The new price wars

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Their World Series victory last fall wasn’t the only surprise the San Francisco Giants sprang on the baseball establishment. Throughout the 2010 season, the team engaged in “dynamic pricing,” changing the price of single-game tickets according to demand. The same seat for a Monday night yawnfest in May against the Washington Nationals, for example, would be priced well below a Friday night game down the stretch in September with the L.A. Dodgers. The new system, which reflects the ancient marketplace rule that demand drives price, produced a 6% revenue increase throughout the season and is expected to spread throughout not just MLB, but also the NBA and NHL in short order.

The Giants’ approach will sound familiar to anyone who grew up, as I did, in the era of “cheap night” at the movies, wherein ticket prices for Tuesday night showings were less than half those of other nights. The theaters, normally all but deserted on Tuesdays, were instead always full. Given that cinema owners make most of their money off concession sales, I imagine that “cheap Tuesdays” were immensely profitable. But as Malcolm Gladwell observed in The Tipping Point, theaters could actually go farther and change the price of individual movies according to their popularity, much as the Giants are doing with their game tickets: charge more for The King’s Speech and less (much less) for Yogi Bear.

There’s a reason why price tags are printed on cheap stickers, easily applied and frequently changed. Price is not carved in stone; it’s elastic, a function of supply and demand. This is true even in the law: it’s the rare lawyer who has never offered a discount on his or her hourly rate to win a client engagement. But rate discounts are about as radical as law firms have ever gotten with price. For most lawyers, fixing a price in advance of providing the service is anathema, and adjusting that fixed price according to a set of evolving criteria is farther beyond the pale again. But I think that’s about to change.

What got me thinking in this direction were reports this week that henceforth, DLA Piper (the newest holder of the “world’s biggest firm” title) was instituting minimum purchase levels for its clients. DLA’s US offices are said to be mandating an entry-level threshold of $200,000 a year for all new clients, while DLA International will set the amounts at €25,000 for new clients that don’t pose a potential conflict and €100,000 for those that do. The reasons, as explained in an excellent post by Financial Times GC Tim Bratton, are interesting: the firm wants lawyers to consider the firm’s strategic priorities more than their own; it wants to reduce the size of “conflict shadows” cast by smaller clients; and it wants to reduce the administrative cost of dealing with so many matters. Essentially, the firm wants many fewer, and much bigger, clients.

Some of my friends in the blawgosphere have called this a “cover charge,” but I don’t think that’s exactly the right analogy. A cover charge is an amount everyone pays at the entrance to ensure that no matter how little you spend upon entering, the proprietor will still turn a profit. DLA Piper, by contrast, is hiring a large, heavily muscled man to stand at the front door and admit only those customers who are guaranteed to spend enough to produce a profit. They’re pre-screening their clients for wealth, much as a legal aid clinic pre-screens its clients for poverty.

It might not win any points for populism, and there are serious implications for current and future partners. But as a strategic execution, as a profitability measure, and as a clear marketplace signal about which clients it desires, it’s brilliant: as Ron Friedmann notes, “it’s about making a conscious decision about your business, your costs, and your market position,” something few firms do. And in its own way, it’s an example of pricing innovation that other firms should follow.

I’ve written before about how the maxim “Don’t compete on price” has limited value in a highly competitive, price-sensitive market. Law didn’t use to be one of those markets; it is now, and some degree of price competition is becoming inevitable. But “competing on price” doesn’t have to mean getting involved in a downward-spiraling price war. As DLA Piper has demonstrated, you can compete on price upwards, setting floors rather than ceilings on how much you charge. For that matter, you can compete on price sideways, diagonally, and inside out through the fourth dimension if you like. You can make price a market differentiator simply by being creative and gutsy.

Examples are already abounding. Carolyn Elefant suggests that DLA Piper might effectively “offer $300,000 worth of service to clients who are willing to lock in and pre-pay the $200,000 minimum. Between the cash-flow benefit of receiving $200,000 up front and use of offshoring or second-tier contract lawyers in house, DLA Piper could still earn a decent profit, even while providing a ‘volume discount.” John Wallbillich at The Wired GC goes further: “What about a firm that does $1 million plus for a client not charging for telephone consultations with a defined number of client in-house counsel? Or provide access to part of a firm’s form files or knowledge management repository? How about a 3+ year associate on-site, gratis, for clients spending more than $5 million?”

Here are some more possibilities that law firms should mull over.

1. Charge like an airline. Some client matters are utterly routine, some are high priority, and some are absolutely urgent; but most lawyers tend to price solutions to each type of matter the same. Airlines thrive, even in a cutthroat marketplace, by charging you more for a ticket tomorrow than for one in three weeks’ time. What’s to stop a law firm from saying to client with an urgent problem: “To get this done tomorrow, we’ll need to drop everything else we’re doing and work on it for the next 24 hours; that’s a lost opportunity cost for us that will be reflected in a higher price.” Or conversely: “This is a low priority for you and can be done at a fairly leisurely pace by us; we’ll chop 30% off our regular price to reflect those facts.” Clients might not like the former treatment, but they’d understand it and probably accept it; they would love, and remember, the latter treatment.

2. Charge like a cellphone company. A dangerous comparison, to be sure, since many cellphone contracts epitomize the concept of gouging. But I mean this in the sense that many companies will discount the price of a cellphone itself, all the way up to 100%, if you subscribe to the connection service and payment plan. What would a law firm give a client for free in return for the guarantee of a fixed (and pre-paid) monthly fee over a two-year period? Maybe ten hours a month of a designated senior associate or junior partner’s time, no bills, no disbursements; maybe access to multi-jurisdictional regulatory compliance status updates; maybe an emergency “hot line” number that would put the client directly in touch with a responsible firm representative 24 hours a day. It would essentially be the freemium model applied to law.

3. Charge like a partner in a relationship. Seth Godin points out the cognitive dissonance by which many companies give their best rates to their worst customers: the difficult, the demanding, the frequent switchers. Similarly, their most loyal and enthusiastic customers are taken for granted and are charged accordingly. My Edge colleague Ed Wesemann has noted the same problem in law firms: discounts are offered to entice new business, but if the one-time client comes aboard and stays aboard, its rates soon go up and it’s relegated to the same “standard” treatment as the firm’s other “best” clients. Reward your best clients, give them discounts and freebies without being asked, simply to say thank you for being your relationship partner. As Seth puts it: make your best customers into your best marketers.

Lawyers resist change in many aspects of their work, but most of all in pricing: they try to pass all the risk of price miscalculation onto the client, a goal that the billable-hour system fulfills perfectly. Mature markets, however, allow (if not demand) more sophisticated pricing in which both the buyer and the seller accept some risk as a justifiable sacrifice to the greater goal of a stable, mutually beneficial relationship. DLA Piper is taking a risk with this new client minimum scheme, because it has both upside and downside: good for them, no matter how it works out.

Price is a conversation, not a command; it’s a journey rather than a destination. Lawyers with the wisdom to recognize that, and the courage to be flexible and creative in response, will emerge the winners from the new price wars that look poised to begin.

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