach will produce the greatest impact today for the lowest cost.
Historically, most firms have started with some type of training. Lawyers love precedent, so when Dechert announced in 2010 that it had trained its partners in LPM, a number of firms jumped in to do the same thing. This led to some great press releases about how these training programs proved that firms were committed to LPM, but precious little in the way of results. Consider these comments from three firms that invested in extensive LPM training programs:
Every shareholder and top level associate has had a full day of project management training. I’d like to tell you that they use it, but they don’t. – Chair
Training raised awareness, but I think it will take a longer campaign to significantly move the needle in terms of our ability to change the way we do business. – Managing partner
I don’t want to say it’s stillborn, because that’s too fatalistic, but it has not taken hold like I had hoped it would. I think that there are some attorneys who probably are using it in their own way, but as an institutional concept it has really been put on a back burner. – Senior executive
It took a few years for it to become clear that training every lawyer in the firm was not a cost effective way to go, and that led people to less ambitious programs such as short sessions of “awareness training” that set stage and identified the lawyers who need to dig in more deeply.
In our experience, the most effective way for firms to build LPM momentum is not with large group training, but rather with one-to-one coaching for influential partners to enable them to directly experience the benefits of LPM. As a result, they will become internal champions who will lead efforts to adapt LPM to the particular needs of their firms, practice groups, and clients.
A pdf of this entire series can be downloaded from Altman Weil Direct, where it originally appeared.
This series was adapted from my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which was published today.
The key to success is to come up with information and systems that increase the behaviors that are of greatest benefit to the firm. But it isn’t easy:
When you start digging into profitability at the matter level, you get set back. You can make the numbers say whatever you want, but did you consider headcount or overhead? Some of the offices might not be as busy so you want to spread the work to them. We’re willing to take a little hit. There’s a big picture we’re trying to achieve, and when we’ve tried to get into the weeds a little bit too much, it can backfire because we get bogged down with some of this stuff. So my idea is to take the long view. It’s very difficult to understand profitability at the matter level, and in some ways that’s a misguided approach because there are just so many factors to take into account. If you can slowly start to chip away at all these areas, then that will have a beneficial improvement upon your profitability. It’s all about improving your portfolio. – Senior executive
The real challenge is to use our profitability tool in a way that motivates all of the partners to their maximum effort toward profitability, without creating the wrong sorts of behaviors, like hoarding work or fighting unduly over origination credits. – Chair
Many firms are getting serious about training their lawyers to think differently about revenue, discounts, and profitability:
Our firm has really invested a lot of effort in arming ourselves with the tools to try and deal with understanding profitability. – Chair
Our CFO visits offices and trains people on profitability. – Managing partner
We fully intend to educate our attorney base to be more aware of these things. In particular, when attorneys approach our AFA subcommittee with a project that involves an AFA, part of the response is to address the profitability of that proposal and to explain to them when the particular pricing doesn’t make sense for us to take it on. – Senior partner
Left to their own devices, most lawyers are probably at a 5, on a 1 to 10 scale of understanding. But we educate them up to a 9. So it’s something in the middle. We have a very keenly-focused financial accounting regimen at the firm that is constantly preaching this, that all work and all books of business and all new clients are not the same. And consequently, our lawyers have a better than average instinct on this. At the end of the day, our pricing reflects this because we don’t give our lawyers total carte blanche to open up a new client at a new rate. We encourage them to bring in the clients, but then we work with them very closely as to whether that client at that rate makes sense. And sometimes it’s very timekeeper-dependent, what kind of leverage we’re going to have on the assignment. – Chair
In summary, while there is still much uncertainty about the most effective tactics, there can be no doubt that firms are increasingly focusing on questions such as:
- How should our firm define profitability?
- How should we communicate this definition to our lawyers?
- How should we train lawyers to manage legal matters more profitably?
- How should we compensate lawyers for bringing in and managing more profitable work?
Of these, the last question is by far the hardest. It is simply not possible to create a compensation system that makes everyone happy. The trick is to figure out which lawyers are most essential to the continued health of your firm, and how much do you need to pay them to keep them from leaving. Basically, my advice is to ask around and find the best compensation consultant you can. You’re going to need help. (This is not an advertisement. LegalBizDev does not provide compensation consulting. It’s too hard.)
