Survey Results – The Value of Client Feedback – October 2012 Law Firm Strategy Topic of the Month

October’s law firm strategy topic of month was the value of client feedback. Our initial rationale for exploring this topic grew as a by-product of our June 2012 strategy question of the month. June’s survey focused on best practices in the strategic planning process. We found that one of the key factors that distinguished highly successful planning processes from their less successful counterparts was the incorporation of client feedback into the process. Specifically, we found that firms that reported having “very successful” planning processes were 45% more likely to have solicited client input than were firms that reported disappointing results.

So, we thought it would be worthwhile to build a deeper understanding of what law firms are doing more broadly vis-à-vis gathering and using client feedback. What approaches are they taking to gather that feedback and what outcomes are they experiencing?

Approaches to Gathering Client Feedback

Interestingly, no single approach is used consistently by more than a third of law firms participating in this month’s mini-survey. Roughly 30% of firms report they consistently have their managing partner (or his/her counterpart) conduct structured interviews with a cross section of clients. Similarly, roughly 25% of firms report they have their senior marketing or business development people conduct structured interviews with a cross section of clients. Note: in some cases, both the managing partner and chief marketing officer conduct the interviews jointly.

When you include firms that report using a given approach – but who do so less consistently – the most prevalent approach to gathering client feedback is having the managing partner conduct informal (often one-off) interviews with clients. Roughly three-quarters of all firms report that their managing partner (or his/her counterpart) conducts periodic, informal interviews with clients. However, those interviews are not conducted across a cross-section of the clientele – and, they are not structured to ensure key topics are covered consistently.

Written surveys of all kinds (e.g., randomized, major client focused, and/or end of matter surveys) have fallen by the wayside. That approach was fairly common in the 1990’s, but fewer than 20% firms report using written surveys (web or paper) at all.

The following table presents the full range of responses relative to approaches firms are using to gather client feedback on a regular and/or irregular basis.


As is always the case with these monthly mini-surveys, participants were generous in sharing some of their practical experience in the open-ended section of the survey. Among the practices and insights law firm leaders shared were the following.

  •  We require annual meetings with top 100 clients on an annual basis. The meeting is structured and performed by supervising attorney. Top 25 clients are also contacted by firm managing partner on at least an annual basis.
  • We spend a lot of time educating/helping our senior attorneys develop disciplined, regular communications with their clients…we emphasize that all our attorneys need to know their client business/industry well.
  • (Our) client teams develop a (tailored) method that fits the client’s culture and relationship to evaluate how the firm is performing. (Examples include) team meetings with the various client contacts; in-person meetings between the key contact at the client and the (lead) attorney; and various contact attorneys reaching out to their respective contacts in the client organization…assessing our performance as the defined purpose.

It should be noted that there is still resistance in some quarters… “I’ve not yet been able to convince the Management Committee, who all have great relationships with their clients, that some client feedback system is necessary.”

Results and Outcomes from Gathering Client Feedback

Obviously, it is always helpful to have a sense for what our peers are doing to manage their respective firms more effectively. More importantly, however, it is critical to understand what results can and should be expected from pursuing any given management practice. In the case of gathering client feedback, the key benefits can be summarized in four points (reflecting five sets of insights firms report gaining more than half the time – either always or often).


  • First, over 70% of law firm leaders report gaining genuine insights into how to manage their client relationships more effectively.
  • Second, over 60% of law firms gain new insights into how their clients view the firm’s strengths and its opportunities to improve (i.e., its weaknesses and shortcomings).
  • Nearly 60% reported that the client feedback process always or often produces opportunities to do more of the type of work the firm is already doing for that client (i.e., to deepen the relationship).
  • Over half reported that gathering client feedback always or often produces opportunities to do new types of work for clients (i.e., to broaden the relationship.

In addition to the points above, it should be noted that a number of law firm leaders said that the process itself tends to generate goodwill. Further, it creates a dialog that grows the relationship in the context of the client’s needs rather than in a ‘selling’ mode. One law firm leader summed up both points quite succinctly in an open-ended comment, “(The process creates) great client satisfaction that we even take time out to spend time with them and more importantly “care”. Also learn how much many clients “hate” the “cross-selling” pushes.”

