The Evolution of Law Firm Compensation

IntersectionLaw firm compensation plans are by and large unsophisticated, hard to administer, too subjective, opaque, and reward the wrong behaviors. As someone wise once said, "If your compensation plan is in conflict with your strategy, your compensation plan is your strategy." To generate maximum financial performance in a law firm, and achieve the highest level of client satisfaction, we need to re-align the incentives. I've said a great deal about the deficiencies of law firm compensation plans (here and here and here). A good plan should further the firm's strategy, be easy to administer, and both drive and reward the desired behaviors. Many miss the mark on one or more of these dimensions. Here are the typical challenges I observe:

No alignment with strategy. Our strategy establishes one set of goals; the compensation plan rewards other, often entirely opposing, activities. We're a full-service law firm for our clients, but we don't track or reward cross-selling. In fact, we create internal competition and ill-will by forcing partners to take a pay cut when they bring others into their relationships. We wish to expand into new practice areas and geographies, but we punish the partners brave enough to lead an expansion because their short-term economic contribution suffers. We want everyone to get out of the office and become a rainmaker, but we pay partners primarily to stay in the office and bill time. We promise clients seamless transitions when partners retire or depart, but we punish partners who introduce younger colleagues into key relationships by requiring them to split credit. We promote our client focus, but we pay for hours, not efficiency.

Limited transparency. Some firms share compensation amounts among all equity partners. Others share nothing. Some firms have lengthy compensation plan documents. Others make all decisions in a closed-door session involving a select few. Some offer helpful scenarios to guide partner behavior in matters such as fee-splitting. Others trust partners to figure it out. What most miss is that transparency is not the same as having an open or closed system (sharing, respectively, all or no compensation details). Transparency is about establishing clear direction as to which behaviors we reward, and in what proportion, and doing so well in advance of the desired behavior. More than one managing partner has been shocked to discover that many, if not most, partners are unclear on the firm's primary compensation drivers. This is management shortcoming, not a result of dim bulb partners.

Poor or insufficient metrics. Some financial metrics are easy to come by, such as billed hours or collected receipts. Others are more elusive, such as timekeeper or client profitability. Still other metrics are more directional in nature, such as cross-selling (we may know the client worked with another practice group, but we don't necessarily know whether the relationship partner drove that). Some behaviors have only subjective metrics: serving as a good mentor? community involvement? acting in the best interests of the firm? A solid plan has specific metrics tied to the desired behaviors, and a clear and sustainable methodology for measuring performance in more subjective areas.

Inconsistent or incomplete reporting. When the compensation drivers are established, they should be published and then periodically the metrics tracking performance should also be published. Why not monthly? It serves little purpose to provide no metrics until year end, or provide vague or incomplete metrics at uncertain intervals during the year. It's hard make a course correction if we have neither a map of our destination nor our current coordinates.

Failure to acknowledge self-interest. We all want to earn a healthy living. But just as partners are loath to discuss budgets with clients, many avoid compensation discussions until required to do so by executive or compensation committee fiat. There's nothing wrong with wanting to know what specifically I can do to increase my compensation -- especially if the management committee has aligned the comp plan to strategy, so maximizing compensation furthers the strategy! Also, far too often top rainmakers or management or comp committee members prevent meaningful discussions of compensation plan changes because they fear losing income. While a revised plan may indeed result in changes to some partners' compensation, if the outcome is improved financial performance for all (and improved client satisfaction), then it's bad form and quite possibly a breach of fiduciary duty for those at the top of the pay scale to refuse to review alternatives.

Pursuing a disruptive implementation. If we identify a better compensation approach that serves the partners' and the clients' interests, it's statistically improbable that everyone will make the same. The change may be good. Some partners who are more comfortable billing time might be quite pleased with a plan that offers more certainty but less potential. Rainmakers may enjoy growing their books of business without being tethered to the billable hour. But some change may be troubling: some may see a compensation decrease commensurate with a declining trend in economic contribution. But we don't have to make these changes all at once. We can establish the end-state and then migrate to it over several years, providing training or transition support to those who might be significantly disrupted by a new plan.

