I Don’t Want to Create a Business Plan!

I get it.  I really do.  They involve work and you’re busy.  And if you’re not trying to sell someone on why they should give you money to start or grow your law practice, why would you bother?

Because, my friends, every once in a while you should be selfish and do something for yourself.

client-meeting-cropped

Six Good Reasons Why Every Lawyer Can Benefit from a Business Plan

Everyone can benefit from the business planning process, especially startups.  But existing businesses need a vision too.  Creating a business plan will give you:

  • Clarity about what you want to do
  • Control over your own fate
  • A strategy for staying organized and on track
  • Accountability
  • A way to measure and monitor your progress
  • A path to help you move forward

For associates in law firms, creating an annual business plan is the only way to build a successful strategy for bringing in business – something all associates are expected to do sooner or later.

For partners, annual business planning is likely to be more about reflection: now that I’m an experienced lawyer with a book of business at XYZ Law Firm what do I want to do? If the answer is: make a lateral move, creating a business plan will likely be required.  If the answer is: something else entirely, then time spent reflecting and planning will help you ferret that out.

Why Lawyers Don’t Write Business Plans

Aside from the obvious excuse that creating a business plan is time consuming, you may also perceive it as too difficult.

But there is an even better reason not to write a business plan.  If you don’t put specific goals and objectives on paper you can’t fail.

Here’s What You’re Really Missing Out On

The problem with avoiding failure is that you also set yourself up not to succeed. And you miss out on the other benefits that go along with creating a business plan.

Create a Direction and Lower Your Stress

When you know what you want to do, where you want to go, and how you’re going to get there (the specific objectives included in your plan), it lowers your stress level. There is no more floundering or misdirection.  Having a plan means you’re back in control.

Doing What You Want to Do For People You Want to Work For Means Reduced Exposure to Liability and Ethics Complaints

There’s a huge difference between practicing door law because you’ve always done it versus purposefully choosing a niche.

The door law route exposes you to greater risk of malpractice claims and ethics complaints.  Keeping up with a few areas of law is hard enough.  Trying to keep up with five or ten is bordering on ridiculous.

Imagine instead that you are working in one area, or a handful of areas, that you know well or can master.  With a focus, you can target clients deliberately and work for a client base that you truly want to represent.

You’ll Also See Gains in Efficiency, Money, and Resources

You are a resource.  Your staff is a resource.  Spend your resources on meaningful, designed goals.  This is what creates efficiency.  And with efficiency you can’t help but save money.  Or at a minimum, experience a better return on your investment.  You know it, you can see it, you can measure it.

Business Plan Checklist and Resources

If I’ve convinced you, contact me.  I’m happy to send along my business plan checklist and a list of resources for creating a plan.  Do what you want to do.  I am.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Setting Your Hourly Rate

Value billing.  The words alone sounded so good in 2000-whatever or 1990-something. But transitioning from concept to reality?  It was never easy and still isn’t.

Keeping it 100

Here’s the reality: everyone who uses flat fees or AFA/hybrid fee arrangements referenced or started with an hourly rate.  That’s the math, folks.  Unless you’re a 100% contingent fee lawyer who never intends to change practice areas, you need to have a sense of how to price your services on an hourly basis.  Here’s how to go about it.

The Anecdotal Approach to Pricing

We could also call this: “If Susan down the street charges $200 per hour, so should I.”

If you’re basing your hourly rate on what one, two, or a handful of other lawyers are charging, your sample group is too small.  Period.

I’m not saying don’t gather anecdotal data.  It can be informative.  Most of us can learn a lot from talking to colleagues or mentors about pricing and billing practices, especially if we’re new to an area.  But anecdotal data needs to be balanced with something more.

Use the Data the Bar Gave You

Every five years the Oregon State Bar conducts an economic survey.  If the bar adheres to its quinquennial pattern, the next survey will occur in 2017.  For now, use the 2012 survey. The important data on billing practices begins on page 29, “Hourly Billing Rate by Total Years Admitted to Practice,” reported by years of practice and geographic region. To use this data effectively, find where you fit based on years admitted to practice and area(s) of law, then scroll over to your region of the state.

Billable Rates by Years of Experience: Lawyers Admitted 0-3 Years

  • In 2012, the lowest hourly rate billed by this group was $113 in the lower valley versus a high of $246 per hour in Portland.
  • Statewide, lawyers admitted 0-3 years billed an average of $156 per hour.
  • While there are a few geographic blips here and there, the data bears out what common sense would predict: the longer you practice, the higher your billable rate.

Next, jump ahead to page 31, “Hourly Billing Rate by Area of Practice.”  Find your area(s) of law, then locate the rates for your region of the state.

Billable Rates by Areas of Law

  • The average hourly billing rates ranged from a low of $190 per hour for civil litigation-insurance defense to a high of $291 for civil litigation-defendant (not including insurance defense).
  • Other statewide average rates were:  Bankruptcy $269, Criminal $214, Family Law $214, Real Estate/Land Use/Environmental $283, Tax/Estate Planning $239.

Keep on Keeping On With the Law of Averages

Once you know the average hourly rate based on years of admission and area(s) of law, tally the rates and take the average again.  Once you know this number, feel free to reflect back on the anecdotal data you gathered.  If your anecdotal data differs wildly from what the survey says, go with the survey.  Use this hourly rate when calculating flat fee and hybrid fee arrangements.

Cultivate Confidence

Some lawyers low ball their rate because they don’t feel they can charge “what the survey says.”  Newer lawyers often fall into this category.  But perspective is everything: if you did the same work as an associate for a firm, rest assured they would bill clients in the average to high ranges documented by the bar.  Why, intrinsically, should your rate as a solo be any lower?

