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Article: Five Cost-Cutting Strategies for Corporate Legal Departments

October 22, 2020

A recent Law.com article by Nathan Wenzel of SimpleLegal Inc., “5 Cost-Cutting Strategies For Corporate Legal Department,” reports on legal cost measures for corporate legal departments.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Corporate legal departments have long been focused on reducing legal spending.  The emphasis on cost-cutting has only increased in 2020 as the economic uncertainties of the pandemic have caused companies to scrutinize expenses across the board.

According to a recent report from the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium, 61 cents of every dollar spent on legal costs in 2020 goes to external legal costs — a 15-cent increase from 2018.  This uptick, combined with the year's novel challenges, has many legal departments looking for new ways to control legal expenses beyond reviewing line items, which has proven to be ineffective for many companies.

While there's been a lot of chatter in the industry about the need to switch to fixed fees or alternative fee arrangements to reduce costs, these shifts have been slow to take hold.  They're also difficult to measure if we retain a focus on the billable hour.

When clients ask firms for fixed fees but also request the hours worked so they "know that the fixed fee was the right price," then we haven't really made the change to fixed fees.  It is a difficult transition and one that will take time.  We should always push toward better alignment of price and value, but we need to balance near-term realities with long-term goals.

In the near term, we need to control costs — even if that only means focusing on hourly rates.  In the long term, we need to align the work to the right types of providers at the right price, where price has very little connection to hourly rates.  No one wants to buy time.  We want outcomes, not hours.

To solve for both the short-term and long-term goals, we start with data.  Analyzing and reducing your legal spending start with asking yourself the following questions:

What am I spending now, on what and with which providers?
How does my current spending compare to past spending?
How am I allocating my legal work?
What metrics am I using to measure cost control?
Are there other cost considerations I'm overlooking?

1.  Understand where you are now.

The first step of implementing a change is to understand the current state. Reducing legal spending first requires knowing where you are right now.  This means not only keeping up with the total dollar figure of your spending, but how much you're spending in each practice area and with which law firms or providers.

Don't forget to also investigate the work you currently perform in-house.  With an understanding of outside legal spend and in-house legal work, you will have the current picture of how you allocate the demand for legal services from the business to the supply of legal services you have available.  With this deeper insight, you'll start to see where you can actually have an impact on spending.

Without this data, you risk investing time into an area that looks compelling but won't create real savings.  For example, reducing money spent on compliance may seem like a good idea because the partners at your primary firm have very high billing rates.  But if only 5% of your annual spending goes toward compliance work or if the primary compliance firm effectively leverages associates and paralegals, your efforts won't translate into real savings for the business.

When you track data and analyze legal spending details from your e-billing system, you'll be better equipped to start a real conversation about reductions.  You can identify the practice areas and firms where your efforts will create real returns.

2.  Compare now to where you used to be.

Your business is not static.  It's important to understand where you are today, but it is even more important to understand how things change over time. After you determine where you're spending your money today, you need to compare those numbers to what you were doing last year or the last time you negotiated rates and pricing.

You may have a reliable history of sending work to a single attorney or team at a firm. You may have increased the amount of work sent to a particular firm or in a particular practice area.  If you used to send $2 million worth of business to a firm and now spend $5 million with that firm, that's a powerful position for starting rate and price negotiations.

Additionally, if your team uses multiple firms for similar work, you may benefit from consolidating that work with fewer preferred firms.  Larger companies may go through a formal panel selection process annually or every few years.  A preferred panel is a great tool to provide the best legal services to the business at the best price if you have the team and time to implement this type of program.  But you can still achieve the benefits of allocating work to fewer firms without a full preferred panel program.

You don't always know what the demand for legal services will be from year to year.  But if your data shows that you have a history of allocating work among several firms, ask those firms what they would be willing to do to earn a greater share of that work.

3. Understand how you're allocating work.

After you have an understanding of the dollar value of your legal spending, you need to know how you're allocating different types of work, to whom and why. How you're assigning your legal work certainly depends on finding the provider with the right expertise but should be equally dependent on its business impact and complexity.