Incomplete modeling. By nature, any forecast is speculative. To change a compensation plan means applying numerous "what if" scenarios to current performance, with no guarantee that we will sustain our current level of performance. We also don't know if, or how quickly, an adjustment to, say, origination credit will grow the pie. We don't know for sure how many partners will defect if their compensation will decrease, because the market dictates whether their economic contribution is more valuable elsewhere than here. They may already have the greenest grass they'll ever see. So we must model numerous factors, using realistic variables, and then create a few versions of the future. Failure to do this may result in significant disruption and unrest, and risk-averse lawyers tend to become flight risks during times of uncertainty.

Big dog accommodations. Every firm has one, if not many, partners who are the top of the food chain and who are somewhat blasé or even outright hostile to firm policies. Nothing creates organizational turmoil than when senior leaders or big dogs are allowed to break rules that little people must follow. When a top rainmaker threatens to leave, sometimes the best response is to say goodbye. When new compensation policies are put in place, it may be reasonable to make certain accommodations for those who feed others. But there's a limit. The behavior we desire should be incorporated into the compensation plan, and there's no room for unwritten rules.

A compensation assessment or redesign can be an extraordinarily effective tool to improve financial performance, foster a client-focused and collaborative culture, reduce unnecessary distractions, and provide a roadmap for career success. Expecting smart people to somehow "figure it out" is lazy management. Build the future you want in your law firm. Start today.


Timothy B. Corcoran was the 2014 President of the Legal Marketing Association and is an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change. For more information, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at


The Perils of Income Smoothing

Illustration by Chloe Cushman, h/t Financial PostPerhaps you've been following the criminal trial of former leaders of disbanded law firm Dewey LeBoeuf LLP. The prosecution contends that these leaders purposely misled other stakeholders, including equity partners, bondholders, and the general public as to the firm's fiscal health. Law360 reporter Andrew Strickler recently asked me whether such shenanigans are standard practice. After all, if everyone does it, and if there's no standard for financial reporting, is it wrong? You can read "BigLaw Fee Antics Persist Despite Dewey's Cautionary Tale" and many other articles related to the Dewey trial here. I'll offer some brief elaboration on my comments.

First, it may be helpful to have the fastest lesson ever in law firm accounting. Most law firms operate on a cash accounting basis -- simply put, when a client sends a check, it's counted as revenue. When the law firm spends money or a lawyer records time, it's counted as an expense. A lawyer doing work for a client today, and incurring expenses on behalf of that client tomorrow, might not get paid until many months after. At fiscal year end, the firm's total expenses recorded for the year are subtracted from all the revenues collected, and what remains is the firm's annual profit. So revenues associated with a specific matter might fall into next year even though much of the expense was counted this year.

Most companies, however, operate on an accrual accounting basis -- for reporting purposes, revenues and expenses are recorded according to certain trigger events. So the company might sell a product with 12-month payment terms. The entire revenue is "booked" at the time of sale even though the actual cash flows in over a much longer period. This approach allows business leaders to gain insights into financial performance without worrying about timing issues. Of course, in the example above some buyers default so there is a process to reconcile what we booked with what we actually received.

It may also be helpful to understand that good "fiscal health" is often loosely defined as a track record of generating increasing revenues and profits every year, generally without huge peaks or valleys. Many investors like certainty. Of course, business is unpredictable. Higher returns tend to require higher risks. So when investors, or market analysts whose job it is to advise investors, demand consistent performance year in and year out, they often mute the performance of companies that are inclined to gamble less. Many business leaders act conservatively, seeking a predictable annual growth rate rather than making bold bets and possibly generating leaps in income. Investors with a high tolerance for risk expect much bigger bets and much larger returns, and are willing to accept bigger misses. In a law firm setting there are no external institutional investors, but there are partners (who are equity shareholders), staff, potential recruits, clients, and competitors who all serve as stakeholders. Show weakness or fiscal instability and competitors will pounce, clients may hedge their bets by shifting work elsewhere, and lateral recruits with sizable books of business will get cold feet and seek stability elsewhere. So law firm leaders tend to want to project an aura of fiscal stability, of endless, solid, stable growth through good times and bad, regardless of economic or competitive conditions.

