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Best Practice: Improving law firm profits by improving processes

Asked and Answered

By John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Q. We are a five attorney firm in Detroit. Our firm does exclusively elder law and estate planning and most of our fees are based upon flat fees. Business has been steady and solid in spite of the recession. In an effort to improve profitability we are considering raising our fees but are concerned about adverse effects that it may have upon our competitiveness. We are already at the high end of the fee scale. Do you have any thoughts?

A. Raising fees is one approach to improving profitability. Clients are starting to push back more and more concerning legal fees. If you are at the high end of the rate scale I suggest that before charging off and raising rates you step back and conduct a process review by using an approach similar to the following:

  1. Pull a random representative list (by timekeeper and type of matter) of matters that have been concluded during the past six months. Say 10-20 matters.
  2. Calculate the effective hourly rates for each matter overall as well as by timekeeper class. (partner, associate, paralegal)
  3. Compare the calculated effective rate to your internal standard time billing rates as well as to external benchmarks. (Other firms from published survey data) How do they compare? What did it cost to staff the matter?
  4. Review the time detail for each of these matters and ask questions. You might want to flow chart and document the work flow. Is the firm working smart? Is time being dumped on these flat rate matters so that a timekeeper's hours look good on the production reports?  Is the firm using the right mix of paralegals and attorneys to staff the work? Is there wasted or duplicative effort? Is technology being used? Can work steps be eliminated or reduced? Should the firm consider a "limited representation" unbundled option?
  5. Pilot test a few new approaches and measure the impact upon profitability.

Keep in mind that raising fees is one way of improving profitability. Working smarter, efficiently, and more effective is another.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC, (www.olmsteadassoc.com) is a past chair and member of the ISBA Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics. For more information on law office management please direct questions to the ISBA listserver, which John and other committee members review, or view archived copies of The Bottom Line Newsletters. Contact John at jolmstead@olmsteadassoc.com.

Posted on August 31, 2011 by Chris Bonjean
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