Nonetheless, part of the process of setting your rate is finding a comfort zone for what you charge.  If you can’t quite stomach the average and need to take it down a tick or two, I respect that decision [even though I may try to talk you out of it].

Either way, you must be able to face potential clients and communicate your rate in a matter-of-fact, businesslike, manner – with confidence and without hesitation.

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]

 

 

 

The 5 Rules of Alternative Fee Arrangements

Call it an alternative fee agreement (AFA) or a hybrid fee agreement (HFA).  Lawyers are looking for creative ways to appeal to clients who are resisting the traditional hourly rate approach.

In this classic reboot, we examine AFA and HFA options and how you can ethically deploy them in your firm.money-tree

Employment Law HFA

Consider the employment law case that is less than a slam dunk.  You could put in many hours only to see no fee. Ah, the life of a contingent fee practitioner.

Or is it?  One creative lawyer decided to offer his client a hybrid fee arrangement: a reduced hourly rate of $100 per hour with a 25% contingent kicker in the event of a recovery. (Lower than the “going” contingent rate of 33%.)  If the client agrees, and your fee agreement passes the test below, there is nothing wrong with such an arrangement.

Family Law HFA

Among family law practitioners – who are forbidden to take a contingent fee – a popular hybrid fee arrangement incorporates a flat fee earned upon receipt with an hourly rate that kicks in at a specific stage. The flat fee compensates the lawyer for work done in the early stages of a case: initial consultation; file opening; drafting and finalizing the Petition for Dissolution (or preparing a response); serving the opposing party; drafting and serving the first request for production of documents.  The flat fee could encompass additional services – each lawyer can determine where the cut-off should be – but charging a flat fee for time spent from the first consultation through initial discovery is predictable and easy to do.  Again, if the client agrees and your fee agreement passes the test below, this is a perfectly fine arrangement.

Does your HFA or AFA Pass the Test?

To create an ethical alternative fee arrangement, apply the rule of the 5 “C’s:”

  • Clarity
  • Completeness
  • Compliant
  • Common sense
  • Can’t be excessive

Clarity

If a fee agreement is ambiguous, it must be construed against the lawyer. Cf. OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-15.” Oregon State Bar (OSB) Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-124.

If you decide to experiment with your fee agreements, strive to be as clear as possible.  With the employment law scenario, the main challenge is the math.  Conceptually the idea is pretty clear.  With the family law scenario, the number one problem is failing to explain what the client is “buying” with the initial flat fee earned upon receipt.  Just how far does the $1,000 initial payment go and when does the $200 per hour rate kick in?

Completeness

Consider all possibilities.  A good example in the employment law context: if you have the right to recover attorneys fees, address this in your agreement.  See OSB Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-69  [Attorney fee awards are the property of the client unless “the terms of the fee agreement expressly provided that Lawyer was entitled to the greater of the fee computed thereunder or the court-awarded amount.”]

Fee agreements should address all conceivable outcomes.

Compliant

May I also suggest reviewing this excellent article: Helen Hierschbiel, “Alternative Pricing Models: What’s in a Fee?,” Oregon State Bar Bulletin (November 2011).  Practice Tip: flat fee earned upon receipt fee agreements must include special “disclosure” language set out in Oregon RPC 1.5.

Common Sense

Don’t torture yourself or the client trying to figure out the math of your hybrid fee agreement.  Once you’ve developed a sample, run it by your next door neighbor or another lay person.  Ideally, run it by several nonlawyer friends.  Does it make sense to them?  If not, go back to the drawing board.  Remember: “If a fee agreement is ambiguous, it must be construed against the lawyer. Cf. OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-15.” Oregon State Bar (OSB) Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-124.

Can’t be Excessive

“The Oregon State Bar Legal Ethics Committee has also said that split contingent/hourly fee agreements do not automatically violate the rules of professional conduct. See OSB Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-54. However, the committee cautions lawyers that a fee that appears to be lawful at the outset, may turn out to be clearly excessive in the end….” Helen Hierschbiel, “Alternative Pricing Models: What’s in a Fee?,” Oregon State Bar Bulletin (November 2011).

All fees are subject to a look-back at the end of the case. The employment law HFA is more likely to be challenged than the family law HFA.  In the employment law scenario, tabulate the total hourly fees charged to the client and your contingent fee share of the recovery.  Add the two together.  Do these exceed the standard contingent rate of one-third?  If they do, you may be on perilous ground. Helen’s article, Alternative Pricing Models: What’s in a Fee? discusses all the factors that go into gauging the reasonableness of a fee.

Parting Thoughts

Developing alternative fee agreements that are ethically compliant and legally enforceable can be done – don’t get discouraged.  Check out the ABA book: Alternative Fees for Business Lawyers and Their ClientsIf you are an Oregon lawyer but do not belong to the ABA, use the Professional Liability Fund discount code at checkout to save money: OSBPLF.

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]

Postscript

Thanks for joining me during Finance Month.  March will begin with two posts on technology.

The Year in Review – Top Posts in 2015

Thank you loyal readers!  As 2015 comes to a close, here is a look back at the year’s top posts:

Working Effectively – Time Management, Staffing

File Management – What to Keep, What Not to Keep

Marketing, Business Development, and the Attorney-Client Relationship

eCourt

Fees – Getting Paid, Finances, Credit Cards, Trust Accounting

Security

Technology – Macs, TECHSHOW, Office 2016, Windows 10, Paperless, and More

Potpourri

[All Rights Reserved 2015 – Beverly Michaelis]