Whether a company relies on accrual accounting or a law firm relies on cash accounting, its leaders can be tempted to play with the timing of events to smooth out peaks and valleys. While these leaders may have good intentions, "income smoothing" is, by and large, unethical, and most likely illegal when it reflects a purposeful intent to use creative accounting to present a false picture of financial performance. Studies have also demonstrated that, in the long run, income smoothing negatively impacts performance. I have no particular insight into Dewey's financial performance or accounting practices during the period immediately before its demise, but there are numerous techniques I've observed by other organizations elsewhere that suggest purposeful income smoothing.

Perhaps the law firm has already met its financial targets for its January to December fiscal year and a few more checks arrive in the mail in the final days. If it sits on the checks for a little while before depositing, the revenue is recorded in the following year, giving the firm a headstart. Or perhaps a friendly client will send a check in December with a January date, allowing the firm to record the revenue in one fiscal year but actually cash the check in the following fiscal year. The reverse also happens, a client sends a back-dated check -- it arrives in January with a December date, allowing the firm to pretend the check arrived in time to count in the earlier period. The same can happen with expenses -- making a lease payment early, say paying the December rent on December 1st and the January rent on December 30th, in order to reduce the coming year's expenses.

"But wait," you might say, "If we have extra income and we want to pay the rent early, isn't that a sign of good fiscal health?" Sure, it could be. But when the intent is to specifically disguise actual financial performance and it results in stakeholders making poorly-informed decisions, then it's more nefarious than prudent. Imagine if firm leaders delayed recording fee receipts for a specific partner by ensuring that all expenses are recorded, and accelerates some expenses from January into December, with the net effect negatively impacting the partner's performance metrics so that his colleagues demote him to a lower equity tier and he earns significantly lower compensation. Or imagine that firm leaders offered several compensation guarantees to new lateral recruits but hid this from other partners, disguising these contractual payments as travel expense reimbursements.

You can see that a lack of financial controls can create a slippery slope where even an honest and good-intentioned leader might tweak some figures to address some short-term issue, with the expectation that everything will work out over time and no one will be the wiser. And sometimes it does. But, just as with gambling addicts, sometimes a tweak here or there that doesn't pan out leads to even bigger bets "to get caught up and then I'll stop." That same lack of controls can tempt bad actors into specifically defrauding shareholders and other stakeholders.

Sadly, too many law firm partners aren't given access to detailed firm financial information, or they are too disinterested to request access, or are given access but don't have a clue how to interpret the results. Some have argued that forcing law firms to use the accrual accounting method will help improve transparency -- but this move is not without consequences. Others have argued that law firms, despite being private enterprises, should release periodic public financial reports. One way or another, demystifying law firm finance and perhaps adopting more transparent approaches will serve the profession well. There may not be readily available statistics on how prevalent income smoothing is in law firms. But perhaps all we need is a smell test: Do you know how your firm accounts for revenues and expenses? Do you know if and when and by whom these practices are audited? Do you have absolute faith in your leaders' integrity? Does the position description for firm leadership require finance or accounting training? Are there sufficient fiscal controls in place to prevent one bad actor from wreaking havoc? If you don't know these answers, it doesn't mean there's a problem. It just means you'll be the last to know when there is.

Timothy B. Corcoran is the immediate past President of the Legal Marketing Association and an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments, and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change.  To inquire about his services, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at

Compensation, Billable Hours Limiting Law Firms' Success

Legal Intelligencer reporters Gina Passarella and Hank Grezlak have authored a series of articles on the changing law firm business model and how law firms must adapt to compete. The first article in the series, "Law Firm 3.0: Information Changing Law Firm Models", can be found here. The second, "Compensation, Billable Hours Limiting Firms' Success," can be found here. In this second article I was quoted extensively, so here is some additional context for my comments.


