The evolution of outsourcing

Still in its relative infancy, legal process outsourcing has already had a huge impact on the legal services marketplace: scoring major deals with the likes of Microsoft and Rio Tinto, garnering the attention of private-equity investors, and helping to expose the degree to which law firms have overcharged for the simplest legal work, among other accomplishments. But this impact has set off two important chains of events. The first affects LPOs themselves: they now need to move their value proposition beyond cost savings in a market they helped to make more sophisticated. The second affects everyone: the legal profession’s response to LPO is having an unexpected effect on how legal work is distributed and how legal resources are allocated.

The first development is summed up in a question framed by an LPO Savvy blog post: what does LPO do for an encore? It’s not fair to say that the value of legal process outsourcing lies entirely in its vast price differential with traditional law firms; but it is fair to say that that’s where many LPO conversations start. Saving money, especially on the scale that LPO offers and in this economic environment, is not to be dismissed lightly; but as LPO Savvy notes, “cost competitiveness alone is not going to propel the industry’s longevity.” Asian upstarts in other industries like cars and electronics often began by offering basic services at low prices; but they didn’t stop there:

Japanese automakers have been able to achieve [success] largely due to their ability to innovate. They did more than just maintain their competitiveness when they set up their manufacturing processes onshore. They brought with them their processes and managerial tools … fresh ways of managing Lean Manufacturing operations such as Kanban. Kanban was an innovative means of managing inventories in the manufacturing process unseen in the industry. It took cost and unnecessary steps out of the supply chain processes that went into producing automobiles.

Putting this back to the LPO perspective, I struggled with what the Indian LPO’s Kanban could be? What is the innovative game changer that we possess and can bring to the table? … The creative minds behind Kanban developed the practice through many trials of error and rework. But the need and desire to change how their processes were carried out was apparent to them, thus driving their need to explore ways to change.

There is an acute need to bring innovation to how legal services are carried out — a need that LPOs helped to highlight, and an area where they’ve already made much progress, but one that they themselves must now tackle head-on. LPOs have contributed to a slowdown (if not a dead stop) in the previously unstoppable rise in law firm fees; but are they also leading the way in re-engineering the means by which legal work is done, finding and implementing the new “killer apps” for law? And if so, are they successfully advertising and selling that fact to clients? LPO companies are still ahead of many law firms in applying process improvements and reducing costs, but their lead is not insurmountable.

Consider this example: legal process outsourcers have had greater difficulty cracking the Australian market than the UK or the US, in large part because in-house counsel there are apparently more reluctant to try new approaches and more fearful of LPO quality and security failures. So LPO provider Pangea3 is trying a different tack: a partnership with Australian law firm Advent Legal that will see the two collaborate on a wide spectrum of “junior work.” Advent and fellow Australian firm Balance Legal have to some extent already filled the LPO role in their country by their widespread use of secondments to reduce client costs and increase client integration, and have reaped the reputational benefits. LPOs have had to adapt, and this partnership — reminiscent in some ways of the alliance system between Indian and western law firms — is an example.

If I were an LPO, I’d be nervous every time I read about a law firm that provided secondments, gave legal project management training, managed its workflow, unbundled its services, used decision trees, or even employed Lean Six Sigma, because it means they’re starting to adopt some of my stock in trade. The critical battleground in the legal services marketplace is not price, but innovation: inventing and implementing more efficient and effective ways to carry out legal work. That’s a tougher and far more important assignment than simply lowering the cost of associate work, and whoever figures it out first and best could, like Toyota and Sony, dominate this market. LPOs are in a strong position to compete in this race, but they’re not the only contestants.

The second development emerging from LPO’s appearance is that a surprising number of law firms are adopting — and adapting — the outsourcing model themselves. They’re figuring out that the important question isn’t which type of provider (law firm, LPO, whoever) gets to do what kinds of legal work; the question that matters is who will serve as the primary liaison to the client and direct the allocation and assignment of legal work.