Last year, an AmLaw 100 firm that was just beginning to think seriously about those questions invited me to speak at a practice group leader meeting about pricing trends. When one participant asked what I thought was the most critical issue, I said it was determining the difference between low prices that are acceptable and prices that are simply too low to make business sense for that firm. “Where do you draw that line in the sand?” I asked. The chairman replied, “We don’t even know where the sand is.”
But that was then. Now that same firm has a number of new pricing and management initiatives in place and a new pricing director. Clearly, firms are making progress. It is just very, very hard.
A pdf of this entire series can be downloaded from Altman Weil Direct, where it originally appeared.
For months, I have been writing in this blog about my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability. Today, it is available on our web page for $95, with volume discounts on orders of two or more copies. The book can also be ordered from Amazon, in both paperback and Kindle editions.
Here is part of the press release that came out with the book:
About two-thirds of the time, when legal clients say they want “greater value,” law firm leaders believe it is nothing more than a request to pay less. Although profitability is essential to law firms’ success and survival, about one-quarter of major law firms don’t measure it formally but only assess it intuitively. For those that do measure profitability, the two most consistently effective ways to preserve it are legal project management and adding new staffing in pricing, value, and related areas.
These are just a few of the findings of a study of law firm leaders I conducted in 2013 and 2014 for my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which is being released today. I confidentially interviewed law firm leaders from 50 AmLaw 200 firms. Forty-two percent were chairs or managing partners, and the rest were senior partners and executives.
Since the participants in the study were promised that they would not be quoted by name, they were unusually frank in their responses, including the law firm chairman who said that “lawyers are about as dumb as you could possibly be about understanding how our product is made. The lawyers who understand how to make it and who can manage that process efficiently are going to be the winners.”
The interviewees also felt free to speak about both the business problems they face and possible solutions, like the managing partner who noted that “I have a $10 million practice. But that could be a disaster for a firm, because it could cost them $11 million to get $10 million. But nobody ever talks about it that way.”
In today’s challenging marketplace, it is more important than ever for law firms to prioritize relentlessly and do the most valuable things first. Client satisfaction must always come first. As Tom Clay of Altman Weil has noted, “If a law firm cannot attract and retain good clients, nothing else matters.”
The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. This month’s tip is explained in detail in Chapter 7 of my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability.
This series was adapted from my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which will be published in a few weeks.
This research was designed to help lawyers make the best possible decisions about how to adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace by providing insights into the actions and opinions of their peers. In the months preceding this book’s publication, a number of conferences have been held by law schools to discuss the challenges facing the legal profession. Countless articles and several books addressing these changes have also been written by law school and business school professors. And consultants have written far more – probably millions of words on how client demands are changing and what law firms should do about it.
The only thing that’s been missing from the conversation is public statements by the people who run large law firms. These senior decision makers rarely publish anything on their tactics and strategies, or even attend conferences. They are the ones who deal with these issues every day, and whose very livelihood depends on coming up with the right answers. What do they think?
To answer this question, I interviewed chairs, managing partners, executive committee members, CEOs, CFOs and other senior executives at 50 AmLaw 200 firms between June 2013 and January 2014.
Based on those confidential interviews, there can be no question thatclients are demanding more value than ever before. There is, however, much less agreement about the best way to remain competitive in an increasingly challenging environment.