"I don't think that the primary determinant for quality in the past, which has been size, is going to be as much of a factor going forward," according to Timothy Corcoran of Corcoran Consulting Group. He was referring to size of revenue, profits, head count and hours billed. "It is so tied up in everything related to Big Law and yet it is a red herring," Corcoran said. "Most businesses would not equate size with success."

Many law firm management committees and equity partners equate success with size. Bigger is better, in large part because the traditional law firm economic model requires additional timekeepers to grow revenues and profits. Want to make more money? Acquire a firm or a practice or recruit laterals. Want to be considered one of the elite attorneys in town? Establish the highest billable hour rate. Want to secure first place in your preferred ranking? Represent the most clients on the most matters in your chosen specialty. Want to secure front page coverage in the American Lawyer magazine? Secure the highest PPP (profits per partner) in the American Lawyer rankings. Yet few clients claim to value law firm size above all else. Experience matters, of course, and with transaction volume comes experience. But it's not the volume itself that delivers value -- it's the efficiency and predictability and comfort that comes with experience that clients seek.


Corcoran said he knows of partners who could double their books of business but choose not to do so because their firm compensates them for billing hours. The fastest growing segment of Corcoran's practice is compensation redesign, he said. For several years he has worked with firms on project management and alternative fees, but "sooner or later you run into a brick wall. And it's simply that, when you put a lawyer in a position of choosing between his economic self-interest and what is good for the firm on a long-term basis, they will oftentimes choose what benefits them," Corcoran said. He said he doesn't blame the partners for that. "In any business, if you have a compensation plan that is in conflict with your strategy, the compensation plan becomes your strategy," Corcoran said. He said firms can reward hunters and farmers—rainmakers and service partners. But right now, many firms have compensation strategies that are in conflict with the cross-selling initiatives most firms espouse, particularly the focus on origination without accounting for sharing the credit or without a willingness to move credit to a new partner who has taken over the bulk of the work. Corcoran said having different formulas to compensate different behaviors is where firms should go. "That will very likely result in income disparity and that is not, in and of itself, bad," Corcoran said.

Enduring businesses encounter different economic cycles, sometimes simultaneously. Product A is in a mature market with dominant market share, with high prices and high profits, but looming on the horizon are disruptive entrants offering more benefits at a substantially lower cost. Product B competes with a dozen similar offerings and while sales volume is high it offers very slim margins. Product C is a creative new entrant offered at an introductory price and is taking the market by storm, shifting significant market share from long-entrenched and higher-priced competitors. Product D is a luxury product offered in a market with a down economy in all sectors. Product E is a commodity product offered in a boom economy where consumer demand and discretionary spending as at an all-time high. Product F is a high-end product with a very limited addressable market, say multi-billionaires. Now... which one compensation plan can be imposed on all stakeholders -- salespeople, manufacturing, account managers, executives -- that perfectly aligns and drives appropriate behavior so that each product line secures the optimal balance of revenue, profit, and market share?

The corollary to law firms is that most firms rely on one compensation plan that applies equally to all equity partners, regardless of the economic cycle facing individual practices, the varying tenure and experience level of individual partners, or the particular business objectives of the firm this year. Absent a strategic plan and a compensation plan that are inextricably linked, particularly in an organization which retains no earnings, partners are likely to take actions that maximize their short-term income. And who can blame them? Issuing vague platitudes regarding the "firm as a family" culture but only rewarding individual billable hours isn't an indictment of self-serving partners; it's a management failing.