Your high-impact, high-complexity work probably belongs with the more expensive firms.  An example of a high-impact matter could be a large litigation that threatens the balance sheet of the company.  Or it might be a patent for the core technology driving your business.  In either case, you might choose to work with the very best money can buy.

Every year the legal press makes a big deal about high billable rates for eye-catching headlines.  But for your highest-impact and highest-complexity work, those firms and lawyers are probably a bargain at twice the price.  You're buying outcomes, not hours.

Too many companies simply send the rest of their work along with their high-impact work without stopping to see if smaller matters would be better handled by a lower-cost provider.  There are a variety of suppliers beyond the Am Law 100, such as specialty firms, alternative legal service providers, nonlegal consultants and your in-house team.

Your low-impact, low-complexity work probably doesn't need to go to the premier firms.  Specialty firms, alternative legal service providers, consultants and solo practitioners may not have massive staff and unlimited support resources, but they can still provide high-quality work at a fraction of the price.

You may also have high-impact but routine work where speed and a deep understanding of business issues are important.  The most common example here is commercial contracts.

For customer contracts, any delay in reviewing costs the company revenue. An extensive back-and-forth over mundane legal minutiae could cause your company to miss a quarter's revenue target.  In-house teams will have a better understanding of business priorities and can better deliver the right kind of legal work with speed at the right price.

When you satisfy your demand with the right mix of supply, the potential for savings is much greater than through rate discounts alone.  Allocating work based on impact and complexity provides far greater cost savings than a 10% rate reduction when the right provider is already half the price.

4. Use the right metrics.

You can't manage what you can't measure.  You get what you incentivize.  These two classic business statements tell us that we need to measure savings with the right metrics.

How are you measuring cost savings today?  Is it through average hourly rates?  Adjustments to bills based on guidelines?  If you measure discounts on rates to determine savings, you're going to focus on high hourly rate firms that discount their hour rates.  But is that really saving your company any money?

Achieving savings by reallocating work rather than by negotiating rate discounts definitely makes sense.  But with the wrong metrics it is harder for the C-suite to understand what you've accomplished.  If you measure and report savings only as the discount on standard rates, the reallocation effort appears to have achieved nothing.  In fact, if the work was moved in-house or to a provider with a lower but not discounted rate, it may appear that you have lost savings because you won't have a discount to report.

In fact, with the wrong metrics, if you were to implement a routing tool for automated nondisclosure agreement review, it might appear to be a driver of cost even if it created hard dollar savings from external counsel and soft dollar savings — i.e., efficiencies — from allowing in-house counsel to spend time on high-impact, high-complexity work.  With the right metrics, you can show the true return on these investments.

To demonstrate the full value of the savings and quality initiatives, you might need to use new metrics.  I am certainly not advocating for cherry-picking data or choosing vanity metrics.  To the contrary, the right metrics will actually make more sense to the business, the CEO and the board.

Legal expense as a percentage of revenue has been promoted in Association of Corporate Counsel benchmarking studies and Altman Weil Inc. surveys. It is well understood and trusted by chief financial officers and CEOs.

Whichever metrics are used to measure legal cost controls, just remember that you get what you incentivize.  If you're going to achieve cost savings, you need to use the right metrics to incentivize your team and showcase results.

5. Monitor compliance with your billing guidelines, consider automation of certain legal tasks and standardize workflows.

The preceding four steps are the critical actions that build on each other to significantly trim legal spending.  It's a journey.  You don't need to take all the steps all at once to achieve results.  Alongside those major considerations, there are a couple other things to keep in mind to run alongside those longer-term initiatives.

The first is billing guidelines.  Your billing guidelines let your firms know what it means to be a good legal partner to your department and a good business partner to your company.

Guidelines often devolve into rules about copy charges and not billing excessively for underqualified people — things your firms probably already do on their own to better serve their clients.  You should always be monitoring compliance with your billing guidelines and enforcing timekeeper rates, but it is important to remember that ensuring that your firms only bill for work in accordance with your guidelines isn't actual savings — it only prevents overcharging.