A complete summary of the outcomes firms experience via client feedback gathering processes is captured on the following chart.

Closing Points

Given the fact that structured, formalized client feedback processes are only pursued with high levels of consistency at somewhere between a third and half the firms surveyed, it strikes us that this type of outreach can still be a source of competitive advantage for law firms. It is certainly a factor distinguishing more successful strategic planning processes from the rest. And, our anecdotal experience confirms what we learned more systematically from this survey. Namely, asking clients for their feedback generates goodwill; it often creates new work (sometimes, entirely new work in new areas); and it provides valuable insights into what the firm does well, how it can improve, and how it can manage client relationships more effectively.

At Sterling Strategies, we tend to gather structured client feedback in the context of strategic planning assignments (though we do so as stand-alone engagements on occasion). However, our friends at the Wicker Park Group focus intensively on the client feedback process. They even publish a continuing series of client Q&A summaries you might find interesting.

As always, the comments section is open – and we always welcome your calls and emails.

IMPROVING THE BUDGET PROCESS – September 2012 Strategy Question of the Month

Our September Law Firm Strategy Question of the Month focused on the budget process. Specifically, this month’s quick survey identified the budgeting practices that are most useful in real world settings in law firms. As in past months, we also looked for differences between firms reporting the greatest effectiveness in their respective budget processes from those reporting less success.

Unlike previous Strategy Questions of the Month (see for instance the June survey on strategic planning or the February survey on practice group management), there was not a tremendous difference between the most effective budget processes and others’. That may in part be a function of the generally high level of effectiveness law firm leaders reported in their respective processes. As you can see from the chart below, very few firms consider their budget process to be ineffective (or even of limited effectiveness).

To the extent there were differences between the “very effective” firms and others, the differences were very much on the margins. For instance, the budgeting approaches rated “absolutely essential” at firms with the most effective processes, were similarly rated “absolutely essential” by their peers in firms experiencing somewhat less success in the budget process. Nevertheless, there were a few notable differences (again, on the margins):

  • The most successful firms were more likely to build-up budget projections at the practice group level (in addition to doing so at the individual attorney and administrative department levels);
  • The most successful firms were somewhat more strongly focused on ensuring the budget reflected growth plans, whereas less successful firms were moderately more focused on ensuring their budgets reflected cost cutting commitments;
  • Finally, the most successful firms were more likely to focus leadership attention on aligning the budget with strategy (at the firm and practice group levels).

Firm leaders were asked to share how they approach the process philosophically (intentionally conservative, aggressive or “as accurate as data and projections will allow”). Roughly 80% of firms are striving for accuracy (over 90% of the most successful firms’ intent is to develop as accurate a budget as possible). We view that as a positive sign for the industry as a whole. In the depths of the recession (fall of 2008 and again in 2009), a majority of firms were taking a decidedly conservative approach to budgeting. The swing toward developing accurate budget projections is a healthy sign that leadership has greater confidence in the future.

The core question this month focused on which practices and approaches were most useful and helpful in the budget process. The top three approaches (each considered “absolutely essential” by over 60% of respondents) were:

  •  Building-up projections at the individual attorney level (i.e., salaries, draws, working attorney receipts, etc.);
  • Developing administrative department projections from agreed upon priorities and strategies; and
  • Reviewing all attorney, practice and/or departmental projections via a comparison with the previous year (budget and/or actual).

A relatively high percentage of firms do not even try to build-up projected revenues at the client level (e.g., projected revenues from the top 100 clients) or at the practice group level. Slightly more than half of all firms build-up client level projections and fewer than three-quarters of firms develop practice level projections.

Finally, while the distinctions between the most effective budget processes and the moderately successful processes were only found at the margins, law firm leaders shared a number of important ideas, insights and advice in the open-ended comments. Among the most insightful input were the following:

