A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

The 6 rules to getting your law firm's fees right

Monday, March 26, 2018

By Sue-Ella Prodonovich, Principal, Prodonovich Advisory


In my blog “6 things law firms need to accept”, I mentioned that law firms needed to accept that this was a buyer’s market. Now I’m here to tell you that this doesn’t apply just to lawyers; it’s the same for all professional services.

That means, you could well be told in 2018 that your prices are too high. It also means that getting your pricing right will be one of the keys to building a successful practice over the next 12 months. So, if you’re feeling powerless and confused about what to do, try following these 6 rules.

1. Understand the emotional side of buying

While professionals may deal in the analytical and rational, it’s always worth remembering that buyers are seldom analytical and never rational. Why else would people fork out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a different badge on a handbag or a motorcar? It’s because they see these as denoting higher status than other goods.

The same principles apply to professional services as they do to retail. People, including the hard nosed management teams of serious corporates, will pay a premium for services that they perceive as premium. Similarly, if they see something as run-of-the mill, they’ll expect to get it for the best price they can.

To make sure you fall on the right side of the equation, you need to understand the emotional side of buying. If you want help doing that, there are a lot of good books that can point you in the right direction.

You also need to understand what will make a client pay top dollar. And, whether that’s through specialising in a niche, providing a personalised service, or innovating, one thing is certain: clients always pay more for professionals who understand them.

If you’re being told your prices are too high, perhaps you’re simply not getting this right.

2. Don’t dive straight into fixed fees

In the current climate a lot of professional services think that all they need to do is move to fixed fees and the pricing problem will take care of itself. Anyone who has read any of my blogs in the past knows that I have very strong views on this. While fixed fees may be part of the solution, they’re not the solution every time.

Fixed fees tend to work brilliantly when the scope of work is known and its commoditised - for instance, a conveyance or a simple contract for a lawyer, or a basic end of year tax return for an accountant. In my view, fixed fees don’t work at all where the scope of work is unknowable and the work you’re doing is bespoke and highly skilled.

And, for most types of work, they’ll fall somewhere in between - effective sometimes and not others. 

So, instead of going straight for an “alternative fee” model, I always encourage people to go straight for an “appropriate fee model”. Analyse what’s going to work out best for both you and the client and stick to that, rather than being rigid. If you're not sure what to charge, here's what i think should influence your pricing.

3. Start with the client

In my experience, a lot of professional services firms get their pricing the wrong way around. What I mean by that is that they have no pricing strategy, so instead the starting point for what they’ll charge will be their remuneration policy.

If they pay a staff member $100,000 a year, they’ll use this figure to calculate how much they should charge to pay their employee, cover their overheads and take a bit of profit. That sounds logical, but doing it in isolation can lead to a raft of pricing problems, the effect of which can lead to a short change for both your practice and your client.

A better place to start is with the client. Figure out how you can bring them value, by delivering what they want and making their experience with you pain free. Once you’ve put some thought into that, you can then work backwards, figuring out how to utilise technology and your fee earners to deliver it in the best possible way.

By putting things in this order, you may uncover more profit than you could ever dream about rather than using salary as your starting point.

4. Work out where your value lies

Good law firm pricing always comes by knowing the value you bring. In other words, what is your client really paying you for?

To work this out, you’ll need to engage in a bit of good old fashioned soul searching and problem solving. So what is it that your client wants from you? And what could they just as easily get anywhere else and at a cheaper price?

When you look at things this way, chances are you could take something off the table to bring your prices down without compromising your profitability.

For instance, are you spending too much time of admin? Could you push some of this back onto the client? Could you deconstruct the service you offer, breaking it up into many parts so that you retain the high value stuff and outsource the other parts somewhere else?

If you do have this option, I’d suggest you try taking it because it’s likely to lead you into building a network of referrers who pass you work in return - that is the stuff you really want to be doing. And that will help protect your fees and your profits, while still keeping your clients happy.

A new tool that can help law firms with pricing dilemmas or decisions is Price High or Low. Designed by Joel Barolsky for professional service firms, this is a very clever and timely application.

5. Look for the real motivation of clients

If a client thinks your pricing is too high or they start going to a cheaper provider, it’s easy to look within. But sometimes, it’s not you, it’s them. So look beyond the rejection to find out why they don’t want to pay.

Chances are they simply may not have the budget. Perhaps there’s been a restructure. Perhaps they have a new CFO who’s stepped in and is slashing costs. Otherwise, perhaps they’re really just not the client for you because they’re simply not prepared to pay for the value you provide. 

I liken it to the petrol pump selling High Octane 98 fuel. To me, this makes no difference; I’ll just buy the cheapest fuel on offer. But a motoring enthusiast will probably really notice, and care about. The 1% difference it’s making to their performance. If people don’t value what you have, you need to find your own enthusiasts; the ones who really do get it.

