Benchmarking builds firm foundations
by Chris Marston, chief executive of LawNet
Originally published in Solicitors Journal, December 2019
January may be the traditional time to set ambitions for the year ahead but supporting the firms in our member-owned network with a future-focused toolkit is top of my list all year round.
Our latest data shows that the top priority for our firms in 2020 will be to streamline their processes to maximise efficiency, closely followed by management of staff performance and cash flow. If you know what you need to target you can act but often identifying what needs to be tackled is the first and biggest challenge.
Most law firm leaders are keen to understand how their firm is performing, and when the end of year accounts are reviewed, comparisons will be made against the previous year’s outcomes and the budget that was set for the year. If the firm has articulated its medium-term strategic objectives, then it will be possible also to assess what progress is being made towards those goals.
So far, so good. But to ensure the business performs as strongly as it can, firms need to understand how they shape up in terms of the trends and the sector generally. As Chris Murratt, chief executive of Actons, our LawNet member firm in Nottingham, explains: “It is important that performance is not viewed in isolation. You might have had a very good year, but if everyone else had the same increase in profit then you have not exceeded the market, you’ve just kept up.”
This is where benchmarking comes into play, enabling you to move from inward-looking assessments to being able to judge how your firm stands in the sector at large and using this to focus attention and drive action in key areas.
We see the value of this sort of holistic approach within our LawNet membership. Each year, members are asked a range of questions covering financial performance, people structure, financing and practice management in our annual benchmarking survey. This is undertaken independently by the specialist legal team at chartered accountants and business advisers PKF Francis Clark, who merge the resulting information with data they collect from the wider UK legal sector. This enables firms to compare their own performance with others in the member network and beyond. To complete the circle, this knowledge is used to support firms in developing future strategy.
The value of such an approach is endorsed by Chris Murratt: “We look at all the national surveys to get as big a picture as possible, all of which provide valuable intelligence, but with the network’s research the raw data is translated through an interactive process. We receive personalised reports and have a group session to review the findings, with practical support on how to tackle the key issues. This makes all the difference in how we can use the knowledge to drive the business forward.”
This is borne out in network performance figures. Partner Andrew Allen leads the legal sector team at PKF Francis Clark explains and he explains: “Benchmarking can help firms to see trends when results are based on reliable data that is relevant to a firm’s profile, but the biggest value comes through structured follow through, where the knowledge is used to focus on improving future financial strategic thinking and planning.
“Results from this year’s LawNet benchmarking reflect overall financial performance ahead of UK-wide law firm averages, with strong results in fee income growth. Alongside, people costs have reduced, where many firms in the sector have been struggling against increases in this area combined with productivity declines.”
Not all firms can access individual guidance from sector experts like Andrew, but studying the results of sector-wide research to undertake your own comparative study and discussing this with your accountants is valuable. Even the act of seeing what analytics are needed to answer all the questions can be informative. If it’s on the list then it is something that forward-focused firms are acting upon – so if you’re not measuring it, you can’t compete or improve on it.
In terms of what is measured, professional services businesses like to talk about PEP - profit per equity partner - and that’s certainly the most commonly quoted ratio among the top City firms. However, there are plenty of other areas worthy of examination, where even marginal gains can transform performance in a surprisingly short time span. The most important metrics concern profit and cash – without these any business is heading for extinction – but efficiency measures and utilisation of human and other resources are equally important. Our surveying is broken down into five key areas: income, people, expenses, profit and working capital and compare the figures year on year.
Historical data can help shine a light on areas that might otherwise pass unnoticed. As David Snodgrass, finance director of East Anglian LawNet firm Ward Gethin Archer, says: “Taking part year-on-year gives an opportunity to see where things are changing, positively or negatively. Being able to track against comparable firms is also useful as we are often in the upper quartile of firms of our size, so if we are not performing at that level in a particular category we will investigate to understand why.”
Our survey comprises a relatively small sample group, but our member firms share a commonality that may be missing in the bigger surveys, such as the NatWest and Law Society reporting, while benefiting from the comparative data of the bigger picture of the UK sector that PKF-Francis Clark bring. As David Snodgrass says: “Having a group of like-minded law firms to compare ourselves against makes it more relevant than some other financial surveys.”
But while figures provide a baseline, whatever the source of the data being considered, firms need to interpret this against their own profile and customer base.
As David continues: “Our spend on marketing has been much lower than the average LawNet firm which prompted us to consider increasing spend, but we were cautious about taking action without a strong sense of what we were going to achieve. We spent time reviewing the services we wanted to promote and in what locations, and then launched targeted campaigns to increase awareness of our brand and services.”
Alongside the statistical data we collect, participants are asked to name their key challenges for the future, with the resulting anecdotal information collated into rankings and compared with the sector overall. This is invaluable in guiding our network programme of practice support for the coming year, as well as helping firms identify trends for focused action. As Chris Murratt explains: “Knowing that others were struggling with recruitment in recent years helped provide reassurance of our own experience and supported our decision to allocate extra expenditure to tackle the problem, with success.”