  • Accuracy is important to us…final result of budget is cash flow to partners (who) plan their own lives around the draws and distributions. Also, variance explanations that are based on inaccurate budgeting rather than on real differences from our expectations are viewed with suspicion.
  • (We) do intensive capital expenditures budget, plus detailed monthly cash flow (which is NOT an income statement), plus zero-based approach to all expenses.
  • We also do both pessimistic and optimistic models based on individual attorney performances.
  • We update budgets every 6 month in rolling 18 month program of forecasting.
  • Expenses are easy and we can plug them in and hit them within one percent annually. Lining up expenses with strategies and goals is simple and straight forward. Predicting revenue and cash flow is the hard part; we are usually successful in estimating and in the last couple of years have had done well with monthly cash flow projects. Nonetheless, cash receipts are always a bit lumpy and make budgeting a challenge.
  • Formula for best shot at success — balance realization with utilization and monitor expenses closely. Be efficient and effective and take nothing for granted.
  • Our attorneys are very reluctant to forecast much more than 3-6 months ahead, so trying to get them to project for a full year has proven impossible. We base (the year) on trends, knowledge of practices and their short range projections.
  • (Relative to client level projections, we do a) case by case analysis of all contingent cases…review three year averages of attorney productivity…and review any large non-repeat type cases or situations.
  • (We) have found it useful when presenting the expense budget to management to sort (accounts) in descending order on dollar value. This helps to ensure that major items are discussed, and that time isn’t wasted debating the lobby magazine subscriptions.
  • (We use a) bottom up process. The Finance Committee and Board review budgets, ask for justifications and will require a bottom up revision to get the final budget in line with long range goals. (It is) time consuming but effective in getting buy-in at all levels.


As always we thank the many, many law firm leaders who took the time to share their knowledge and insights on this month’s strategy question. The comments section is open for those who want to continue the dialog and we welcome your calls (312-543-6616) and emails ( as well.


Improving the Budget Process – September 2012 Law Firm Strategy Topic of the Month

The budget process is right around the corner – at least for the vast majority of firms that are on a calendar year cycle.

These quick monthly surveys are primarily intended to build a foundation of useful information and benchmarks for law firm leadership.  While budget development may not be viewed as strategic, for many organizations it is a vital tool for allocating resources in ways that are consistent with and supportive of the overall strategy.  At any rate, we can all benefit from learning about what is working best in budget processes around the legal industry.

With that in mind, let’s learn about what approaches are proving to be most useful and most helpful in the budget development process in law firms.  As always, individual responses will remain entirely confidential.  The survey should take less than five minutes.  Aggregate responses will be reported at the end of the month on this blog.  Deadline to respond is end of business PDT on Thursday, September 27, 2012.  As always, thank you for your help and participation.

If for any reason you do not see the survey in the box below, click here and you will be taken directly to the survey host site.

Managing Under Productive Partners

The August 2012 law firm strategy question of the month focused on managing under productive partners – what approaches firms take to the issue; what works and what does not; and how the process plays out over time. In a very practical sense, this topic is the counter point to the July 2012 question of the month – what characteristics comprise a ‘model’ partner?

The term “under productive partner” implies that ‘problem’ partners are primarily an economic issue. Certainly, persistently weak revenue production  is the most common reason for frustration with partner performance. However, a number of law firm leaders noted in open-ended comments that “citizenship issues” and other qualitative factors regarding professional demeanor can also lead to a firm insisting a partner work to turn his or her performance around.

A Daunting Task, But Not Hopeless

Asked how often under productive partners manage to turn it around, over 95% of law firm leaders agreed that fewer than half of all ‘problem’ partners manage to have a “career renaissance.” In fact, over 50% of law firm leaders have found that fewer than 10% of partners manage to make an effective turn around. The silver lining – not a single law firm leader has found the well to be completely dry – everyone has seen a successful turnaround within their own firm.

Patience is a Virtue…

Firms are generally, but not universally, patient with regard to under performance. Many leaders noted that partner performance statistics are averaged over multiple years, so it takes time before performance issues are considered a persistent problem. Over two-thirds of the leaders responding to this survey noted that it takes at least two years of weak performance before the issue is addressed at all.

What Are Firms Doing to Address the Issue?

Asked to share which approaches they have tried and how well they have worked, law firm leaders were candid. The most commonly used approaches to address partner under performance:

  • Every firm has tried reducing compensation and holding one-on-one meetings with ‘problem’ partners.
  • Nearly everyone has tried “doing nothing and hoping things improve” (NOTE: It does not work – 90% report it “never works”).
  • Over 90% of law firm leaders have tried threatening compensation reductions and 90% have tried individual partner plans.