Another way to reduce legal costs and improve response time is to automate low-complexity, low-impact legal tasks and standardize workflows.  Automation of basic document review by artificially intelligent contract review tools can be a big time and money saver.  As an example, nondisclosure agreements are high-volume but typically low-impact documents that can be reviewed with the help of AI-enabled tools.

In addition to automation, standardized playbooks designed by the legal team to give other departments a checklist of items to review can also help improve turnaround time and reduce costs.  For example, a sourcing manager in a procurement department could be given a checklist of five or six specific business and legal terms to review before sending to the legal team.

Automation and standardization improve speed of delivery and reduce cost of delivery for the business.

The Path to Lower Legal Spending

It's time to shift the perspective on cost reduction beyond hourly rates and copy charges.  As legal departments, you need to look at where you are now, how that compares to the past, how you're allocating your work and whether you're using the right legal spending metrics to achieve real savings.  These steps with effective legal billing guidelines, automation and standardization provide the foundation to match your company's demand for legal services to the right legal service providers to trim your spending while improving delivery.

Nathan Wenzel is co-founder at SimpleLegal Inc.

Contingency Fee Percentages in Megafund Class Actions

August 21, 2020

Quinn Emanuel relies mostly on recent attorney fee scholarship and attorney fee jurisprudence in their recent $185M attorney fee request in the ACA class action.  Their fee request reads: 

In one recent case, In re Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation, 991 F. Supp. 2d 437 (EDNY 2014), the Court conducted a survey of so-called “megafund’ cases and provided its thoughts on a graduated scale for attorneys’ fees.  The scale set forth in Interchange Fee suggests a marginal fee percentage at various levels if recover; as recoveries go higher, the marginal fee percentage decreases. Id. at 445.  Using that matrix, which is set forth below, the Interchange Fee Court awarded class counsel $544.8 million in fees out of a $5.7 billion settlement fund, representing a contingent fee of 9.56%.

Hourly Rate Growth Hits All-Time High…Why?

August 15, 2020

A recent Law.com story by Patrick Smith, “Overall Demand Down for Big Law, But Rate Growth Hits All-Time High. Why?,” reports that the overall demand for legal services dropped 5.9% from the same point last year, marking the largest drop in year-over-year quarterly demand since 2009, according to the Q2 peer monitor index from Thomson Reuters.  But within that drop, the average rate billed jumped up 5.2%.

The report, which is a composite index derived from data collected from 160 major law firms in the United States and some international markets, gave the legal industry a score of 51, down six points from the previous quarter’s rating.  For context, the index gave the industry a rating of 65 after three quarters in 2019.

On top of the decline in overall work, the index found that the productivity rating also declined, diving 7.2%.  The significant decline in productivity is likely due to the head count increases over the previous 12 months and not enough work to go around, the report concluded.  

That lack of work can be highlighted by the decline of several major practice areas over the past several months, with real estate (-12.2%), patent litigation (-10.6%), tax (-9.1%), litigation (-7.5%) and corporate (-5.5%) leading the way.  There was one area that the index referenced as showing growth: Bankruptcy is up 6.2%.

But even with those declines across most practices, the worked rate rose. While daily demand per FTE (full-time equivalent) for all lawyers was down 7.1%, partner demand was only down 4.4%, with associates daily demand per FTE down a whopping 9.4%. 

What this means is that overall work is down, but the work that is left is being increasingly done by those at the partner level, and at partner-level rates.   The report supposes this trend to be the result of two primary factors. 

The first is that with less work available, partners are taking up matters that formerly went to associates, effectively becoming the epitome of the “eat what you kill” philosophy.  The partners want to hit their hours and will take the work necessary to do so. 

The other, the report said, is client driven.  Economically strapped clients are coming to outside firms with only their most difficult work, thus necessitating the need for a more experienced hand to guide the ship.  Exit associates, enter partners. 