The days when legal work flowed from a client exclusively to a law firm and back again are over; the reality now is that numerous providers are in play and numerous models are on offer. While a number of UK firms have embraced LPO providers as a means to get legal work done more cost-effectively, some firms remember the words of Rio Tinto’s one-time GC Leah Cooper, who said law firms should think of Rio’s LPO partner CPA Global as an extension of the company’s in-house department. Law firms don’t like anyone — offshore LPO, procurement department, accounting firm — coming between them and their client. So in future, what really matters is this: who sits next to the client, receives its instructions, and decides how its legal resources are to be allocated among myriad providers? Smart law firms are taking steps now to ensure that that answer is never in dispute.

Here are two examples of what I mean.

Mexican Waves. Despite its name, law firms involved in a Mexican wave system don’t send work back and forth across national or continental borders; instead, the work circulates between firms in bigger cities and those in smaller, less expensive locations. The system was pioneered by UK firm Lovells — now transatlantic giant Hogan Lovell, and interestingly, the term no longer appears on the new firm’s website.  Clients like the Royal Bank of Scotland prefer a Mexican Wave arrangement to a pure LPO because they can cut costs while still retaining a long-term relationship with their primary law firm. Eversheds has adopted a sort of internal Mexican Wave by outsourcing work to its own firms’ lower-cost locations worldwide. And Magic Circle firm Freshfields rejects suggestions that its recent discussions about “referral arrangements” with smaller law firms is a Mexican Wave arrangement, but it’s hard to tell the difference. Meanwhile, some UK firms are outsourcing directly to law firms in foreign jurisdictions: Lewis Silkin, for example, is sending litigation work to Minter Ellison’s New Zealand office.

Outsourced law departments. One of the most interesting developments of the past several months has been a pair of joint ventures between UK law firms and public-sector law departments. In February, Geldards LLP and the Kent County Council created a new entity called Law:Public that will handle not just all of KCC’s legal work, but will also seek out work from local governments and public sector agencies across England. Law:Public’s 100 lawyers (80 from KCC) will charge below-market rates to these increasingly cash-strapped clients and will boast unparalleled experience and expertise in this sector. Then in March, large UK utility Thames Water essentially transferred its legal function to London firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, leaving behind a core group of in-house lawyers to provide strategic legal advice to the company. Here’s the key quote from a BLP partner: “With this model, we’re able to say that BLP’s embedded in the business. Other models such as LPO take you a certain way, but [they] don’t necessarily do what clients want, which is complete alignment.” In both cases, a law firm has completely integrated its operations and interests with those of a key client, ensuring continuing control of the assignment of legal services.

What these developments share in common is the law firms’ recognition that when clients say legal work has to be carried out differently and more efficiently, they mean it. Clients are putting all their options on the table and studying them closely, and many of those options don’t involve law firms much if at all. Some firms have therefore come to realize that they need to (a) find different ways of getting clients’ work done that (b) still leave the firm as the conduit through which that work flows and as the primary provider of the highest-value services.

What we’re starting to see now is an industry-wide jostling for position by legal services providers, each competing not just for the client’s attention but also for the coveted “quarterback” or “foreman” role that directs work to the other players, supervises its production, and takes ultimate responsibility for the result. Law firms used to hold that conduit position by default; they can’t count on that anymore, and the threat of losing that position is as close to an existential one as the legal profession should care to come. Clients are going to have more and more options for their legal work in the next several years, and managing all those options is a difficult and demanding job; but whoever holds that job will have an extraordinary amount of influence with the client and over the other providers. That’s the new Holy Grail for law firms, and I think that’s why a few smart firms are now taking outsourcing seriously: because they need to get very good, very quickly, at managing the production of legal work by a multitude of different providers.

Two specific sets of players should be concerned by all of this. The first is LPOs and other upstart providers of legal services, because if law firms (a) figure out how to manage legal work more effectively and (b) become entrenched as clients’ primary legal services overseer in a multi-provider environment, these entities risk a serious clipping of their wings. And the second is North American law firms: all the examples in this post and almost all the examples I’ve seen of this trend are in the UK, Australia and New Zealand: if any US firms are working on this, they’re keeping an extremely low profile. That’s risky, because this trend won’t take long to metabolize and it won’t take long for some clear winners to emerge. Law firms that don’t recognize this trend might find that an important and decisive war ended before they even knew it had begun.