The law firm business model is maturing, with some help from the recession, but is really just facing the same business questions that other industries have already had to answer, Corcoran said. When demand was high, law firms would have a staff that looked like a grocery store with 37 checkout lines open at 2 a.m. even though there were only four shoppers in the store. The idea was firms would be ready for anything, Corcoran said. Law firms can't go to the opposite extreme of a [just-in-time] manufacturing business in which it would take an order and promise delivery in six weeks once it got the proper parts and people in place, he said. But they can rely on a flexible workforce of contract lawyers, legal process outsourcing and other alternative models. The "grocery store" can look like it has 37 lines open at 2 a.m., but the law firm is only paying for five of those cashiers as salaried employees, Corcoran said. "Downsizing isn't a big, traumatic affair," Corcoran said. "Every business on the planet ramps up for an initiative and then moves on [when it's over]. It's perfectly OK to rely on a flexible workforce." That means the number of lawyers on the stable payroll might be smaller, but the size of the overall workforce could fluctuate based on need, he said.

Corporations eschew the carrying cost of under-utilized resources. The reason law departments aren't huge -- and why many that are staffing up today will outsource those jobs under the next leadership regime -- is that the cost of recruiting and maintaining non-core assets presents an opportunity cost to the business. The local grocery store doesn't own apple orchards or cows because it can more efficiently purchase these items wholesale and resell them at a profit. And apple orchards don't rely solely on their own storefronts because they can earn greater profits selling produce to grocery stores. Businesses can hire law firms periodically at a far lower cost than employing a full staff of lawyers in all specialties who stand around waiting to be called. Law firms in turn, are expected to mobilize quickly. Traditionally this meant hiring a large staff of lawyers who scramble to look productive by billing time whenever they answer the phone or review a memo, some of which adds little value to a client matter. So law firms struggle to balance utilization (or how to keep lawyers busy without over-billing clients) and realization (what clients are willing to pay vs. what they've been billed). The most obvious lesson is lost on many law firm leaders: many law firms exist because they represent a good outsourcing opportunity for clients, so a sensible law firm staffing strategy should also rely on outsourcing to minimize carrying costs and provide maximum flexibility. There are many excellent lawyers available!


The fastest way to developing a new law firm model, Corcoran said, is to change compensation plans and not rely so heavily on the billable hour. Corcoran said the billable hour devalues the law firm's contribution far more than it impairs the buyer's ability to buy services. He described it as a "self-imposed [con]straint on revenues and profits. Once firms realize this, they will run from the billable hour," Corcoran said.

I'm surprised this is still a debate. And it is, even by those who should know better. Look, if you want to bill by the hour, go for it. If the services a law firm renders are priced within a range the client has established as tolerable, and the quality is measurably acceptable, then it may not be productive to quibble over the mechanics of the invoice.  But don't be surprised if the client recognizes the inherent conflict of interest, particularly when linked to a compensation system rewarding billable hours, and questions everything. If changing because the clients want you to isn't enough incentive, why not do it because it's a stupid economic model? If my daughter announced an interest in launching a lemonade stand in the front yard and came to me for capital infusion, the first caveat in her business case would likely not be "And I've imposed an absolute ceiling on the revenue I can earn." Yet this is what law firms do by adhering to the billable hour: "We have determined, on January 1st, that our number of timekeepers, multiplied by their respective billing rates, multiplied by the finite number of hours in each workday, will be our absolute cap on revenue. Hopefully we can continually find ways to reduce overhead costs if we wish to pocket more profits, otherwise we're forced to add more timekeepers to bill more hours... even though those timekeepers also come at a high cost."

In business we learn how to make money while we sleep. In many law firms, however, the sleeping is happening behind the wheel. The beauty of AFAs is that once the client agrees to a price, the law firm has every incentive to boost profits by finding lower-cost ways to deliver the same quality outcome, and the client doesn't need to meddle in the production or the invoicing or the staffing or the hours. This is why legal project management and process improvement are, and have always been, far more beneficial to law firms than to the clients.


"Sooner or later, everyone will catch up," Corcoran said. "But right now, those that are really changing, what an opportunity to grow market share."