Conversely, a few approaches have not been as widely adopted, though some (as will become evident below) are actually reasonably successful in their own ways. Less frequently tried approaches include:

  • Only about half the firms indicated that they have tried to actively outplace partners (i.e., at client organizations, on the bench, etc.).
  • Slightly more than half of all firms have tried using a professional coach with under productive partners.
  • About 60% have tried “group interventions” (i.e., more than just a one-on-one meeting).

Now, it is absolutely true that actively outplacing someone is not really a turnaround per se – at least within the confines of the firm. However, for many partners, leaving (and landing well) is a tremendous career turn around. And, as it turns out, it is by far considered to be the most successful approach (by those who have tried it).

Blunt Tools

The other more successful approaches included actively cutting compensation; holding one-on-one discussions with under performers; and requiring individual plans. As one managing partner noted, compensation is a blunt tool and one you only get to use once a year (at most). In fact, these are all fairly blunt tools. However, a combination of one-on-one discussions along with individual turnaround plans has the direct benefit of creating accountability and a path forward for the partner in question.

Ultimately, the clear take-away messages:

  • Doing nothing and hoping it gets better never works;
  • Confronting the issue, creating a path forward, and holding people accountable has a reasonable success rate; and
  • Actively out placing those who cannot or will not turn it around is remarkably successful.

We welcome and encourage your comments below and your emails to John Sterling – .


Strategic Planning – Best Practices – June 2012 Strategy Question of the Month

This month we are exploring the factors that make law firm strategic planning processes more or less effective.  As always, the survey is designed to be quick and easy to complete (no more than a two minute investment).   Deadline for responses is end of business Friday (PDT), June 29, 2012.

We will post the results of the survey over the weekend and look forward to learning from your collective experiences as law firm leaders.

If you do not see the survey in the window immediately below, please click here to be redirected to the survey.


Survey Results – Alternative Fee Arrangements

In the midst of the market meltdown in the fall of 2008, we were in the field doing research on behalf of DRI (Defense Research Institute) on the Future of Litigation.  Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs) were one element of that research.  Extensive interviews with general counsel and law firm leaders highlighted three primary motivations behind the search for AFAs:

  • Some simply needed to cut costs.  Fee arrangements trend toward discounts and blended rates in these contexts.
  • Some needed predictability, particularly if they have a block of recurring or continuing litigation.  Fee arrangements in this context trend toward fixed caps for matters – or more often for blocks of business.
  • Some were driven by risk management models or strategies.  In this context fee arrangements trend toward some form of contingency.

Now, that research focused solely on litigation.  Further, there has been considerable growth in non-hourly based fee arrangements since that time.  For instance, in early 2009 only 29% of law firm leaders believed growth in non-hourly billing was a “permanent trend.”  That has grown to 80% in spring 2012 (see Altman Weil’s Law Firms in Transition survey).

Our  law firm strategy question of the month focused on AFAs this month.  Roughly, two-thirds of respondents indicated that AFAs are growing (about a third find AFAs continue to grow at an accelerating pace).

Anecdotally, we have seen many clients ask for AFAs only to revert to a simple discount off standard rates – continuing to rely on hourly billing for a variety of reasons.  For purposes of this month’s survey, we did not include discounts as an AFA – focusing instead on non-hourly forms of fee setting.  In order of most prevalence, AFAs in use today include the following.


The question also allowed respondents to add other AFAs (not on the list above).  Other AFAs in use include collars/monthly retainers; deferred billing arrangements for start-ups awaiting venture funding; and highly customized approaches that provide predictability for clients.

Finally, an open-ended question at the end of the survey invited people to share “unique insights you have gained from the deployment of AFAs.”  People were very generous with their insights and the key insights are summarized in the following points.

