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Category: Study / Report

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."

Survey: Class Action Defense Rates Keep Pace with Plaintiffs’ Rates in 2020

March 4, 2020

Defense rates keep pace with plaintiffs’ rates in class action litigation at partner and associate levels in 2020.  That’s just one of the findings from a recent survey, The 2020 Class Action Hourly Rate Survey, conducted by the National Association of Legal Fee Analysis (NALFA).  This billing rate survey, conducted via email over a two month period, asked class action litigators from the nation’s 16 largest legal markets if their current regular hourly rate falls within a given range.

The NALFA survey shows that 95 percent of all class actions fall within the $200-$1,200 hourly rate range for both defense and plaintiffs’ counsel at partner and associate levels.  In short, only 5 percent of class action hourly rates are less than $200 and over $1,200.  Thus, nearly all class action hourly rates fall within a $1,000 hourly rate statistical variance.

This survey is the first in a series of hourly rate surveys that NALFA will be conducting in specific practice areas in 2020.  NALFA also conducts custom hourly rate surveys for clients such as law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.  NALFA surveys provide the most accurate and current hourly rate ranges within a given geography and practice area.

“This survey data may be the nation’s first and only quantitative class action hourly rate data of its kind,” said Terry Jesse, NALFA Executive Director.  With more class action hourly rate data to follow, here are some of the top-level findings from NALFA’s 2020 Class Action Hourly Rate Survey:

Technology Alone is Not the Answer to Outside Fee Guidelines

February 14, 2020

A recent American Lawyer story by Dan Packel, “‘Technology Alone Is Not the Answer’ Wilmer Revisits Outside Counsel Guidelines,” reports that the number of outside counsel guidelines that attorneys and administrators at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr have to juggle is striking.  In total, the firm is sitting on approximately 1,000 documents, after receiving, in 2019 alone, roughly 260 new retainer agreements or updates to existing guidelines that stipulate what clients expect from the attorneys they are hiring. 

Wilmer isn’t the only law firm dealing with heightened standards from corporate clients about what they’ll pay for and what they won’t.  A recent study from timekeeping technology company Bellefield and the Association of Legal Administrators estimated the cost of compliance with these guidelines at nearly $4 million annually for some firms.  “There are a lot of process failures out there,” said Kyle Liepelt, who was named Wilmer’s first dedicated outside counsel guidelines administrator in February 2018.  “Technology alone is not the answer.”

When Wilmer began the process of reevaluating how it dealt with these guidelines in 2017, leaders found that—unlike the majority of the firms responding to the Bellefield and ALA survey—it was over-complying with guidelines.  Instead of losing money through rejected bills, convoluted appeals and write-downs, attorneys were being overly cautious in their billing.

“We couldn’t arm our partners to the nuances of these client differences,” said Steve Smith, the firm’s director of matter management services, describing a problem of “excessive diligence.”  “That impact, both in time and money, to communicate the complexity around outside counsel guidelines, that’s time that we should have been spending adding real value to our clients,” he continued. 

Following an initial workshop, one of Wilmer’s first steps was to create the centralized administrator position held by Liepelt, who spent the previous five years as a conflicts specialist in the firm’s new business department.  Each set of new guidelines goes directly to him, and he’s responsible for reviewing their terms, looping in the relationship partner and the billing partners on a given matter.

Room For Negotiations

These conversations aren’t just to circulate the substance of what clients are demanding.  Wilmer is not afraid to push back on terms that the firm would prefer not to agree to.  Liepelt said that his conversations within the industry showed that’s not always the case elsewhere.  “A lot of firms often receive them and that’s it, there’s no real discussion about them.  They may post them, so people can see them, but there’s no discussion on substance,” he said. 

According to the Bellefield and ALA survey, 23% of firms make no effort to share guidelines with attorneys, while 24% simply post them on the firm’s intranet.  While 52% share guidelines via email, the survey did not capture whether this is the prelude to a wider discussion, let alone to a response to the client.  But Liepelt said that the reaction is generally positive. At the very least, clients appreciate that the firm is carefully considering the guidelines.

“When it comes to the recommendations that we give, it’s a mixed bag.  Some say, ‘This is what it is, and we want you to follow it,’” he said “Other times there’s a negotiation back and forth and we arrive somewhere in the middle.”  Liepelt will often handle these conversations with the client, particularly if the attorneys don’t want to get involved.  “Discussion can be a burden on attorneys,” he said.  “I try to relieve them of any potential conflict.”

Into The Database

If these conversations illustrate the human side of the process, the technical side takes the forefront once any negotiations are finished.  The Wilmer team looked to a database to help solve the problem of scale, teaming with a vendor that had its own outside counsel guidelines solution and using the underlying workflow and source code to built their own unique design.  Each client’s guidelines are broken down into a data record with component terms highlighted, and attorneys and staff can search for terms and easily access the source documents.

Smith gave the example of different clients specifying what personnel can and can’t be used.  Some bar paralegals, others rule out first-year associates, still others place caps on each category for a given matter.  “We can surface those,” he said.  “We have a standardized process to review them very quickly.”