How to compete on price

One of the oldest pieces of marketing advice in the legal profession is: “Don’t compete on price.” Wiser heads than mine constantly warn lawyers not to cut their prices to match what other sellers are providing, that engaging in a price war for legal services is as potentially ruinous as getting involved in a land war in Asia. There are at least three reasons for this:

1. Price wars are a death spiral. Every time you reduce your fees for a service to undercut a competitor, you set off a chain reaction whereby everyone in the market goes one step lower until even the “winners” can’t turn a profit. (Although read this James Surowiecki column for a counter-intuitive take on price wars.)

2. Price-cutting leads to quality reduction. It’s simple: if you’re not bringing in as much money for the same work, you need to cut back somewhere else: firing an able assistant, scrimping on new supplies, taking on more files than you can competently handle. (Although read the rest of this post for my thoughts on cutbacks.)

3. Price is an important marketplace signal. Unsophisticated buyers (and in the law, that’s most buyers) want the best deal, but they also worry about services that seem too cheap to be true. Lawyers offer a top-quality product, and a robust price for that product gives buyers confidence in its quality. (Although it’s perilous to count on the continuing ignorance of your customer base.)

So it’s both sensible and logical to tell lawyers not to compete on price. Yet for all that, I’ve come to believe that it’s not good advice anymore. I think we need to learn, as a profession, how to compete on price in ways that sustain our businesses.

It’s fine, in the abstract, for a lawyer to refuse to match or beat a rival’s lower price for a given product or service. The first few times a lawyer loses a client that way, she can content herself that she held the line against the devaluation of her services and that a client who only cares about price will be a difficult client throughout. But what happens when she loses the fifth client, or the tenth, or the fiftieth, because of price? What happens when clients start to consistently say, “I can get these services at a substantially lower price down the street,” or “I like working with you, but I can’t justify the premium that you charge”?

Many lawyers are already in this boat — much of the residential real estate bar, for instance. For these lawyers, refusing to compete on price is not a practical option, because their clients have made clear that price is the most important factor in their purchasing decision. There’s little point in charging what you believe is a fair price if no one’s buying at that price. Worse, more lawyers are going to join that boat over the course of this decade, as technology, collaboration, globalization, and regulatory change combine to rearrange the competitive landscape. We may complain about low-priced “non-lawyer” competitors and denigrate the quality of their work, but if clients buy what they sell at those prices, that’s going to affect what everyone else can charge. And not only will the quality of their offerings improve over time, but it also won’t be only “non-lawyers” doing it. Whether we like it or not, price will become a significant competitive factor, and it will be dangerous to run our businesses pretending otherwise.

So what can we do? The risks of constant price reductions detailed above are all too real, yet the day will soon come where we have to lower our prices just to stay in the marketplace conversation. If you can upgrade the type and quality of your services to premium or luxury levels and therefore maintain or even increase your prices, good for you. But there’s only so much room at the top of the mountain and not everyone can stand there; and in any event, raising the quality of what you offer often requires increasing what you spend to offer it, getting you no farther ahead.

But you don’t need to compete on price if you can go one better: compete on cost. Reduce the inefficiencies in your practice, streamline your processes, systematize where feasible, outsource if possible, reallocate resources to match the appropriate level of talent to the appropriate sophistication of tasks. This isn’t about freezing salaries or eliminating positions or taking away free coffee or all the other myopic expense-reduction steps many law firms took during the financial crisis. This is about restructuring your business in smart ways that reduce waste, cut down on system leakage, fine-tune your engines and upgrade your capacity.

Competing on cost means you spend less to get the same results as your law firm competitors, and puts you on an even footing with the non-firm competitors currently storming the gates. No matter what happens in the marketplace, one rule never changes: profit = revenue – expenses. Even if your revenue is down, you’ll still turn a profit if your expenses are down further: the lawyer who charges $500 for services that cost him $200 is doing better than the lawyer who charges $1,000 for services that cost him $900. You can’t control what the market will pay you; but you can control, to a large extent, what you spend to compete in that market. If you ever expect to seriously offer fixed fees to the marketplace, you absolutely must start by competing on cost.

