Excuse me, I think your pricing is broken

28 10 2011

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.

Caroline the Finance Director had the new pricing model absolutely nailed

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.

Forever.

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?
  • Automate?

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…..





The price is right?

31 01 2011

For a number of reasons, I’ve been thinking about price a lot this week.

The head of the dispute resolution team was unconvinced his business development director had got the price right on this bid

Firstly, the Holden Group’s excellent newsletter plopped through my virtual letter box with a leader on righting the wrongs of panic pricing. Next the Harvard Business Review had a very thought provoking article on adaptive pricing strategies, and finally, I went to an internal workshop with one of our group pricing specialists (looking at the link between product strategy and pricing).

Much is written about the death of the hourly rate and the new pricing models emerging in the legal profession, but there seems to be less material about the “why”, which to my mind is an important step before the “how”.

In the past, much law firm pricing often didn’t go much beyond volume based discount: If you spend £X (thousand/million – delete depending on size of account) with the firm in a year, we will discount our hourly rates by Y%.

The rationale presumably included a desire to make the pricing appear more competitive, to encourage a higher spend by the client, and to make the client feel “valued” (in reality of course, this strategy doesn’t do much to connect the firm’s activity to value delivered to the client at all, but that’s a subject for another post).

With law firm clients becoming more savvy purchasers these days, this type of model is likely to be met with questions about additional discounts for single sourcing, requests for further discounts coming from efficiency gains, and discussion about how the firm will provide an optimal team structure and resourcing model.

Now while it easy to find fault with what is a fairly unsophisticated model of discounts on hourly rates, I spoke to a general counsel of a listed company last year, who proudly told me how with one of his regular advisors, he regularly negotiates 50% discounts on his bills.

The idea of a notional discount (whether volume based or otherwise) clearly appealed to him, and he seemed genuinely surprised when I suggested that the law firm might be anticipating this conversation and factoring this into their pricing. I also made the point that negotiating bills every month might not be the best use of either his time or the partner at the (very well known!) law firm, but I began to wonder if he secretly enjoyed the process and the little victories it brought (I know, I know, I’m no Sigmund Freud).

When it comes to pricing strategies, the other other “old favourite” of the law firm tender is the “we’ll buy the work” approach – the idea that the firm will price very low (often at or even below cost) to win a significant piece of work, and then develop a relationship with a client which will allow the firm to secure an ongoing stream of more profitable work.

While of course penetration pricing is a proven strategy in plenty of other markets, my concern here is that many law firms don’t back this approach with the rigor needed to execute it successfully. Firstly, the scope of the project is often underestimated leading to higher costs than anticipated. Secondly, the price is set by reference to a figure that the law firm believes is needed to win the work. Rather than being based on real competitive intelligence, or with reference to a database of market prices, it is often just “gut feel” or based on informal signals from the client as to what will be needed. I’m a big believer in intuition in the right context (Blink by Malcolm Gladwell is well worth a read) but with a pricing decision, it should be one of many factors taken into account, rather than the only factor.

The post has meandered a little this week, but the key takeaway is before you start to build a pricing model, spend a few minutes to work out what you are trying to achieve. With that in mind you can then build a model that works, hopefully for you and the client, meaning that, as the game show says, everyone’s a winner…..

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Law firm elves (the missing skillsets)

20 12 2010

As snow continues to bathe the United Kingdom in its cold fluffiness, and our transport infrastructure predictably fails to cope, I’ve had plenty of time  to think up a suitably Christmassy post for this festive week.

The business analyst's office was a little off the beaten track

Now Santa Claus(e) is pretty busy at this time of year, arguably busier than even the most stressed managing partner. Sure, cash flow and chasing WIP may not be an issue, but he has millions of presents to procure and wrap, and then a logistics nightmare to contend with. His relentless focus on execution is impressive, but he certainly couldn’t deliver on time and on budget alone. The reindeer may get the media plaudits, but the unsung heroes are undoubtedly his legion of elves. Working quietly in the background, they make sure his ambitious plans are carried out, deal with last minute changes and generally keep things ticking over.

Maybe that’s what law firms need.

So, I started thinking, which elves could help law firms in 2011…….

1. The Sales Elf.

“Sales!” I hear you cry. Heresy! Burn him! But wait a second. Law firm business development has developed tremendously in the last decade and sales training by organisations like the PACE partnership and Huthwaite Fleming is now accepted as delivering solid business benefits. Yet I still see many business opportunities lost because a law firm doesn’t have the right sales capacity or capability. Business development directors in law firms are often in strategic or marketing-focussed roles and if they do have selling skills are rarely given the chance to use them.

Is employing a dedicated sales force going too far? Some may argue that culturally it’s a bridge too far and that professional services can’t be sold in that way? I’m not convinced. I think if you get the right fit between sales person and firm, that focus on generating new business and the skills that go with it, could really turbo charge a law firm’s performance.

2. The Analyst Elf

Outside of the very largest law firms, there is often a lack of internal business analysis capability.  There’s no shortage of raw information, with many firms taking an “arms race” approach to subscribing to market and business research services, yet often the same firms struggle to make best use of this information, with no dedicated resource to synthesise and analyse it.

For the firms looking to position themselves as experts in a particular sector, how helpful would it be to have some proprietary analysis of what was happening in that sector, and to use that to generate some real though leadership, rather than simply offering comment on a recent news item?

The skillsets needed are widely available – investment banks use them, management consultants use them, large accountancy practices use them and corporates certainly use them, yet in comparably size law firms, they are a rare species indeed.

3. The Process Elf

Talking to some legal sector recruitment specialists, this is a hot area. With downward pressure on price and the increasing rejection of the hourly rate billing model, law firms are looking for ways to maintain or improve service quality while at the same time reducing cost. Looks and smells like a Lean Six Sigma type project to me.

Process mapping and re-engineering are perhaps the most obvious quick wins, but actually having a dedicated resource to think about operational efficiency and help drive the personal and organisational change that is needed to deliver the results is essential and I don’t believe it will be achieved by someone doing the job in their “spare time”.

4. The Pricing Elf

On a recent tender exercise for a NYSE listed outsourcer the request for proposal document made it clear that the company did not wish to buy legal services on an hourly rate basis, and asked law firms for alternative pricing models for four different work types. The diversity of responses across the ten law firms was significant. Some were well advanced in their thinking, giving a variety of models, an explanation of the type of work and volumes that would make them work, and detailing how scope changes were managed. Others were being dragged kicking and screaming from their hourly-rate comfort zone, with vague promises to think about fixed price projects and retainers, provided certain caveats were discussed and agreed.

In a world where the market is requiring different pricing models, and given the very (very) direct link between price and profit, doesn’t it make sense to address this seriously? Is setting up a pricing committee made up entirely of lawyers really the answer?

5. Other elves

The need to go and do my Christmas shopping precludes a longer discussion, but some other elves to think about – the change management elf, the project management elf, the product development  elf and the innovation elf.

This is likely to be the last post before Christmas, so if you are celebrating, have a great time and I hope you’re back here again, fully refreshed, for the New Year post, which may well tackle the classic New Year topic of (s)elf improvement!