The end result is a billed-rate growth at an all-time high, a full point higher than in the first quarter of 2020, which for U.S. firms was largely unaffected by the pandemic.   As expected, and to the delight of those who monitor profit margins, expenses for firms were down.  The first quarter of 2020 saw direct expenses growth at about 5%, while Q2 saw only 2.3%. Overhead growth in Q1 was slightly above 4%, while in Q2 it was only up 0.1%.   The report also found that firm expenditures saw a rise in spending  on technology of 4.6%, while money for office space went down 5.6% and the overhead for marketing and business development dropped a whopping 18.5%. 

“These are unprecedented times for the legal industry,” Mike Abbott, vice president of market insights and thought leadership at Thomson Reuters, said in a statement.  “We see law firms making rapid adjustments to better suit the current conditions—investing in productivity-enhancing technologies such as collaborative and remote work solutions, while reducing expenses in other areas such as overhead.  More uncertainty lies ahead in the coming months, but firms are clearly making efforts to improve efficiency and flexibility to deal with what’s to come.”

NALFA Releases 3 Models of Growth for Litigation Hourly Rates

August 10, 2020

NALFA conducts custom hourly rate surveys for law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.  Our hourly rate surveys provide our clients with the most current and accurate hourly rates within a given geography and practice area.  Starting this year, 2020, NALFA is conducting hourly rate surveys in 5 key practice areas.  These billing rate surveys show the current average hourly rate range for both plaintiffs' and defense counsel at partner and associate levels.

NALFA has released 3 different models of growth (linear, logarithmic, and logistic) for hourly rate ranges in litigation.  These growth curves are based on the universally accepted principle that hourly rates increase with experience (i.e. partner rates are greater than associate rates).  Linear growth is consistent straight-line growth.  Generally, logarithmic growth rises sharply then levels off.  Generally, logistic (S-shaped) growth starts slowly, rises sharply, then levels off.  We did not use exponential (J-shaped) growth because an ever-increasing, very steep curve does not fit hourly rate billing economics.

“These growth models do not account for the factors that effect hourly rates such as geography, practice area, party to litigation, complexity of case, size of law firm, and economics that our surveys do,” said Terry Jesse, Executive Director of NALFA.  "Those variables were not a part of this purely mathematical exercise," Jesse emphasized.

From these growth curves, we learn 2 key concepts:

1.  Logarithmic growth seems to represent the economics of hourly rates and the career span of litigators the best.  Generally, the growth starts rapidly, then increases slower, then eventually levels off.  Here, the highest rate of billing growth takes place in early-career.

2.  Logistic growth is another model that has some appeal to the economics of hourly rates and the career span of litigators.  Generally, the growth starts slowly, then increases rapidly, then eventually levels off.  Here, the highest rate of billing growth takes place in mid-career.



The parameters of these models include the number of years continuously practicing litigation (12 data points), plotted along the x axis and hourly rate ranges (20 data points) along the y axis.  The litigation experience data sets range (less than 2 Years-35+ years) has a variance of 1 year to 5 years.  The hourly rate ranges (less than $200-over $1,200) include a variance of $50 and $100.

Study: Speed Paying Legal Bills Matters Most to Law Firms During Pandemic

June 25, 2020

A recent Law 360 story by Aebra Coe, “Clients’ Speed Paying Bills Could Make or Break Law Firms” reports that a report out shows law firms have fared "surprisingly well" financially during the coronavirus pandemic so far, but experts say there is still a danger that some firms could run out of cash because of difficulty collecting payments from struggling clients.

Most law firms do not have deep cash reserves and rely on monthly collections from client payments to continue operating.  With the possibility those payments could dry up due to clients' lack of ability or willingness to pay, liquidity is a major concern for some law firms right now, according to Michael Blanchard, managing director of the Law Firm Advisory Team at Aon.  "A lot of firms now are starting to realize that productivity may not be the issue but that liquidity from clients paying in a timely fashion is a bigger challenge to a lot of firms," Blanchard said.

