The Most Important KPI for your Law Firm’s Profit Growth

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are much more than just information. They measure the key revenue and cash flow activities of a law firm to ensure its performance.

Not enough firms understand the importance of measuring and taking action to improve the fundamental KPIs around production management, in order to improve margin.

The core production KPIs are:

    • File Velocity Days
    • Average Rate
    • Productivity
    • Write-on (off)

Two high-level KPIs that firms need to focus on to drive overall performance are Average Rate and Lock-up Percentage.

Focusing on these Two Numbers gives you a framework to drive improvement in profit and cash flow. Average Rate directly correlates to driving profitability, while Lock-up Percentage focuses on improving cash flow.

This article deals specifically with Average Rate.

 

What is Average Rate?

When we refer to ‘Average Rate’, we are NOT discussing an average of fee earner charge-out rates. Average Rate is the calculation of revenue billed over professional employee labour paid.

This figure represents the average amount of revenue earned, for every hour your fee earners (including principals) are paid to work.

Average Rate = Revenue / Paid hours of direct labour

This KPI can measure the performance of individuals, teams, departments, and the business as a whole. Average Rate measures performance by incorporating productivity, write-offs, and recoverability over direct labour costs. As this number increases, so does businesses profitability (margin).

Average Rate is the most important KPI in terms of profit when it comes time to review your practice.

Need help understanding how to measure and track your Average Rate? Watch the following video (4:55) to see exactly how Average Rate is calculated.

The Factory

Your efficiency has a major bearing on your Average Rate. For a legal firm, efficiency can be described as the ratio between revenue and the direct labour cost to produce that revenue.

The ultimate financial measure for an efficient practice is gross profit, and the higher your Average Rate, the greater your gross profit. To improve gross profit from an efficiency perspective, you must ensure you carry the right amount of labour.

To determine the right amount of labour for your needs, you must have a “capacity management plan”. The starting point is to determine the Efficiency Factor for each team and department and the business as a whole.

Key Activities

Below are some of the key activities you can take that will drive improvement in Average Rate:

      1. Manage file velocity daily and weekly. The shorter the period a file is in the office, the better the recoverability of hours charged
      2. Bill everything in WIP, no write-offs
      3. Always remind the client of the value in the solution you provide to them
      4. Define your core products / service offerings and set minimum prices for them firm-wide
      5. Increase your charge rates across the board
      6. Set a minimum Average Rate per hour for the entire firm and bill to achieve this rate

When was the last time you reviewed your practice in respect of these activities? Not sure where to start? Let us guide you.

MANAGE YOUR VALUE

    • If your price increases exceed perceived client value, clients will eventually leave.
    • Be wary of the impact that your production systems have on client experience in the changes that you make. Client experience is just as valuable as the advice.

Key Takeaways

Challenge what is possible within your business. From a production perspective, Average Rate will provide you with the KPI to use to monitor your progress.

Key takeaways:

    • Average Rate tells us ‘What have we billed for every hour of labour we have paid for?’
    • Gross Profit = Revenue minus direct cost to generate revenue (including fee earner labour)
    • The key to profit is leverage: The number of fee earners per equity principal and the ratio of revenue earned per fee earner to their labour cost
    • Efficiency can be described as the ratio between revenue and the direct labour cost to produce that revenue
    • Warning: Numbers don’t lie but they can tell you the wrong story if you don’t read them correctly

If you are struggling to identify which KPIs are important for your business, more importantly if collecting said data in its complete form is also an issue, start tracking your Average Rate. This KPI will set your professional business on the right track.

Not sure where to start? Let us help guide you.

On-Demand Webinar:

The Most Important KPI for your Law Firm’s Profit Growth – Average Rate

Interested to learn more? Watch our recorded webinar to further drill down on how Average Rate can set the foundations for your firm’s profit growth. .

Watch Now

Our webinars are an opportunity to tap into our knowledge and challenge your thinking.

 

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We will help you get where you want to be. Let’s discuss how we can guide you.


    Ensure Your Firm’s Survival

    For a professional services firm to survive in uncertain times – including but not limited to pandemics – they must understand and critically evaluate these important questions:  

        1. What expenses are fixed and what are tied to revenue generating activities
        2. What return are you getting on the expenses directly tied to revenue generating activities?  
        3. How efficient are you at producing the work you are currently undertaking?  
        4. What is your firm’s average break-even point (BEP) per month?  
        5. If under the BEP, then what is the firm’s cash burn rate until they cross over the break-even point?  
        6. Does your firm have partner and operational alignment?