This, in a nutshell, is the challenge and the opportunity. Clients and laggard competitors are providing the economic catalyst for change, and lessons from other business sectors provide the roadmap for thriving, not just surviving. Yet so many law firm leaders are reluctant to take action. Eventually, the ability for law firm  leaders and individual partners to control their own destiny will diminish. Why not act today?


Timothy B. Corcoran is the immediate past President of the Legal Marketing Association and an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments, and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change.  To inquire about his services, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at

Infighting on Compensation Costs Law Firms Time and Money

Lately I've been spending a substantial amount of time working with law firm leaders on evaluating and redesigning -- yes, substantially rewriting -- partner compensation plans. As with many other categories of the law firm business, for far too long law firms have operated as if practicing law relies on, and generates, human behavior that is not subject to ordinary rewards and incentives found elsewhere. Incentive compensation is an area of significant study in businesses everywhere, yet most law firms have ignored the available research and developed plans that are simultaneously simplistic (focusing on billable hours as the primary objective), complex (requiring significant manual compilation and exhausting negotiations), and ineffective (too few are specifically linked to the firm's strategic plan). I'll be writing much more on this topic in the days ahead as we unwind and reinvent law firm compensation. I'm interested in your views on law firm compensation plans, so feel free to share insights and observations below or connect with me offline. Your insights, whether I agree or not, may be included in future articles. For now, enjoy the recent conversation I had with Lee Pacchia of Mimesis Law WebTV as we discuss how self-generated distractions of poor compensation plans can impair law firm productivity.



Timothy B. Corcoran is the immediate past President of the Legal Marketing Association and an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments, and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change.  To inquire about his services, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at

Solving for Profitability

At a recent collaborative workshop between two camps -- in-house counsel and corporate procurement professionals on one side and and law firm partners, finance and marketing professionals on the other -- we had a lively discussion about law firm profits. Most agreed generally with the view that a law firm has a right to profits, but the challenge arises when a law firm is extraordinarily profitable at the same time the client is extraordinarily unhappy with the value delivered. This scenario, one which resonates with many in-house counsel in recent years, leads to increased price pressure from buyers and over time this will depress law firm profits. Predictably, in an effort to boost sagging profits some short-sighted law firm partners will make up for price pressure from one set of clients by raising prices for others, eroding the price-value connection for even more buyers, and accelerating this decline of profits. One in-house participant declared that he requires all outside counsel to submit profitability data and he'll decide what profit margin is acceptable! We can all empathize with buyers who are dissatisfied with the value received at the prices they pay for goods and services. But it's a stretch for the buyer to explicitly decide what profit the supplier should earn, in any marketplace. So how can a law firm both enjoy a healthy profit and satisfy clients? If we adjust our lens a bit, it's not all that difficult - as with many commercial ecosystems, the pursuit of profit can best be maximized by delighting customers, and not as many assume by having one party win while the other loses.

Long Term vs. Short Term Profitability

Most law firm financial systems are structured to measure short-term profits, that is if there is any measurement structure at all. A surprising number of law firms do not explicitly calculate profitability, and many who do refuse to share these calculations with the partnership out of a misguided concern that it's divisive and corrosive to a collaborative culture. What's more divisive is a culture of not knowing - which naturally leads to most parties making flawed assumptions about their performance relative to their peers. But the root problem is that without a clear understanding of what generates profits and what dilutes profits, no enterprise can sustain itself indefinitely because there will be too many factions working at cross-purposes. When everything supposedly makes money, then nothing makes money. And vice versa.

A focus on short-term profits drives and rewards the wrong behavior. Imagine a partner who sees an opportunity to bill a client $100,000 for a litigation defense matter, when that partner's experience could quite easily lead him to counsel the client that he's better off settling rather than defending, and thereby reducing legal costs by $50,000. Or imagine the partner who pads his own time and allows others to pad their time against the client matter, knowing the client will absorb some or all of these costs without complaint because, after all, "They hired us because we're the best and because we're thorough and they should expect to pay a premium for this."  In reality, clients are rapidly becoming more sophisticated and can incorporate benchmarking data from other matters and other firms to help identify the "right" price for legal services, and increasingly they know when they're being overcharged. This isn't unlike purchasing an automobile a decade and a half ago before ubiquitous internet research, when price shopping was logistically challenging and buyers expected the dealers to take advantage... and they did. When a buyer discovers he's been overcharged, he doesn't return to that merchant.  And therein lies the mathematical basis for focusing on long-term profitability instead of short-term profitability.