There are many signs that as times get tighter, firms are paying more attention to profitability and to its role in compensation:
I think you’re going to see the pressure in law firms increase about how the pie is split. When things were going well, it was easier to take care of the worker bee partners, who are great lawyers. It’s going to be tougher now, because everybody’s strategy is through lateral hiring, and you don’t want the great brief writer. What you want is the person who has five to eight million dollars following him or her, or the group that’s going to bring 20 to 30 million dollars. – Senior executive
As the pressure goes up, the emphasis on total revenue is being replaced by an emphasis on profitable revenue:
Historically, virtually all law firms overweighted revenue. Often two partners who produce five million dollars each are treated equally for compensation, even if one of those partners used six and a half million dollars of resources to produce that revenue, and the other used three and a half million. – Senior executive
We merged a few years ago with a firm that principally focused on total dollars in the door and allowed billing attorneys to set their own rate exceptions without much oversight. We focused on those decision points that reduced realization, and the lack of profitability in a million dollars received that takes two million dollars of effort to generate. Consistently reinforcing these basic concepts through our BI tools and in the compensation system has resulted in significant margin improvement. – Senior executive
There are still far too many lawyers who respond to cost pressure by offering discounts, without understanding the implications:
Most of our partners have been doing things in a particular way for a long time. And the carpet is moving under them, because the market is changing. A lot of times, their reaction to competitive pressure is to just cut rates but not examine the way they deliver the service—not change the way they practice to be able to offer more value for the same price, or reduce the cost to deliver the same value at a lower price. Demand is down. Price pressure is up. So some lawyers will just say, “I don’t want to talk about value based billing arrangement. I’ll just give clients a big discount. They’ll be happy, I’ll be happy….” It’s really remarkable how few attorneys appreciate the economics of discounting. They just don’t get the math. They never had to before. – Senior partner
It is easy to make clients happy by just cutting the cost.Not enough lawyers have really embraced building a better mousetrap that makes clients happy while at the same time maintaining profitability. – Senior executive
Lawyers are proposing a 10% discounted deal or a 20% discounted deal, or a blended rate deal, but then they’re going to literally do everything the same way they’ve always done it. They don’t think about it in terms of profitability yet. So we’ve got a lot of catching up to do. However, at one recent conference I attended, it sounded like there are still a lot of firms that aren’t much ahead of us. – Senior executive
Many firms are working to fill this gap and develop new tools and approaches:
I’ve been with the firm a little over a year, and part of the reason that the firm brought me in was that we needed to look at our operational infrastructure and basically get caught up with the rest of the AmLaw 100. We didn’t have the ability to really measure profitability. We could just barely measure it at the firm level and at the office level, but not at the practice level, not at the client level, or matter level. About three months ago we finally started using a business intelligence platform that allows us to measure those things, and we’re still trying to make that part of the culture. – Senior executive
Life used to be so much easier. The world has changed, and I think in the new environment, to preserve and enhance existing client relationships and to get our nose in the door for new client relationships, we’ve had to be more flexible on pricing, particularly in the alternative fee context. I think we’re in a brave new world here, where we have to learn a lot of new sciences and employ a lot of new techniques. – Senior partner
Some firms are providing lawyers with very detailed reports, like these:
We developed a real-time report on our intranet that is role-based. For example, if you are a client attorney, then your report will show all the clients on which you have any client credit on any matter, and it will show you the components of profitability. The report shows you collected revenue, the costs associated with that revenue, the profit, and the profit margin. Then it shows you the number of hours that are in it, the revenue per hour, the cost per hour. Then it breaks down timing differences on billing and collecting time. And then it shows you the traditional measures of profitability such as realization rates at the various levels. You can click on a client and it drills down to the matter level, so you see it for every matter. And then you can click on every matter and it drops down to all the timekeepers, and you see it across the board for all timekeepers on each matter, all those same metrics. We built the database to go back 10 years. You can do it for time periods of year to date, rolling 12 months, from inception, or for any other time period. – Senior partner
Other firms are concerned that too much data can be counterproductive:
One of the traps you can fall into is giving people a lot of data but not giving them information. Simply revealing realization or matter profitability, just putting it out there, would not really advance the management goals of getting people to focus more on profitability. What you would engender is more questions about “How come she got paid more than I did?” That kind of stuff. – Chair
Merely sending canned reports to partners will not result in many partners changing the way they manage their practices to improve profitability. We need to better develop a process whereby partners with profitability challenges receive the help they need to improve profitability in a manner tailored to the issues presented by that partner’s specific practice. Otherwise they look at the report and say, “This is crap. It’s wrong.” – Senior executive
A pdf of this entire series can be downloaded from Altman Weil Direct, where it originally appeared.