     

    1. What expenses are fixed and what are tied to revenue generating activities?

    The cost structures of your firm are fundamental to its longevity. Understanding the link and interrelationships between generating more revenue and the additional costs required (or the opposite), cost allocations, and fixed or marginal costs has significant impact on profitability.

    Understanding costs

    Understanding costs ensures your business is spending in the right areas, as costs are not only tied to profits of a stable business, but they’re also linked to generating revenue to grow or maintain current levels.

    One of the biggest mistakes even accountants make is incorrectly allocating fixed direct and indirect costs to review a ‘true’ reflection of the business and provide meaning.

    Total costs = Fixed costs + Variable costs

    Fixed costs

    When people think of costs they generally lean towards fixed costs, which are predominately tied to labour and the majority of your overhead expenses. Fixed costs are fixed for a known period of time and can only be broken with notice.

    Variable costs

    These are costs that increase or decrease with usage or volume of activities. The majority of variable costs are related to costs such as sales and marketing activities, direct costs (including labour or contractors), utilities or commissions.

    Costs allocations

    You will need to consider costs allocations in your business, especially at internal reporting levels. This will help identify profitability by team/business units, service/product lines and even the success of projects. To have effective costs allocations, first you need to identify the nature of costs and how they are assigned to each area of your business.

    Potential consequences

    COST TYPE ACTION POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES
    Fixed costs Decrease

     

    • Decreasing fixed costs can lead to greater profitability if sales remain unchanged or if gross profit drops by less than the decline in fixed costs
    • Risk if those costs are needed to generate revenue
    Increase
    • Increasing fixed costs can lead to greater profitability if sales increase through better service delivery by an amount which is sufficient to compensate for the increase in fixed costs
    • Risk if new revenue isn’t generated
    Variable costs Decrease
    • Decreasing variable costs can be effective if the product or service quality is retained
    • Risk if the service/quality levels drop and has consequential effect on sales
    Increase
    • Improvement in product or service quality involves increasing variable costs but allows a higher price to be charged. This can improve profits if the price increase is both accepted by the market and sufficient to offset the higher variable cost
    • Risk if the service or product cost increase is less than increase in revenue

     

    2. What return are you getting on the expenses directly tied to revenue generating activities?

    Once you have broken down your firm’s costs structure, your direct costs and revenue generated will need to be assessed and analysed. This will include the productivity/efficiency of your professional employees, but more importantly, your marketing and sales activity spends.

     

    3. How efficient are you at producing the work you are currently undertaking?

    For professional businesses, efficiency can be described as the ratio between revenue and the direct labour cost to produce service-related revenue. How efficient your work force can finalise client work (job), including write offs, is directly tied to capacity management and costs to produce your average revenue per job.

    By understanding the break down in efficiency, you can improve your direct costs, and even repurpose these costs savings to the right revenue generating activities.

    Determining your efficiency factor

    ‘Efficiency factor’ is calculated by dividing revenue by capacity available. The efficiency factor KPI is extremely important as it indicates:

    • which area of your business needs attention to increase profitability; and
    • whether you have capacity for growth; or
    • if you are carrying too much labour.

    Read more here: Understanding your Efficiency Factor

    Efficiency factor = Actual Revenue ÷ Capacity

     

    4. What is your firm’s average break-even point (BEP) per month?

    Once you understand the difference between your direct, indirect, variable, and fixed costs at a minimum, you can then determine what your average break-even point per month is to hit as a non-negotiable for the firm’s survival. Be careful – firms often make the mistake of assessing a lower cost month verse the current average cost spend.

    Break-even point = Fixed Costs ÷ Contribution Margin

     

    5. If under the BEP, then what is the firm’s cash burn rate until they cross over the break-even point?

    For most firms running at below cost turnover figures, it is even more critical to understand the firm’s cash burn rate (i.e. how fast you are losing money and at what pace). Once you understand this, then you will have an idea how much money it will take to get back on track. You can plan in advance for your firm’s survival.

    Calculating cash burn rate

        1. Select a relevant period for calculation (usually the current and last two months)
        2. Normalise these amounts for any expected seasonality (i.e. holiday wind up or down)
        3. Find the difference between the starting and ending cash balance for the selected period
        4. Divide the total by the number of months in the selected period
        5. This is your current cash burn rate. Compare to a calculation of the previous period(s) to determine a negative or positive trend. This will be better visualised via a graph for ease of understanding.

     

    6. Does your firm have partner and operational alignment?

    Partner alignment is when all partners are aligned to the business strategy, not necessarily to each other personally. Personal outcomes will drive behaviours in a business context.

    When a firm is trying to survive, this alignment is more important than ever.