6. Talk about pricing with your clients

Finally, I always think the best way to find out what a client thinks about your pricing is simply to ask them. I know, I know. Our mothers told us it was rude to talk about money. But sometimes, when you’re in business, you’ve just gotta. 

Ask your clients what they think about your pricing. Are you cheaper or more expensive than your competitors? There is no winning formula. It really often is sometimes about sitting down and talking about what is fair from both ends.

After all, in my experience clients price shop a lot less than most people think.

So if someone does say you’re too expensive, maybe they’re really trying to tell you something else…

About our Guest Blogger

Sue-Ella Prodonovich
Sue-Ella has more than 20 years senior level experience in winning and growing business in the complex business-to-business services and professional services sector. Over that time she has helped many of the Asia Pacific’s most recognised legal and professional services firms sharpen their business development practices, attract and retain clients, and become more profitable. Sue-Ella is the principal of Prodonovich Advisory, which she founded in 2012.






7 things your law firm can do to make money before the end of the financial year

Monday, March 19, 2018

By Sue-Ella Prodonovich, Principal, Prodonovich Advisory

By the end of February, law firms should have billed 70-80% of their revenue for this financial year, as well as having a good idea about how they’re going to make the remainder of their budget for FY2018.

If you haven’t - or if the pipeline looks a little bare - you don’t have to panic just yet. Instead, look for the tree with the low hanging fruit and shake the branches hard until it falls.

To find out exactly how to do that, read on and discover my 7 tips for finding more fees today, without needing to bump up your prices.

1. Speak to your clients

It’s almost always easier to get new work out of existing clients than it is to find new ones. And better still, the lead time - ie the time between the initial conversation and the work arriving on your desk - is almost always much shorter too.

So if you need more work now, your first port of call should be to get in touch with everyone on your current client list. When you do, don’t sell. Simply check in to make sure everything’s ok. Better still send them something of value, such as an article or an invitation, and follow it up with a phone call if you can.

Always remember, 80 percent of life is turning up. If you’re not doing that, you’re not even in the game.

2. Look for triggers

As I’ve pointed out before, no matter what product or service you’re selling, people will buy more easily when there’s a trigger to do so.

To cite an obvious one, people see their accountant when they need to do their end-of-year tax. So when you do contact people, even better than saying hi, is casually mentioning or writing about a trigger; what’s happened lately in your field, any regulatory changes, big events going on, or new trends emerging.

Alternatively, has something changed at your client’s end - a restructure or a change of personnel?

Whatever it is, call your clients to tell them about it, or send an email to your mailing list letting them know how it affects them and how you can help. You may be surprised by the results it brings - especially if you show how it will save them money or how it’s otherwise relevant to what they do.

Again, as I’ve said before, I once asked the project manager of a large listed property group why he chose a particular law firm to act for him on a significant dispute. He said that was easy....

He’d received an update from a lawyer he’d never met, working with a law firm he had never heard of. But the content was bang on the money and the timing was spot on. And because he was facing an almost identical issue, he picked up the phone and called that lawyer instead of his incumbent.

3. Call dead leads

Go through the list of everyone who’s contacted you over the past 12 months (or even two years) and get back in touch with them.

Let them know you’re still around and ask them if there’s anything you can help with. If this seems confronting it shouldn’t be. What’s the worst they’ll do? Say no again? Then you’re still where you are right now anyway.

Any decent salesperson will tell you that you should never write off someone just because they’ve said no in the past. If you get back in touch with say, 20 people, you only need one to say yes and you’ve probably made yourself money. Just don’t come across as pushy or desperate.

4. Change your targets

Building and maintaining referral sources is critical for law firms. In my experience, most work for professionals doesn’t come direct from clients, it comes from referrers. So if you’re not getting work through the door it could be that your referrers either aren’t saying the right things about you, or aren’t meeting the right people.

If you’re worried about the amount of work coming your way, tee up a meeting with each referrer and find out how they’re positioning you and who they’re positioning you to. Do they really know what you do? If not, now’s the time to tell them.

While we’re on the topic, is there someone else you think would be a good referrer? Someone who knows the right people or whose client base complements yours? Well, why not get in touch with them and try to meet them too.

5. Repackage

Perception is 9/10ths of reality. In other words, how we present something or how it is perceived matters just as much as what it is.

So ask yourself, are there any legal services you have that could do with an overhaul?

Could you change the way you charge for something or reposition it, or introduce it to a new market? Take a quiet moment to look at your processes and see how you could rejig them to create something new.

Or why not see if you could team up with another complementary department to create a new product or service. The “cross sell” opportunities with law firms should be constantly looked at.

6. Open up the floor

When it comes to generating ideas, two heads are always better than one. And three heads are better than two. And, four heads is better than... well you get my drift.