Recruitment was the top priority across the network for a number of years, but in the latest statistics we have seen headcount growth stabilising and a reduction in recruitment fee expenditure, except in a couple of areas such as private client teams and certain areas of litigation.
So where are sharp eyes setting their sights for the coming year? As Andrew Allen comments: “The results are interesting and certainly reflect our broader experience of a shift in the focus of firms towards process improvement. It’s about getting the engine working better.”
Productivity and efficiency
With efficiency and productivity having a prominent focus in many firms, we have seen investment of management time looking at factors such as time capture, matter process management and client management training for fee earners. Firms are revising the shape of management information and how they monitor KPIs. The end game is increased gross margin.
People costs in relation to fee income is a core measure of productivity for law firms and a primary indicator of profitability, so it is important to assess where you stand on salary costs as a percentage of fees. Across the sector this is generally between 45 and 55 per cent, and it is useful to extend that to include notional salaries for equity partners, for which the sector is reporting in the order of 55 to 65 per cent.
Fee income per fee earner is one of the most crucial financial KPIs for law firms. It is a key measure of productivity and small improvements can make a significant different to PEP in an average partner structure. It can be affected not only by the size of the firm and its geographical location, but also by the types of work undertaken, so looking at productivity by department is a useful drilldown exercise.
The other factor which has a significant influence on PEP is the employee/partner mix. In general, a law firm with higher ratio of fee earners to equity partners will generate stronger profits. As with fee income per fee earner, it is useful to drill down to department level. Are there more fee earners per equity partner in different work types? Certainly, that is usually the case and may influence where future growth is targeted.
The ratio of support staff to fee earners is another important aspect of profitability and the extent to which support staff enable fee earners to focus on fee earning can be crucial. Generally, we are seeing incrementally fewer support staff in traditional roles within firms, and as IT investment continues it is likely that numbers will further reduce over time. However, many firms are already finding that such roles are being replaced by specialists, such as marketing, HR or software programmers.
We are seeing higher tech spend across the network. More complicated systems require specialists to operate and develop them, as well as new hardware and software such as PMS, client portals and time capture. Generally, there is a correlation between tech investment and PEP growth.
The other priority we are seeing is cash management. Many law firms have been reporting cash reductions, leading to a review of external debt and capital funding arrangements. This is due to factors such as retiring capital funding partners, variable financial performance and increased capital and overhead investment.
Together with increasing volatility in activity levels and general economic uncertainty, it is important for firms to keep control of lock up and avoid additional stress on cashflow.
We’ve seen impressive progress on lock up across our member firms in recent years, such that they are recording better rates than the sector generally, but there is never room for complacency and all firms need to monitor this carefully, as even a small drift can generate a considerable cash funding burden. For example, an extra 11 days of lock up in a £5million turnover firm would effectively require a further £150,000 of cash funding.
Lock up is correlated with the mix of work undertaken by firms, so should be assessed with that in mind. Some departments may have cases that take a long time before they reach the point of billing, such as personal injury, and it’s important to factor that in when comparing your position.
That personalisation is an important takeaway - comparative data can be a valuable tool in driving strategic development, but it needs to be relevant to your firm. There may be a commonality with those taking part, as is the case with our discrete member group, but drilling down to find the detail that matches your profile is essential.
One thing we can be sure of as we enter 2020 is continued economic uncertainty, making strong strategic planning and detailed financial awareness even more important. Taking time to compare your performance and to identify the trends that will have most impact on your firm, as the foundation of business planning this year, will stand you and the sector in good stead.
LawNet’s benchmarking research is conducted independently by PKF Francis Clark and reflects data from LawNet members at Q3/2019 together with insights into the overall UK legal sector from the same period compiled by PKF Francis Clark.
Key questions to ask in 2020
What time recording controls are in place to measure and maximise fee earner productivity?
Are your fee earners accountable for their daily chargeable hours and their recovery rate?
Do you ensure the right staff are doing the right elements of client work in terms of appropriate skills and costs, whether fee earners or support staff?
Do you include people structure in your business plan with specific actions set over time to achieve goals and improve productivity?
Do you quantify and measure the effectiveness of fee earners in marketing and business development and are the right people undertaking these activities?
Is investment in IT within your firm strategic or functional and will investment improve your services to clients, create touch points with clients or improve your efficiency?
What is the key factor restricting PEP in your firm and what single action is most likely to make an improvement to this position?
Is there a strategy for PEP to attract future incoming partners to your business and to secure long-term business value on succession?
Is the bill payment profile considered and negotiated with clients as part of the pricing process at the outset?
Do your fee earners have targets in respect of lock up levels and age?