Here are some examples of how you can compete on cost:

Install a legal project management system. Probably the simplest way to introduce business efficiencies to your law firm is to adopt the principles of legal project management. From a basic back-of-the-envelope process for doing certain tasks systematically all the way up to a full-scale Lean Six Sigma re-engineering of your entire operation, you’ll wind up with clearer goals, more explicit processes, more efficient systems and increased productivity.

Automate anything repetitive that moves. Your client intake system, your most frequent inquiries, your most common procedures, your most familiar routines: if the same basic task occurs more than occasionally in your firm, it should be converted into a template, a checklist, a document assembly system, or some other means by which completion is made faster, variation is made more difficult, and fewer resources are expended needlessly.

Move work up and down the talent chain. Move dictation and transcription from secretaries down to voice-recognition devices. Move legal research to freelance specialists across town or outside the country. Move administrative tasks to virtual assistants. Move e-discovery to people or systems actually qualified to do it. Then train the people who used to do low-value work in high-value skills like project management, business development, human resources and so forth. Same people, same resources, but better allocated and with new capabilities.

Use technology wherever possible. Practice management software, on your server or preferably in the cloud, delivers huge efficiency gains. Specialized accounting software for law offices reduces errors and improves productivity. Take advantage of low-cost, internet-based contact management systems. Give serious thought to going paperless, or at least paper-less. If you’re already using these tools, constantly train your staff to become more proficient with them. Exploit what Dave Bilinsky calls the “new leverage”: using technology to achieve higher rates of return on each hour of work.

Give serious thought to outsourcing. There’s one reason big firms like WilmerHale and CMS Cameron McKenna have struck deals with legal process outsourcing firms to move millions of dollars worth of business and back-office functions to smaller centers: efficiency gains that help them compete on cost. To be sure, there are human costs to be dealt with, but if you take a hard look at the numbers, you might find the logic of outsourced operations to be inescapable.

– Come up with a non-hourly billing and compensation system. It probably goes without saying that the single biggest inefficiency in most law firms is the fact that tasks are worth more the longer they take and the more resources they consume. Hourly billing — and more importantly in this context, hourly compensation — is a productivity hemorrhage that’s becoming far more damaging to firms than to clients. And it is not sustainable.

You can probably look around your office right now and find five ways that costs could be reduced or efficiencies could be introduced without a corresponding drop in quality (and maybe even an increase). Most often, the reasons why your firm avoids dealing with these inefficiencies are personal or political or both. But it’s not mission impossible, as the saying goes; only mission difficult. And I would suggest that as of right now, it’s also mission critical. Getting a grip on and eliminating inefficiency in a positive, sensible way is probably the most under-valued tool law firms possess to increase their productivity.

If there’s a downside to this approach, I don’t see it. Suppose that none of these dire warnings come to pass, and that the legal marketplace remains the safe, cozy, bloated anachronism it’s always been. By making cost competition a strategic priority, you’ll have increased your profitability vis-a-vis your rival firms, channeled more money to your partners, become more attractive to potential lateral hires, and given your firm the leverage, if you ever wanted, to make your rivals compete on price on your terms.

But say the marketplace erupts in the ways I’ve been describing, and hyper-efficient competitors emerge that can beat your usual fees by 30, 50, 70 percent or more. Without a streamlined operation in place and no time to install one in the chaos and pressure facing you, you run the serious risk of becoming another victim of market change. But if you’ve already prepared to beat these new entrants at their own game, you’ll at least have a fighting chance. Competing on price might be a necessary evil, but competing on cost can be the key to your success.

One week left to enter the InnovAction Awards!

If your law firm or legal organization has successfully introduced a powerful innovation in the last few years, then you have one week left to enter the College of Law Practice Management‘s InnovAction Awards, as detailed in this previous post here at Law21, and reap the rewards. At a time when innovation is valued by clients and demanded by the marketplace more than ever, the returns on this investment (one entry form and a US$325 fee) are tremendous. Nominations close on June 1, so if you’re looking to show off your innovation and gain the imprimatur of a world-class organization like the College, now’s your chance! As always, please feel free to drop me a line if you any questions, and good luck to all of this year’s entrants!