A law firm that calculates profitability as a function of maximum hours per engagement will, over time, as sure as the sun rises in the East, eventually experience client defections. Client defections (also known as retention rate) caused by over-emphasizing billable hours lead to three serious financial consequences:  the cost to acquire a new client is far higher than the cost to maintain or expand an existing relationship; the firm will price itself out of competitive bids; and the firm will eschew efficiency and alternative fee arrangements and forgo potentially higher profits associated with these models. Success can't hinge on finding an endless supply of clueless clients, a task that gets harder every day.

If a law firm embraces a model in which long-term profitability is prized above short-term profitability, we will see changes in behavior and reward systems:

  • Matters will be priced more competitively, because the objective is not only to win the work, but to win subsequent work
  • Matters will be delivered efficiently to maintain price competitiveness, and profiting from the learning curve is always more sustainable than profiting from high prices
  • Satisfied clients not only stay longer (leading to higher retention rates), they buy more services (a.k.a. cross-selling, leading to higher penetration rates at a lower cost of sales)
  • Satisfied clients insulate the firm from consequences of lateral partner defections. Even when a key rainmaker or service partner leaves, satisfied clients remain
  • Lateral hires and new offerings measured for their contribution to long-term profitability will insulate the firm from making hasty and dilutive decisions, such as recruiting a lateral partner with an alluring book of billable hours but with high service costs, non-competitive pricing and clients evidently willing to change firms at will
  • Contributions from those involved with delivering high-quality legal services and managing valued client relationships will be more readily recognized, and the emphasis will shift from substantially rewarding origination to rewarding all steps along the supply chain. (Yes, it's hard to win new business, and this is why "hunter" salespeople are often highly-paid individuals in a corporate setting too. But those who make, manage and service the product lines are also essential to the sales and retention process. Missing this point is one of several extraordinary gaps in law firm management science.)

Organizational vs. Matter Profitability

To be clear, if we focus on long-term profitability and ignore the many short-term actions we take day in and day out, it's likely that we'll make many wrong and dilutive decisions.  So there's nothing wrong with measuring profitability on a smaller scale too.  Doing so requires finding the right balance of both big and small factors.  But most law firms measure profitability primarily on the smaller scale.  Organizational profitability is typically the derived sum of individual matter profitability, often clustered within practices whose profit contributions are measured and compared.

Matter profitability, as we've described above, can be influenced by over-pricing.  Is it acceptable if we achieve a 50% profit margin on a $100,000 matter, but in so doing upset and lose the client?  Or is it better to achieve a 35% profit margin on a $50,000 matter, followed by a 35% profit margin on four subsequent matters, each acquired at no cost to the firm because a happy client simply assigned the work?  Similarly, who should earn the higher reward -- the rainmaker who brings in a $100,00 matter at 50% margin that keeps 5 timekeepers at 60% utilization for 3 months, or the rainmaker and timekeepers who convert a $50,000 matter at a 35% margin that keeps 10 timekeepers at 40% utilization for 2 months into four more $50,000 matters, each at a 35% margin and that also keep 10 timekeepers at 40% utilization for 2 months?

I know, I know, the math is getting hard to follow.  The point is, sometimes the math is hard to follow so reducing everything to a single, simple point statistic like billed hours, and then basing all rewards and pricing on this one factor, is foolish.  Running a business is far more complex.  The many variables we've identified already include retention rate, utilization, realization rate, leverage, productivity, penetration rate, cost of sales, cost of goods sold, and more, and this is only a small subset of the variables available to managers who need to make rational decisions about the allocation of resources.