    If you have decision makers making inconsistent decisions, your cost of doing business increases. The firm will also start to decrease its efficiencies (productivity), adding further costs above what costs are predicted to increase.

    You will also send mixed messages to your employees who will need to help the firm survive. This is dangerous and can lead to poor culture and employment turnover.

    The first step to building a successful partnership is to get REAL with each other on what your personal goals and objectives are. Once this is out in the open, you can focus on setting an agreed business strategy that is achievable.

    The business will have standard systems and processes that we must all adhere to for consistency, efficiency, and quality assurance. But each partner must still be able to produce their results using the resources of the firm, each team may have a slightly tailored approach depending on their skillsets and industry specialty.

    Your firm must have a purpose other than money as to why it exists, but remember if the firm isn’t profitable, then it won’t survive. If you think of the firm’s purpose as the body, then profit and cash are the oxygen and blood that keeps it going.

    A strong, focused, and aligned partnership, working towards a common goal, will endure and produce amazing results.

     

    On-Demand Webinar: Ensure Your Firm’s Survival

    Interested to learn more? Watch our recorded webinar to further drill down on the implications for your firm. This webinar looks at how today’s response can position your business to thrive tomorrow.

    Watch Webinar


    Our webinars are an opportunity to tap into our knowledge and challenge your thinking.

    Understanding your Efficiency Factor

    For professional businesses, efficiency can be described as the ratio between revenue and the direct labour cost to produce that revenue.

    The ultimate financial measure for an efficient practice is gross profit.  To improve gross profit from an efficiency perspective, you must ensure you carry the right amount of labour.  To determine the right amount of labour for your needs, you must have a “capacity management plan”. The starting point with a capacity management plan is to determine each team, department and wider businesses efficiency factor.

    Efficiency factor

    Efficiency factor is calculated by dividing revenue by capacity available.Efficiency Factor

    The efficiency factor KPI is extremely important as it indicates which affecting area needs attention to increase profitability, if you have capacity for growth, or are carrying too much. Refer to the below table as a guide from our experience.

    Efficiency Factor

    Capacity Management

    Capacity starts with understanding how many hours your professional employees are available to work, factoring all forms of expected leave and public holidays. The remaining hours will be what capacity is available (what’s possible).

    Applying these hours by the relevant professionals charge out rate will calculate this into a monetary value. Once you have calculated the efficiency factor KPI, then you need to analyse what the percentage ranges mean.

    Productivity

    Most professional businesses confuse their capacity management with the revenue component of a budget which usually incorporates a productivity target.

    Once administrative time is factored in, most professional businesses refer to this as a productivity target. Capacity management targets what should be possible for the business not what you would like to achieve.

    Affecting Factors

    Efficiency is influenced by the volume of work produced, number of revenues generating employees (fee earners), pricing of services, internal systems in place and the experiences of the professionals.

    Time to Review your Revenue Practices

    Firms become complacent, they continue the norms and assuming revenue will remain the way it always has. This is a dangerous thought process to fall into, and many firms step in and out of this mentality. With a slowing market in professional services sectors predicted over the next five years, “Legal” being one of the worst followed by “Accounting”, now more than ever is a good time to review and agree upon your practices revenue strategies. Remember HOPE is NOT a strategy.

    Types of Revenue

    The first place you start with any revenue strategy is coming back to the type of revenue your practice is generating. Revenue can be broken up into three high level categories.

    • Recurring revenue
    • Reactive revenue
    • Proactive revenue

    Proactive Revenue

    Proactive revenue is known revenue from year to year. For accountants, this can be your annual accounting services. For Lawyers, this can be retainers that you may have in place with your key clients. For Pharmacist, this can be your recurring prescriptions.

    Whichever professional services industry you belong to, this type of revenue is controllable and quantifiable, it is the amount that may change from practice to practice.

    Reactive Revenue

    Reactive revenue is revenue that walks into your door. Regardless of your Revenue targets, the customer comes to you. They may have purchased from you in the past, or it may just be convenient or circumstantial. This is revenue that is not controllable or quantifiable.  You must factor this into your revenue mix, but you cannot rely on it to occur.

    Proactive Revenue

    Proactive revenue is revenue that is controllable and quantifiable but requires resources to generate. Resources of both time and money. You need to create product and then you need to market a funnel for a said product while nurturing the qualifying process. Depending on your product and industry this may require more time and effort but less product to market, or vice versa. Using myself as an example. I specialise in advising professional businesses. I have defined what industry I work with and the range of services for the industry. I have a multi-channel marketing approach to reaching my audience. And half of my marketing activities can be quantified.

