When law firms inevitably try to raise their rates, there are cost-containment actions that corporate law department leaders can take to mitigate the impact
The significant social, economic, and inflationary pressures that have been building for the past year or more have created a new dynamic in law firm pricing structures which has resulted in a tectonic pivot that has moved pricing leverage away from clients and in favor of law firms and alternative legal service providers (ALSPs).
Consequently, many corporate law departments (CLDs) will remember these past 12 months as the great pricing reset in which law firms required significantly higher hourly rate increases over and above anything the legal marketplace has seen in at least a decade.
The new year finds both the buyers and sellers of legal services having to grapple with the economic reality of high inflation, increasing labor and infrastructure costs, attrition, labor arbitrage, and major shifts in market demand — all of which will in some way or another impact the cost of legal services into 2023 and beyond.
Using cost control counter-measures
With this reality, many CLDs are not looking forward to a repeat of last year’s rate hikes; however, that is not necessarily a fait accompli for corporate clients. Yet, there are counter-measures that can be deployed to help them mitigate, control, and even create cost savings in the face of such pricing uncertainty.
There are many familiar options that CLDs have at their disposal — such as tiering, RFPs, volume discounts, panel convergence, budget structuring, and in-sourcing — although these approaches, while important considerations for every CLD looking to control their costs, may take time to mitigate the impact of proposed rate increases.
Instead, let’s focus on a few things that might help CLDs achieve tactical and immediate results.
Similar to, but distinct from, volume discounts, most rebates exist with those law firms that enjoy large volumes of billing. Rebates are typically negotiated at the start of a calendar year and are contingent on a firm achieving a certain dollar threshold or tier of billings in that year.
Rebates are a good tool for CLDs to utilize during any rate negotiations and especially on large matters or a portfolio of work where a CLD is looking to reduce its legal spend, offset the cost of future work, or simply to mitigate the impact of future rate increases.
Not all clients have sufficient scale with a law firm to entitle them to ancillary benefits with the firm. However, value-added services — such as free legal advice, secondments, market research, access to proprietary technology, education, and training sessions — can be separately negotiated.
If a CLD must accept higher rates, then perhaps trying to negotiate or tie some level of complimentary ancillary services to those rates may help offset the CLD’s legal costs in other areas.
Rate management policy
While many CLDs have billing guidelines in place with their law firms, far fewer have any language in their guidelines that talks specifically about rate management and prescriptive requirements related to how a law firm is to address any proposed rate increases. Consequently, the process becomes much more ad hoc.
A proper rate management policy should address criteria such as when a firm can make a rate increase request, the frequency of a request (e.g., one increase per year rather than two incremental increases), permissible rate increase caps for specific professional groups, and the permissible criteria or reasons that qualify for a rate increase (e.g., merit vs. market pressures). All of these criteria are fundamental to managing expectations up front for both the firm and the CLD and for providing predictability and transparency around rate management.
ALSPs offer CLDs an opportunity to leverage less expensive providers than traditional bricks-and-mortar law firms. Tiering transactional matters or components of a matter away from expensive firms to ALSPs provides CLDs with cost saving and convergence opportunities.
Contingent worker ALSPs are a good example of legal work that typically has been sourced to traditional (and more expensive) law firms. Now, however, CLDs have the option to utilize virtual and less expensive service providers for components of legal matters or other resource needs.
As part of rate negotiations, CLDs should consider imposing staffing ratios on firms requiring them to assign a greater percentage of their work to lower cost mid-level associates, rather than expensive partners, thereby offering up potential cost savings for the CLD.
Disbursements & cost recovery
Legal e-billing systems are great for implementing quantifiable rules around non-reimbursable expenses on invoices. However, there are many charges or billing practices that cannot be quantified and corelated to an automated e-billing rule that rejects the proposed expense. Further, there are also other expenses that may be subjective in nature and require more powerful tools to review.
Diving into law firm disbursement data offers a CLD an opportunity to: i) find patterns of billing that are non-compliant with a CLDs billing guidelines; and ii) use the exercise to close any compliance gaps and save money; .
The importance of timely payment is not lost on a law firm’s management team as tracking outstanding accounts receivable balances is instrumental in measuring productivity and effectiveness of lawyers or identifying servicing issues.
A CLD can utilize quick-pay discounts as a solution to a firm’s balance challenges by providing an incentive for the law firm to lower its rates or offer a discount in exchange for the CLD’s commitment to paying the law firms invoices within a specific time frame.
Alternative fee arrangements (AFAs)
AFAs (e.g., fixed fees, flat fees, contingency, volume discounts, risk collars, etc.) are often touted as the great pricing panacea to hourly rates; however, before accepting any AFA proposal, CLDs should consider asking the law firm to provide quantifiable proof as to the value of the AFA and what if any determination was made to validate that the AFA is a better pricing option for the client. Without any such empirical validation, CLDs risk making costly assumptions around cost savings, when in fact the opposite may be true.
Getting ready to negotiate
Before engaging any law firms in discussions of the above strategies, CLDs need to address two key components that must underlie any of their efforts — billing data and communications.
Billing data — When leveraged correctly, CLD billing data offers a plethora of opportunities to save money in a runaway market that has pivoted in favor of legal service providers. By mining timekeeper data (e.g., rates, year of call, geographic locations), disbursement charges, invoice line item detail, time allocation, staffing ratios, and more, CLDs may uncover opportunities for savings when comparing billing data between multiple firms and ALSPs.
Communications — Having an open and honest dialogue with their law firms on budget constraints or their companies’ cost saving targets may allow CLDs to obtain voluntary law firm rate freezes or even rate reductions in the interest of building stronger and lasting relationships.
Indeed, holding these candid discussions at an opportune time when a lot of companies are facing financial challenges, may remind law firms that many CLDs are committed to growing lasting partnerships with those firms that understand the client’s budgetary pressures and are willing to help clients meet their cost-saving targets for the greater good of the relationship.