I was pleased to read the post on 3 geeks about value billing as this is definitely a topic that needs exploring further, not least because I’m astonished by the number of law firm partners who continually tell me that it’s for clients to find a pricing model that works for the firm’s services.
The common refrain from private practice lawyers (especially those who know how I feel about hourly rate billing) is that in-house lawyers who talk about value based billing really just want to pay less, and are not really interested in concepts like sharing risk. Opening a dialogue about pricing is simply an exercise in getting the law firm to do the same work for less money.
I my have missed the point, but of course they want to pay less!
The fact that the firm hasn’t developed a model that really meets their needs, or if they have the firm can’t communicate it in a compelling model does not turn this into the client’s problem. It’s the private practice lawyer’s problem. It’s the firm’s problem. It’s the profession’s problem.
The market has changed.
Except for those highly differentiated firms that have unique or otherwise genuinely marketing leading skills and expertise, law firms are shifting to being price takers rather than price setters in the market. As barriers to entry in the legal market fall, and new models of legal service delivery emerge, clients have more choices about how they resource work:
- Big firm, small firm?
- Global firm or international network?
- Insource, outsource?
- Disaggregate, multisource?
- Onshore, offshore, nearshore?
Fewer and fewer GCs respond well to a conversation with a law firm that starts at a notional rate card, which of course is all great news if you’re a firm with some creativity and innovation.
To me, understanding value starts with a conversation with the client.
Too many firms assume that clients all want the same thing, but in my experience the range of client needs and expectations are almost infinitely variable.
Organisations of a similar size in the same vertical industry may look similar on the outside. They may have similar sized legal teams which do similar types of work. But actually the underlying businesses may have different operating models, different shareholder expectations, different objectives, different risk tolerances and of course different legal budgets. What they want from their internal and external lawyers may be very different, in fact it might vary significantly across the business.
There are a whole host of client needs that might emerge from a well structured conversation, implemented through some good questions.
The challenge for the law firm is then to define the service that would best meet those needs, identify the variables, work out what the cost implications of those variables are on the overall cost of service delivery and then stitch the whole thing together into a great value proposition at a compelling price.
Some of the variables might include turnaround times, the style of advice (who is the ultimate recipient – business person or in-house lawyer?), the level of detail, different types of relationship management (dedicated team?) and the hours of operation/availability for the external lawyers.
Thinking about how these factors help the client’s business, as well as the needs of the inhouse legal team, can provide a deeper understanding of value – for example will a quicker response time allow a deal to be completed more quickly? If so, what does that mean for the business?
From this baseline understanding, the firm can get creative, but to do so also needs to ensure they really understand the cost and benefit to the firm of moving these “levers” (i.e. changing the variables).
Cost is often not simply the employee cost, but also may encompass opportunity cost or the cost of holding WIP for specific periods of time. The flip side is that the benefits to the firm can be broader than simply revenue – improved cash flow, client referenceability, employee retention (if the work is prestigious or interesting), replicability (the ability to reproduce the output for other clients at lower cost/higher margin) are all benefits that have value and can be quantified.
With all these factors to play with, plus of course the dynamic of genuinely sharing risk and reward with a client, I would be amazed if a firm couldn’t find a pricing mechanism that works for both the client and the firm. Once some pricing options (hint: that last word is a useful one in these conversations), the overall value proposition for the service offering can be pulled together and communicated. Law firm BD has become increasingly sophisticated, and there are plenty of skilled professionals who can ensure the resulting proposal is truly compelling and is tightly tied to the value it will deliver.
So I’ll grant you this – it’s more effort than simply negotiating percentage discounts on an hourly rate. It requires you to understand the client’s business in more depth, but also your own. But surely both of those are worthwhile steps in any event.
And if you do get a client who is genuinely not interested in this type of conversation (assuming you are not in the commodity market where the price genuinely will be just about lowest price), then maybe they’re not the right fit for your practice?
Or maybe you need to go back and tweak the model some more…..
- You’ve Got Legal Services Leverage…Now Use it Wisely (spendmatters.com)
- Now that Clients Won’t Pay for Training Young Associates, How are We Going to Teach Young Lawyers the Skills of Lawyering? (kowalskiandassociatesblog.com)
- The Value in Value Billing for Law Firms (ldobuzz.wordpress.com)
- The legal market place – carnage or opportunity? (intelligentchallenge.com)
I don’t think that most lawyers understand the first thing about pricing save the time-cost model. Why should they? Where do they get their training or guidance from.
Most businesses don’t have to radically overhaul their cost model to meet the clients’ needs. They just do it for less. Take a retailer, how innovative really are they? Not very.
I think law firms have to be much more sensitive to their clients’ needs but likewise the client has to be much more forthcoming what they perceive as valuable work. If they don’t know, then they should say. I am massive proponent of the MBWA school of thought and until firms start to spend real and meaningful time with their clients then I fear this issue is going to be resolutely stuck in the past.
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