While we're at it, a few quick notes on the mechanics of matter profitability:

  • Matter profitability and even practice group profitability ignores cross-pollination. One of my clients recognized that the Trust & Estates practice generated a significantly lower profit margin per matter than other practices and considered shuttering the practice. However, deeper analysis revealed that T&E clients, many high-net worth individuals like CEOs, were feeders to the firm's other practices, like corporate, securities and litigation. On an isolated basis, the numbers suggest the firm's T&E practice should be closed, or at least starved of resources in order to focus on more lucrative practices. On an aggregate view, however, there may be more investment needed in this feeder practice if this can be done at a lower cost than alternative lead generation activities
  • Matter profitability often provides a false read because of improper allocations. One of the liveliest discussions in any business setting is how to allocate various costs to the business and to the various product lines. In a law firm, we can argue endlessly over whether to allocate costs based on headcount, or on a square foot basis, or on a consumption of resources basis, or other models. In many cases, the final tally isn't all that sensitive to modest tweaks in allocations, but the overriding imperative is to select a model and then stick with it for all, so it provides a sound and sustainable comparative measure
  • Matter profitability shouldn't be diluted by productivity. Matter profitability should balance the revenue generated against the hard costs to deliver the matter, including the compensation associated with the timekeepers billing against the matter. But the compensation should reflect target hours worked by associates, or associate bands. While associates are not truly fungible, in this case we should view their contribution as an interchangeable raw material, so if we replace Mary with Carlton, the underlying cost structure doesn't change. Why? Because if we price our services efficiently based both on our organizational learning curve ("We can complete this task in 5 hours")  and the client's perceived value ("This task is worth $3,500 to me"), then an individual contributor's productivity shouldn't have a material impact on our costs of goods sold. Said another way, clients resist first- and second-year associates working on their matters because of the assumption that associates work inefficiently as they learn their craft. By basing the price on a standard cost, we remove the client's objection.  Some will complain here that more productive associates are penalized because they're placed in a box along with less productive associates.  But productivity is a management issue, not a pricing issue. We don't pay more or less for light bulbs or automobiles or haircuts or vaccinations based on the training level of the person making the product or delivering the service. And legal services shouldn't be priced that way either.
  • Matter profitability shouldn't be diluted by equity and bonus compensation. Partner time can be billed at actual rates rather than a target, if we choose, under the assumption that their variable billing rates already reflect experience and an experienced partner will bill 3 hours at $650 for a task that an inexperienced associate might bill 10 hours at $275. So a pro rata portion of the partner's compensation based on hours billed is a sensible cost to accrue to the matter. But it would be foolish to add in partner equity compensation, or bonuses for either partners or associates, as these costs have nothing at all to do with the matter! In fact, these costs would force the matter profitability to plummet, requiring the firm to significantly increase prices to make it profitable, which as we've described above serves to provoke the opposite effect, namely that no clients will buy any of what the firm is selling. Consider lawyer bonuses and partner equity compensation as SG&A to be addressed elsewhere.

Managing a law firm or a practice group is challenging enough without adding a lot of financial math to the mix. But the reality is that no law firm manager should be operating without a clear sense, or hopefully a directional sense, or at bare minimum a vague idea, of how resource allocation and pricing can influence the financial health of the business. Long-term profitability vs. short-term profitability, matter profitability vs. organizational profitability, allocations and overhead and leverage, oh my. Yes, it's hard. But I'm willing to bet that you have a resource on staff, or a phone call away, who can help you sort through these issues. The key is to establish a consistent approach across the firm based on the ideals of firm management. And these ideals should be established based on a fully-informed view of the alternatives and consequences. Welcome to management. No one said it would be easy.

For more information about the evolving state of law firm pricing, see Toby Brown's excellent "The State of Legal Pricing 2013."


Timothy B. Corcoran delivers keynote presentations and conducts workshops to help lawyers, in-house counsel and legal service providers profit in a time of great change.  To inquire about his services, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at