  •  Firms have learned the value of well analyzed data – on costs and on the work being subjected to an AFA.  For instance, one firm reports very good results on contingency oriented arrangements – in cases where experience informs their understanding of the  upside for recovery.  Others noted that they have learned to improve the profitability of fixed fee arrangements – by understanding underlying costs and their approach (staffing and work process) to the work.
  • Many have found that effective communication with clients and prospective clients is a key to success.  That enables the firm to provide the predictability (or other objectives) the client is pursuing.  Further, it reinforces the strength of the relationship – clients appreciate the fact that their law firm is listening and responding.  Finally, it ensures that when risks are being shared (such as in a contingency arrangement), both the firm and the client are prepared for changing conditions.
  • Many also noted that effective AFAs are not easy to construct.  They take time to get it right – for the client and the firm.  They require attorneys to approach both the client relationship and the legal work differently.  And, they end up simply being a margin reduction if time and intellect are not invested in their creation and execution.
  • A few people noted that one key to success is doing effective post-mortem reviews of AFAs.  As one managing partner noted, “the most difficult part is circling back to see if the arrangement worked…”

Note that firms who have a higher proportion of their fees earned via AFAs were more likely to be experiencing a slow-down in the growth of alternative fee arrangements.  Certainly, the move toward non-hourly billing is not a passing phase.  Knowing your own cost structure, being able to manage the work consistent with the AFA (either via project management or via staffing models), and being able to learn from each experience are critical to success.

We thank the many law firm leaders who continue to share their insights and experiences via these questions of the month.


Our March 2012 strategy question of the month focused on profit improvement strategies.  One of most important strategies for profit improvement among firms is improving realization.  In framing that question about realization, we explicitly included consideration of alternative fee arrangements – so, AFAs appear to be part of that profit improvement strategy.

Since publishing those findings, our friends at Altman Weil have published their latest findings on the annual “Law Firms in Transition” survey.  Interestingly enough, they found that law firm leaders’ expectations for increased price competition (49%), increased commoditization of legal work (58%), and increased non-hourly billing (52%) were all up dramatically.

Given those findings, we thought it would be valuable for our readers to get a sense of what their peers are doing in the realm of AFAs.  The quick, two-minute survey below takes a look at AFAs through a couple of lenses – do they continue to grow as a percentage of fees earned and what tactical approaches appear to be most prevalent?

Deadline for completing the survey is midnight, Tuesday, May 29, 2012 (the day after Memorial Day).  As always, individual responses will remain confidential and anonymous.   Thank you!

If your browser does not support the embedded survey (i.e., you do not see the survey in the box below), click this link to jump to a hosted version of the survey.



This month we looked at law firms’ plans relative to profit improvement. Specifically, we asked law firm leaders which profit drivers they planned to use to improve profitability at their own firms over the next few years. We also asked each to share his/her expectations regarding profit growth in the next three years.

Starting with expectations, we were pleased to see a measured optimism coming from the overwhelming majority of law firms. Only about 11% of firms expect their annual profits to be flat or declining over the next three years. Conversely, roughly 60% expect profits to rise modestly (i.e., less than five percent) annually each of the next three years. None, however, expect robust profit growth of greater than 10% annually.


What strategies do firms expect to drive that measured profit growth? Two profit drivers were stood out as preferred strategies for the coming years – increased production (i.e., billable time) and improved realization. Meanwhile, increased leverage was far and away the least preferred profit improvement strategy – in fact a quarter of respondents consider increased leverage to be “not a viable driver for profit growth at our firm.”


These findings represent a marked departure from profit growth strategies of the past two decades.

  • In the 1990’s (and the late 80’s as well), leverage was considered something of a “holy grail” for driving profits – it is now the least preferred approach to growing profits.
  • In the pre-recession years of the 2000’s, rate increases drove profit improvement. Rate increases are now a somewhat distant third – and are even less important among firms expecting the most robust (5-10%) profit growth.
  • Tighter standards for equity partnership – including de-equitizations and wide-spread adoption of two tier partnership structures – were an important driver of PPEP across both decades. That strategy appears to have waned as well. As a profit improvement strategy, it rates nearly as low as leverage – and, over 20% of firms do not consider it to be a viable profit driver for their firm.


Looking at the most optimistic firms responding to the survey (i.e., those expecting profits to grow five to ten percent annually) – and comparing them to everyone else – reveals that those firms are pursuing a somewhat different strategy. Namely, the most optimistic firms plan to put a much greater emphasis on improving realization (they rate realization as a strategy more than 20% higher than their peers in other firms).

Since the questions made clear that alternative fee arrangements were one means for improving realization, AFAs could be an important part of the most optimistic firms’ strategy. More simply, the more optimistic firms may simply plan to discount less and/or write-off less time. The most optimistic firms were slightly less bullish on raising rates (compared to others), so those firms very well could be focused on charging (and collecting) standard rates.