    Focus on what you can control

    Your practice needs to shift its revenue strategies to activities that can be controlled and have the potential to be quantified in some way. For all professional services industries, the activity categories can be separated out as follows:

    • Product
    • Marketing
    • Sales
    • Production and delivery
    • Client relationship management

    Time to Review your Revenue Practices

    The first three activities are related to winning the work, with the final activity ensuring the client comes back for work to be performed. This is the important activity in my opinion as it is much easier to sell services to existing relationship … so make sure you build one.

    Understanding Costs

    The cost structures of your firm are fundamental to its longevity. Understanding the link between more revenue and additional costs required (or the opposite), cost allocations, fixed or marginal costs has significant impact on profitability.

    Understanding costs will make sure your business is spending in the right areas as costs are not only tide to profits of a stable business, they’re also tide to generating revenue to grow or maintain current levels. Below are some initial area relating costs to challenge your thoughts for your business.

    Types of costs

    When people think of costs, they generally lead towards Fixed Costs which are predominately linked to labour and the majority of overheads. Fixed costs are fixed for a known period of time and can only be broken with notice.

    One of the biggest mistakes even accountants make is incorrectly allocating fixed direct and indirect costs to review a true reflection of the business to provide meaning.

    Then you have Variable Costs. These are costs that increase or decrease with usage or outcomes. The majority of variable costs are related to costs such as direct costs (including labour or contractors), utilities or commissions.

    Costs allocations

    You will also need to consider costs allocations in your business, especially at internal reporting levels. This will help identify profitability or team business units, service/product lines and even the success of projects. To have effective costs allocations, first you need to identify the nature of costs and how they are assigned to each area of your business.

    Potential consequences

    Cost Type Action Potential Consequences
    Fixed Costs Decrease

     

    • Decreasing fixed costs can lead to greater profitability if sales remain unchanged or if gross profit drops by less than the decline in fixed costs.
    • Risk if those costs are needed to generate of revenue.
    Increase
    • Increasing fixed costs can lead to greater profitability if sales increase through better service delivery by an amount which is sufficient to compensate for the increase in fixed costs
    • Risk if new revenue isn’t generated.
    Variable Costs Decrease
    • Decreasing variable costs can be effective if the product or service quality is retained.
    • Risk if the service/quality levels drops and has consequential effect on sales
    Increase
    • Improvement in product or service quality involves increasing variable costs but allows a higher price to be changed. This can improve profits if the price increase is both accepted by the market and sufficient to offset the higher variable cost.
    • Risk if the service or product cost increase is less than increase in revenue.

    Economic principles

    When applying economic principals to costs, there are a few key areas you need to understand. These are:

    • Profits are maximised when marginal costs equal marginal revenue
    • Shut down your business, business unit/service line or project when marginal and variable costs are equal
    • There is profit produced if price and quantity meet above average total costs

    Note – Economic principals assume there is perfect competition and no other factors come into play i.e. knowledge, location, relationship value. You need to apply additional factors that concern your business.

    Where do you start?

    If you’re unsure of where to start in your business, then simply start with identifying your firm’s cost structures. Assign responsibilities around costs moving forward and understand your cost links before performing a current cost structure review.

    Two Numbers

    It is easy to get lost in the numbers, especially when you don’t know where to look. Most of the time it’s a combination of knowing what data to gather and collecting said data in its complete form.

    Having analysed numbers for thousands of professional businesses, there are two high level KPIs that you need to focus on to drive performance within your business. These are Average Rate & Lock-up Percentage.

    Continually focusing on these two numbers gives you the framework to drive improvement in profit and cash flow. Average Rate directly correlates to driving the profitability while Lock-up Percentage focuses on improving cash flow.

    Average Rate

    Average Rate is the calculation of revenue received over professional employee labour paid. This KPI tracks performance of individuals, teams, departments and the business as a whole.

    At a very high level, this KPI tracks performance by incorporating productivity, write-offs and recoverability over direct labour costs. As this number increases, so does businesses profitability (margin).

    Average Rate = Revenue / Paid hours of direct labour

    Lock-up Percentage

    Lock-up is a term that refers to revenue that hasn’t been billed or collected. Lock-up is a combination of unbilled revenue (WIP) and revenue that has been billed but not yet collected (debtors).

    Lock-up Percentage is the rate once Lock-up is divided by annual revenue. This KPI is very important for cash flow. By tracking how many days revenue sits idle and its comparison to revenue as a whole, we can understand how we can release cash.

    If you’re struggling to identify which KPIs are important for your business, more importantly if collecting said data in its complete form is also an issue, start tracking Average Rate & Lock-up Percentage. These two key KPIs will set your professional business on the right track.