Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. This week, we look at how law firms turned to a routine business process to boost business during the pandemic. Sign up to receive this column in your inbox on Thursday mornings.
When the pandemic first sent lawyers to their home offices in March, Bob Bratt wanted to know as quickly as possible what kind of problem it could present for DLA Piper’s business. The best place the firm’s chief operating officer knew to look was lawyers’ time sheets.
But those are only helpful when filed promptly—and harried lawyers are infamous for pushing tedious business basics to the back burner.
So Bratt pushed the message through partners and management: fill out your time sheets as quickly as possible. He explained that the mundane paperwork is crucial in a business where time is money, especially during a crisis in which every penny counts. Getting money in the door saves on borrowing costs, limits write-offs from clients, and prevents “slippage”—the time lawyers forget they worked. Getting the basics right could save jobs.
“Managing the business at a tighter level and more proactively is where the real focus is for me, and it always has been,” Bratt said. “But the pandemic made it so people are listening now.”
After nearly nine months of staying on top of the bills, Bratt expects DLA Piper will be among the firms to experience growth this year. His story highlights an unexpected, easily overlooked strategy for law firm management during the pandemic: convincing lawyers to enter time and send bills out more efficiently.
Through three quarters this year, firms have booked revenue growth of more than 5% on average, according to two reports released this week from major banking groups in the industry. It’s a drastic turnaround from expectations back in March, when firm management was having nightmares about a 15% drop in revenue.
Joe Mendola, senior director of sales for Wells Fargo Private Bank Legal Specialty Group, said he expects law firms’ full-year revenue growth will come in between 4% to 5% and net income will be up by double-digits, buoyed by drastic expense cutting. He called the figures “mind-boggling.”
“The industry certainly has shown evidence of adaptability in a year like this,” Mendola said.
Those same reports highlight how an intense focus on building more efficient billing and collections processes helped firms prevent dire predictions from becoming realities.
Gross realization—the percentage of hours billed that the firm collects—stayed flat at 70% compared to last year, Wells Fargo’s third quarter report said. The researchers noted that figure would have decreased without an “intense focus” on billing and collections processes.
Fearing clients wouldn’t pay their bills, firms made new guidelines or enforced long-existing ones, said Gretta Rusanow, leader of Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group Advisory team.
Enter your time every day. Review it weekly. Send out bills as frequently as possible. Pick up the phone when they’re not being paid. Those tactics were a “primary driver” of revenue growth, Citi’s report said.
“It is that concern about liquidity and getting clients to pay bills that drove this shift in behavior,” Rusanow said. “It is one of the most critical trends we have seen emerge this year.”
Technology also played a role. Firms that had previously managed their billing and collections processes manually were forced to go digital with their workforces remote.
“We went from [timesheets] that wound up in inboxes to edit to doing it remotely and implementing a new, electronic billing system,” said Venable chairman Stu Ingis. “That has been just as a matter of necessity, not necessarily a matter of success. And I think we were able to make that transition quite smoothly.”
Getting management involved in collections efforts can be a delicate task. Partners are protective of clients and can feel uncomfortable with a third-party interfering to ask about money.
Detroit-based AmLaw 200 firm Dickinson Wright implemented a new collections program about two years ago that included collections outreach from an outsourced provider, said CEO Michael Hammer. There was a learning curve for partners, he said.
“We’re not taking control of their clients. We’d prefer not to get involved because everything is paid on terms,” he said. “You get pushback on occasion, but our partners are very good at recognizing when you’re having success in the results, and we are having great success in the results.”
The focus on collections always ramps up at the end of the year, and this year will be no different. Experts and law firm leaders were mixed on what to expect for this collections season.
There is some concern that collections success throughout the year means there will be less to bring in during the fourth quarter. Law firm inventory, the amount of uncollected bills, grew 7.4% at the end of the third quarter, Citi’s survey said, suggesting a strong collections season.
For firms that have yet to implement daily or weekly mandates for lawyers to enter time, DLA Piper’s Bratt said he suggests staying away from disciplinary approaches. It’s all about asking the right way.
“Say pretty please,” Bratt said.
Worth Your Time
On Boies Schiller: The law firms’ co-managing partner, Nick Gravante, departed for Cadwalader, adding a new layer of uncertainty to a firm that has seen dozens of partners leave this year. Gravante, for his part, had said most of those exits were planned. Meanwhile, the size of the firm’s federal coronavirus relief loan was disclosed this week to be $10 million.
On WilmerHale: It was a busy week for the firm’s Washington office, which saw financial institutions chair Reginald “Reg” Brown depart for Kirkland & Ellis before welcoming back Boyd Johnson, who had served as general counsel for George Soros’ investment firm.
On Big Law Investments: Two Big Law firms opened an office in Chicago this week, defying the industry’s season of austerity and signaling firms may be more confident making investments in 2021.
On In-House Moves: Stock-trading-for-millennials company Robinhood Markets Inc. has hired lawyers from Wells Fargo & Co, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and TD Ameritrade Holding Corp., my colleague Brian Baxter reports.
That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.