So don’t do your sales push alone if you can help it. Call a meeting of everyone in your team - especially those in day-to-day contact with your clients - and see what they can contribute.

Have they had conversations they forgot to tell you about? Do they have ideas about how things could be done differently? Have they seen aspects of your client’s business that aren’t bring serviced or other new opportunities for work?

These days partners should never be the only ones responsible for a practice’s business development. Get everyone to pitch in and see the difference it makes.

7. Get professional help

Finally, there’s always the option of bringing in the professionals: whether that’s through BD and sales coaching, advertising or even appointment setting.

After all, I know of some very good professional services firms who use the services of appointment setters and it can work to devastating effect. That’s because it shifts the emphasis on the routine matters to someone else - someone who’s an expert in it - and leaves you to pitch to someone who’s already partly interested.

If you don’t do this, there’s always the option of a digital or email campaign or some other tactic that will bring in new work now.

About our Guest Blogger

Sue-Ella Prodonvich
Sue-Ella has more than 20 years senior level experience in winning and growing business in the complex business-to-business services and professional services sector. Over that time she has helped many of the Asia Pacific’s most recognised legal and professional services firms sharpen their business development practices, attract and retain clients, and become more profitable. Sue-Ella is the principal of Prodonovich Advisory, which she founded in 2012.






Australian and New Zealand Legal Professional Outlook for 2018

Monday, March 12, 2018

By Sam Coupland, Director, FMRC


2017 was a turnaround year in the Australian and New Zealand legal profession. Despite media predictions of doom and gloom, financially at least, most firms had their strongest year for a long time.

There is no one-size-fits-all reason for this, but a number of factors are at play. On a macro level, the economies of both countries are improving, and on a micro basis, the tougher years have seen firms work hard on getting their personnel structure right, which has reduced unnecessary costs and the resultant fiscal drag.

My predictions for 2018 for the Australian and New Zealand legal profession:

Improved Profits

Good firms of all sizes will do well financially. Demand is increasing and so are the key drivers of profitability; namely, rates and hours.

In 2017 rack rates and realised rates for all categories of fee earner increased and the margin between rack rates and realised tightened. This was possibly helped by the ‘bigger bastard’ theory, where clients know (either through experience of osmosis) that other firms or a group of firms are charging a lot more. This applies to the total cost of matters, not just hourly rates.

For the first time in about ten years, recorded hours have increased. I know mentioning chargeable hours is anathema to many commentators, but it is still the predominant way of generating fees and is the best measure of utilisation within a firm.

With price and productivity increasing and a buoyant economy to operate in, 2018 should be a great year for good firms.

Personnel structure will continue to evolve

Leverage (the number of employed fee earners per equity principal) as a differentiator has almost disappeared. Clients are increasingly demanding senior lawyers do their work and they are prepared to pay for it. This coincides nicely with what senior lawyers want to do: after all, they trained to be lawyers not people managers.

I see the trend toward leaner teams continuing in 2018. For practices which do the high-end complex legal work, these teams will be a cluster of experienced senior lawyers with very little leverage. For the more commoditised work, firms will make greater use of technology and contractors to ensure those people on the payroll are fully utilised. Gap-filling by contractors will reduce the need for firms to have a large ‘standing army’ to cope with the peaks in demand.

More merger activity

There is interest at both ends of the acquisition / merger spectrum to do a deal where possible. Firms with an expansion mindset see acquiring a firm or practice group as the fastest and cheapest way to grow their business. They will usually have a support structure that can accommodate – both physically and managerially – an additional practice or two which provides economies of scale.

At the other end, an acquisition or merger can provide a firm with a circuit breaker for some of their managerial challenges or deadlocks. This could be anything ranging from succession to disparity in contribution or a hollowing out of market share.

Cash payments for equity will become increasingly scarce

For firms of all size, a lockstep entry to equity is more common than dollars changing hands from the sale of equity between partners. Similarly a merger is more likely than a trade sale between firms.

The opportunity for the partners in a firm being acquired is usually the likelihood of earning more in the merged entity, plus a one-off opportunity to realise the firm’s balance sheet.

Like most of the economy, sale of law firm equity is becoming a buyer’s market.

Genuine innovation remains on the horizon.

Conferences will continue to be built around innovation, artificial intelligence and a general theme of ‘the machines are coming, so get on board now’. There is no doubt there is plenty of movement in this area but there are also limitations, least of which is widespread client acceptance. So the conference industry is safe for a few years yet.

About our Guest Blogger


Sam Coupland
Sam joined FMRC in January 2000 and became a Director in July 2006. His client facing roles span direct consulting and management training. Sam’s consulting work is predominantly providing advice to smaller partnerships. Sam is considered the foremost authority on law firm valuations and would value more law firms than anyone else in Australia. He has developed a robust valuation methodology which calculates an accurate capitalisation rate that assesses the risk profile, cash flow and profitability of the firm.








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