New Law Firm Survey: A Consensus on Change

Newtown Square, PA, June 22, 2010 – The newly released Altman Weil Flash Survey, Law Firms in Transition 2010 found a clear consensus emerging among US law firms on changes in the profession.  Over 75% of firms surveyed indicate that they believe that more price competition, more non-hourly billing and the use of project management to improve efficiency of service delivery will be permanent changes in the legal landscape.

“The primary impact on law firms of the recent recession will be a greater focus on efficiency and productivity driven by client demands for cost control,” said Altman Weil principal Tom Clay.  “But most firms are still in the early stages of figuring out how to successfully institutionalize those changes in their organizations.”

The majority of law firms do not expect the changes to negatively affect their bottom line.  In fact, only 27% of those surveyed believe that lower profits per partner will result.

Non-Hourly Billing
The survey reports that 94.5% of law firms offer some alternative fee arrangements (AFAs), and all firms with 150 or more lawyers do so.  The majority of firms indicate that their use of AFAs is primarily in response to client requests, rather than as a proactive strategy.  Additionally, half of all firms say their fee arrangements are either less profitable than matters billed hourly, or they’re not sure how they compare.

When asked about tactics employed to implement AFA programs in their law firms, 80% report they require centralized approval for AFAs; 61% use cost analysis to determine fee structures, and 45% have AFA Committees.   However, less than a third of firms track profitability outcomes, feature fee options in marketing communications, provide project management training, or set annual targets for AFAs.

“We’re seeing some systemization, especially in larger firms, but there is a long way to go before alternative fee programs are business-focused and profit-driven rather than being seen as concessions to clients,” Clay said.

Lawyer Staffing Structures
Partnership in US law firms is now harder to attain and will remain so according to the survey.  Nearly 40% of firms made fewer partnership offers in 2009, and 50% indicated that they will or might do so in 2010.  Over a quarter of all law firms reported de-equitizing partners in 2009 and 37% will or might do so this year. An additional 14% extended the partnership track last year and 20% will or might do so in 2010.  The majority of firms expect each of these trends to be permanent going forward.

“This is a key element in the changing equation of law firm finance,” Clay explained.  “Firms will maintain their profits per partner, in large part, by managing the number of partners they admit.”

The short term outlook for associates is not bright.  Sixty four percent of firms reported shrinking their summer programs in 2009 and 54% anticipate doing the same in 2010.  Just over half of all firms reduced or discontinued hiring first year associates last year, and 38% will do the same this year.  Longer term, firms are uncertain of associates’ fate.  While 42% predict that smaller first year classes will be a permanent phenomenon, 45% expect the opposite.  And only 32% predict that associate salary reductions will continue in future.

When asked about other staffing alternatives, firms expressed a growing enthusiasm for contract lawyers.  In 2009, 39% of law firms reported using contract lawyers.  In 2010, 53% will or might do so; and 52% expect that contract lawyers will become a permanent part of their staffing plans. 

By contrast, less than 10% of firms outsourced or offshored legal work in 2009 or plan to do so in 2010.  Only 28% of law firms expect outsourcing of legal work to be permanently adopted in the future, and 22% expect the same for offshoring.

“Despite the potential for cost savings, law firms remain highly skeptical of outsourcing and offshoring and will likely only adopt them when pushed by clients to do so,” Clay commented.  “This is the same scenario we’ve seen with alternative fees.”

Workforce Reductions
Law firms cut personnel from the bottom up in 2009.  Sixty-seven percent of law firms made cuts in support staff; 43% cut paralegals and 44% cut associates.  By contrast, only 25% cut equity partners and 26% cut non-equity partners from their ranks.

We have not seen the end of personnel cuts, according to the survey, but they will be more limited in 2010.  Support staff is still a target, as are non-equity partners. 

While making cuts, firms are also planning growth.  Half of all firms indicated they will be more aggressive in increasing lawyer headcount in 2010.  The overwhelming strategy of choice for growth is acquisition of laterals followed by the acquisition of groups. 

“Many firms see acquiring laterals as a way to buy new clients and increase the top line without raising rates,” said Clay.  “But as many as half of all lateral acquisitions fail to fulfill expectations because they are not strategically planned or well executed.”

Financial Performance
Despite the difficult economy, slightly more firms had revenue gains than losses in 2009.  Forty-six percent of firms reported increases in gross revenue; 44% reported decreases; and, 10% had no change from the prior year.  Revenue per lawyer was also up in 47% of law firms in 2009. Profits per equity partner (PPEP) increased in 56% of firms. 

PPEP increases were driven by cuts in overhead costs in 69% of law firms which were primarily cuts of personnel.  Forty two percent of firms cut costs by more than 4% and an additional 27% cut costs by 1% to 4%.  

Law firms raised their standard hourly billing rates in 2010.  The median increase is 3% according to the survey, closely aligned with the 2010 US rate of inflation, currently reported at 2.2% 

The Full Survey
Conducted in April and May of 2010, the survey polled Managing Partners and Chairs at 787 US law firms with 50 or more lawyers.  Completed surveys were received from 218 firms (28%), including 38% of the 250 largest US law firms.

The full survey is available online to download at: www.altmanweil.com/LFiT2010.

About Altman Weil
Founded in 1970, Altman Weil, Inc. is dedicated exclusively to the legal profession.  It provides management consulting services to law firms, law departments and legal vendors worldwide.   The firm is independently owned by its professional consultants, who have backgrounds in law, industry, finance, marketing, administration and government.   More information on Altman Weil can be found at www.altmanweil.com.

Contact Information

Thomas S. Clay
Altman Weil, Inc.
(610) 886-2015
tsclay@altmanweil.com

Download the full survey.

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