According to the report released by Wells Fargo Private Bank Legal Specialty Group, "the legal industry has fared surprisingly well" so far financially during the coronavirus pandemic when compared to other industries, with demand for the surveyed law firms' services down just 1.4% from the start of the year through June 1 compared to the same five-month period last year.

But that modest decline in demand is skewed by a very strong start to the year, with steep declines in demand in April and May, according to Joe Mendola, senior director of sales for the bank's legal specialty group.  That could result in corresponding declines in the payments law firms receive from clients over the next three to four months since there is a lag between when firms perform work and when they are paid, he said.  Demand appears to have "bottomed out" in May, which would likely translate to the largest dip in cash in hand from payments by around August, Mendola said.

In addition to the problem of fewer bills owed in the second half of the year because of declines in demand during April and May, law firms could also face trouble collecting in a timely fashion and being paid in full as clients themselves struggle financially and seek steep discounts, which could lead to cash-flow difficulties for law firms.  "Certainly, through the first five months of 2020, the legal industry has fared better than most industries. But I think the more challenging months will be ahead of us," Mendola said.

The Wells Fargo survey found that while demand was down during the first five months of the year, the amount of money in the pipeline owed to firms, called inventory, was actually up by 7%, suggesting that collections are lagging, Mendola said.  Additionally, 54% of the firms surveyed said client requests for discounts increased in May over the previous month, and 52% said they saw more payment extension requests from clients in May.

"I think the key to 2020's final results [for law firm financials] will be how collections play out," Mendola said.  While firms have taken a hit and likely will continue to when it comes to collecting bills, the damage has not been as substantial as the industry first predicted, according to Gretta Rusanow, managing director at Citi Private Bank's Law Firm Group.

Surveys her bank conducted found that at the start of April, firms anticipated that they would see a 15% drop in demand, a 15% drop in revenue and an 11% lengthening in the collections cycle.  But the actual numbers for April and May, according to Rusanow, ended up showing an average decline in demand of 6.2%, a decline in revenue of 1.3% and a slowdown in collection times of 3.4%.

"The bottom line is: Going into this there was very much a concern that not only would activity levels drop, but it would be hard to collect from clients, and in fact what's happened is it hasn't been as bad as anticipated at the industry level," Rusanow said.  But Rusanow and Mendola both noted that there was significant dispersion in the industry during the first few months of the year, with some firms performing well and others performing poorly, all of which is wrapped up in those averages.

Actions that firms have taken during this time — likely as a result of fear of major drops in revenue and demand — have made a big impact on preserving their financial health, the experts said.  "Probably the thing resounding across the industry in the past few months has been a very much disciplined approach around billing and collections," Rusanow said.

That means firms have buckled down on attorneys getting their time tracked and bills promptly sent out to clients, and many are having conversations with clients about their ability to pay, she said.  Some firms have drawn on their lines of credit for cash flow, according to Mendola.

In addition, GLC Business Services CEO Michael Hayes said that smaller firms have been able to rely on the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program for loans that are either forgivable or are to be paid back at a very low interest rate.  "The Paycheck Protection Program has added liquidity to small firms and their clients," Hayes said.  "It pushes off the potential for danger at least until the end of year."

In addition to turning a closer eye to getting paid for the work they do and finding ways to keep money flowing in, law firms have also cut costs in anticipation of a dip in revenue, according to Aon's Blanchard.  That has meant reduced partner draws, reductions in associate and staff pay, some layoffs, some cuts in real estate expenses as attorneys and staff work from home, and less money spent in areas like travel, training and firm retreats.

"I think firms have started looking at different ways to improve their margins," Blanchard said.  Mendola said the belt-tightening has helped.  His survey found that at the end of May the industry has reported good liquidity with almost 90% of the responding firms showing three months or more coverage of monthly expenses excluding partner draws.  "I think those cost-cutting measures are paying off.  It's better to be prudent and readjust than not be ready," he said.  "Once money is out the door, you're not going to get it back."