In our last episode, "The billable beast of burden," I talked about the recent ABA Journal article that described Shepherd Law Group's successes in banishing the billable hour ("Taming the Billable Beast," February 2008). I also mentioned that there were naysayers about.
Tom Kane is one. He writes Legal Marketing Blog.com, a fine site with a surprisingly generic name for a marketing site. Perhaps "Raising Kane" was taken. (Actually, it turns out it was — see here — by a self-described "recovering lawyer." Huh.) Tom covers the ABA Journal article in his post "Has Your Firm Tamed That Damn Billable Hour Yet?" and commends us and the other two firms for addressing the billable hour problem. (Thanks, Tom.)
But he also takes a shot at something I said in the article, and I feel the need to respond. Here's Tom:
One troubling point mentioned in the article relating to the Shepherd firm. And that is the statement involving CEO Jay Shepherd that “he denies secretly keeping track of hours spent on each case.” If the firm doesn’t do so, IMHO, it is being foolhardy based on the following simple reasoning:
- You can’t make a profit on fixed fees unless you know what your costs are;
- You can’t know what your costs are unless you know how much time (and other dollars) are consumed by the matter; and
- There is no way to know how much time is being spent on matters if you don’t keep track of hours!
So, either they are guessing which means they don’t have a clue what their profit margin is either, or the firm has some other means of determining costs that I am unaware of.
"Duh," indeed! Wow. We're being foolhardy to the point of being duhed. (New word; pronounce it "dud." Think of me when you use it. "Hey, Mom! In school today my teacher duhed me.") So I was all set to roll up my sleeves and explain how Tom's "simple reasoning" (IHHO — in his humble opinion) was flawed, when I learned that the Godfather of Value Pricing had already done so.
Ron Baker is the founder of VeraSage Institute, a think tank dedicated to helping professional-service firms rid themselves of archaic billing practices. He is the author of Professional's Guide to Value Pricing, which is the ultimate hornbook on the subject. Having Ron publicly defend your billing practices is like having Martha Stewart compliment your table setting (only without the whole jail thing). Here's Ron in his post "He Who Says 'A' Must Say 'B,'" responding to Tom's "duh":
No, not Duh. There are over 500+ firms worldwide, across all professional knowledge firm sectors, from advertising to CPA firms and law to IT consulting firms, that don’t do timesheets.
This doesn’t mean they don’t know their costs, it’s a question of WHEN do they know their costs. With timesheets, you only know them in arrears. With our methods, you know them BEFORE you do the work.
What good is it to know your costs if the client doesn’t like your price? This is known as price-led costing; Toyota has been using since it was founded in the 1880s, and Toyota does not have a standard cost accounting system (nor do they do timesheets).
In the real world, value drives price, not costs. Price actually drives costs, so it makes sense to know value and price before you spend a nickel on any costs....
I just wanted to set the record straight. If the Shepherd Law Group is smart — and they are — they will trash timesheets. [Thanks, Ron. Already have. — JS] They are the cancer in the professions; it is just a matter time before they will be buried.
Ron also says that timesheets "keep professionals mired in the mentality they sell time." In another place, Ron has written one of the best arguments against timesheets ever:
So what good is measuring hours logged on a timesheet? Do you think you can measure the value of a Picasso, the deliciousness of a meal prepared by a five-star chef, the splendor of a building designed by an architect, or the acting ability of an actress, by looking at the hours they work? As they say, it’s easier to count the bottles than describe the wine. You remain mired in counting and costing the bottles, while we are interested in the quality, taste and subjective value of the wine.
Knowledge workers aren’t inspired to track every six minutes of their day. No one entered this profession with the objective of logging the most hours. Not only is it the wrong theory of value, it’s also demeaning, demonstrating a lack of trust, treating them like children.
Oh, snap! I really couldn't have said it better myself.
No, we don't track hours spent at Shepherd Law Group, secretly or overtly. Other lawyers often shake their heads knowingly and then ask me how I know whether my associates are working. "Uh," I reply, "with this crazy new thing called management." (They usually shake their heads some more and wander off, muttering.) Our associates work hard because they want to help our clients and they want to do a good job. That's why we call them professionals. Professionals don't need an annual billables goal to make them work hard.
Now I don't want to dis Tom too much; he's written some good things against hourly billing. And he went to my dad's alma mater, the Cross, so he can't be all bad. Still, he may think I'm foolhardy for trashing timesheets, but there will soon be many other "fools" following our lead.