When updated versions of guidelines roll in, Liepelt can turn to the database to identify what’s changed, then rapidly point out the differences to the partners involved.  When looking at intranet profiles for the firm’s attorneys, he and others can follow links to see what outside counsel guidelines apply to each matter they’re working on, guiding conversations about matter efficiency.  And, in the unlikely event of a data breach, the firm can quickly pull up the list of clients that need to be notified within 24 hours.

A Bellwether for the Relationship

One year into the new system, the feedback, from both inside and outside the firm, has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Smith and Liepelt.  Partners appreciate having an internal point person to whom they can direct their inquiries and concerns, while staff have the information at their disposal to do pre-bill auditing.  Turnaround time with clients has decreased by 25%.

“The delays are less on our side and more on their side,” Leipelt said. “We’re much more responsive than we were, and that leads to better relationships.”  Beyond that, the new system offers a selling point when it comes to marketing the firm.  “There’s not an RFP that we see these days that doesn’t specifically ask us what are the firm’s capabilities in innovation and improving processes,” Smith said. “How we handle outside counsel guidelines is a bellwether for our stewardship of their financial resources.”

Why Law Firms Struggle with Outside Counsel Guidelines

December 4, 2019

A recent the American Lawyer article by Dan Packel, “Why Firms Struggle With Outside Counsel Guidelines – and Pay the Price,” reports on a new survey that draws a straight line between lower realization rates and law firms’ failure to communicate the substance of outside counsel guidelines to billing attorneys.  The article reads:

Law firms are struggling to comply with clients’ outside counsel guidelines, leading to slower rates of realization and increasing write-offs, according to a recent report from timekeeping technology company Bellefield and the Association of Legal Administrators.  In the groups’ inaugural survey of respondents from nearly 200 law firms, they found that firms’ failure to communicate the substance of these guidelines to the attorneys who actually bill leads to invoices that are rejected or reduced.

“They’ve got to make that business case to attorneys,” said Patricia Nagy, a director at Proxy PR who helped write the report.  “Attorneys are being overwhelmed with new tasks, in terms of compliance and information governance, but this one hits directly and immediately to their pocketbooks if they don’t comply.”

While corporate legal departments have been probing the consequences of these outside counsel guidelines for several years, this is the first effort to gauge their impact on law firms.  The survey received participation from 198 firms, over 20% of which have over 300 attorneys.  Almost 35% had between 51 and 299 attorneys, and nearly 30% had between 10 and 50.

Nagy said that she was surprised to discover that nearly one-quarter of firms surveyed made no effort at all to communicate these guidelines to billing attorneys.  Over 52% of firms share these guidelines with attorneys via email, and 24% simply post them on the firm’s intranet, with the hopes that lawyers look at them.  “We weren’t surprised there were a lot of process failures,” Nagy said.  “What was surprising was the degree of the failures, and that a lot of them were using ‘hope’ strategies.”  Indeed, even among the firms that communicate these guidelines to billing attorneys, 82% do not require acknowledgment of receipt, and attorneys are only monitored to ensure they are following guidelines 55% of the time.

As a consequence, when navigating clients’ e-billing systems, firms are finding that an increasing number of invoices are being rejected, even as firms have managed to keep rates robust.  The ALA and Bellefield survey shows that 70% of firms believe that e-billing has not improved billing and collections, with billing and collection cycles expanding, for the most part by 30 days, according to 41% of respondents, or 60 days, per 29%.

Rejections are also a growing problem. Nearly half the firms surveyed experience 5% to 10% of their e-bills rejected or reduced.  And 15% do not appeal rejections, either because of inadequate staffing or because they treat them as a cost of doing business.  Nagy noted that as clients increasingly use metrics to evaluate outside counsel, firms that make less friction during the invoicing process are more likely to receive repeat business.

Asked how they would like to improve the process, nearly 60% of respondents asked for more visibility into what corporate law departments actually want.  This tracks with a conclusion that these guidelines have actually made it harder for firms to communicate with clients, a sentiment shared with 40% of respondents, compared to 11% who point to improved communications.  And 45% of respondents hoped for a technological solution that would help them make sense of these guidelines.  With different guidelines coming in from each client, automation becomes a particularly challenging task.

NALFA Conducts Hourly Rate Survey of Class Counsel in Dallas

August 26, 2019

NALFA conducts hourly rate surveys for law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.  Our surveys provide the most accurate and current hourly rates within a given geography and practice area.  We can design hourly rate surveys for specific cases.  Our hourly rate surveys assist state and federal courts in awarding attorney fees in large, complex litigation throughout the U.S. 

NALFA recently conducted an hourly rate survey of plaintiffs’ counsel in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  This hourly rate survey was conduct for a Dallas area law firm seeking attorney fees in a product liability class action.  The last hourly rate survey of this type was conducted by the Dallas Bar Association in 2015.

This survey was conducted via email from May 5th-19th.  The survey results are private.  Only the client, survey participants, and members of the NALFA network received the results and findings.  The survey results show the current average hourly rate range for plaintiffs’ associate, senior associate, partner, and senior partner in class action litigation in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  Participants of this survey can see how their hourly rates compare to those of their litigation peers.

For more on NALFA’s Custom Hourly Rate Surveys, visit http://www.thenalfa.org/hourly-rate-surveys/.