Given these findings, however, we plan to take a closer look at AFAs in an upcoming “strategy question of the month.” Thanks for participating and for commenting below.


The average ratings regarding profit improvement strategies were based on a four point scale in which:

1 = Not a viable driver for profit growth at our firm
2 = A minor driver of profit growth for our firm
3 = An important driver of profit growth for our firm
4 = A primary driver of profit growth at our Firm

Our response rates continue to grow month to month (thanks again for that). We hope that continues to grow and we encourage you to share your experiences with your peers.

Practice Group Management Effectiveness – Follow-up to the February Survey Results

The results of our February 2012 strategy question of the month generated a number of follow-up discussions, as well as some very intelligent and insightful correspondence with readers. We thought it warranted a bit of follow-up here on the blog.

Our primary conclusion from the survey can be summarized simply – focus practice group management on activities that really make a difference in the performance of the group. The most effective groups are driving additional, valuable services to their clients. AND, they are improving financial performance at the same time (perhaps as a result of that). The least effective groups are expending valuable time, energy and resources on activities that do not matter on balance.

The subsequent discussion underscored some of our own experiences working with practice groups and practice group leaders. In particular, that discussion was a reminder of the substantial and important advantages larger firms have vis-à-vis practice group management.  Those advantages include having the scale to provide valuable support services to their practice groups.

  • Marketing Support – Larger firms have deep enough pockets (and deep enough marketing departments) to line-up resources to directly support their practice and industry groups’ broad marketing efforts. That helps free-up partners to focus on business development and cross-marketing.
  • Financial and Operational Support – Larger firms also have administrative personnel and information systems that help practice leaders drive profitability. Our March 2012 strategy question of the month deals directly with profit management – we encourage you to take two minutes to participate in this month’s survey.
  • Technology and Vendor Support – Practice group leaders in larger firms do not have to worry about managing technology and third party vendors – they have support staff available to take care of that. Again, they are free to focus on things that really matter.

For readers in mid-size and smaller firms, the question becomes, “What can we do to overcome the scale advantages the bigger firms have in this area?” Our short answer is to keep the practice group leaders’ responsibilities as streamlined and simple as possible.

Knowing they only have limited hours in any day/week/month to devote to practice group leadership, ensure that time is focused on just a few things: 1) cross-marketing into and out of the group; 2) the single most important profit driver for that practice (whatever that might be); and 3) putting their people in position to be successful. Everything else is secondary in a smaller firm setting.

For those interested in additional reading on the subject, we would suggest a couple of articles (note, both are pdf).


Strategy Question of the Month – Profit Drivers

Most law firm managers are familiar with the primary drivers of profitability – rates (i.e., the standard price per hour for professionals’ time); productivity (i.e., hours worked and recorded); realization (i.e., ability to collect on production at standard rates); leverage (i.e., the ratio of equity partners to other time keepers); and costs (i.e., salaries, benefits, overhead).

In the 1980’s and 90’s, profit growth at many firms was driven by increasing leverage – coupled with modest rate increases and improved financial management.  In the pre-recession years of the aughts, profit growth was driven largely by rate increases.  The “great recession” led many firms to turn to cost reduction – and many found that there was ample fat to be cut from the cost side of the business.

In addition, the high visibility of the American Lawyer’s AmLaw 200 rankings and their ubiquitous measure of profitability on a per equity partner basis (Profits Per Equity Partner or PPEP) has added a dimension to how many firms manage profitability.  Thus, many firms now also actively manage the denominator of PPEP as part of their respective approaches to profit management.

This month we are examining what firms’ priorities are going forward vis-a-vis profit management. Essentially, we are interested in identifying what profit drivers firm leaders believe offer the best prospects for growing profits over the next few years.  Further, we will look at how those profit drivers correlate to expectations vis-a-vis profit growth over the next few years.

Please take two minutes to complete the survey below.  If for some reason your web browser does not support the embedded survey (i.e., you don’t see it in the window below), click this link and you will be taken directly to the survey in a new tab.  Deadline for responses is midnight on March 24th – results will be published the following week.  Thank you for your help with this month’s survey!