All law firms — whether they are single-lawyer practices in the midwest or massive firms in NYC —- have one thing in common: They are looking for ways to make more money.
The most obvious path is to make more money by taking on more clients.
More clients = more cases = more money.
The math is pretty simple, right?
But what happens if you are already drowning in cases? Do you hire more lawyers? Where would you put them? Now you are talking about getting a bigger office space which means more overhead and higher bills, not more income.
If your firm is looking to drive revenue, the first step is to take a long look at the biggest profit-killer of all — soaring overhead costs.
What Drives Law Firm Overhead?
At law firms, overhead is generally any cost that is not related to a lawyer's (sometimes specifically partners') salary. That includes items like office rent, phone, internet, light bills, heating costs, printer paper, office supplies, paper products for the bathrooms, and even new boardroom tables.
But overhead costs can also include non-lawyer salaries, including paralegals, receptionists, researchers, assistants, or security guards.
Anything your firm pays for that doesn't directly generate income is overhead. And it is easy to let those costs get out of control.
Here's why — unlike a restaurant where one manager is in charge of all overhead costs, at law firms, multiple individuals can impact discretionary spending. Several partners and even non-partner lawyers can purchase new office furniture or charge meals out with clients.
The lack of centralization of overhead costs is just one driver of law firm overhead costs. Let's look at several other factors that may be increasing your firm's overhead costs.
Main Drivers of Law Firm Overhead — And How Your Firm Compares
How much of your annual budget goes to overhead costs? The number can be challenging to calculate, due in part to confusion about which costs should be considered overhead.
Once calculated, it can be helpful to understand how your firm compares to other firms.
According to Law Crossing, the average firm spends between 45% and 50% of overall earnings on overhead costs. And those costs mainly go towards office space, turnover costs, and technology.
Where Does That Money Go?
Turnover costs firms between 30% and 50% of the salary of entry- or mid-level employees and up to 150% of the salary of high-level employees. Technology has a high upfront cost, but allows firms reap benefits for years to come - particularly when those investments improve productivity.
The average firm spends between 9 and 12% of their overhead costs on rent. Office space overhead costs can vary by region and, in some cases, may allow firms to take on higher-profile (and thus more profitable) cases.
Devices, software, and research services can take up 4% of overhead costs. Technology has a high upfront cost, but allows firms to reap benefits for years to come - particularly when those investments improve productivity.
However, there are a few challenges when comparing your firm to the “average.”
First, many firms use different systems to calculate overhead. For example, one firm might consider any expense other than compensation to two partners to be overhead.
Another firm might use a different system — or have five or six partners. After all, a firm could simply make all associates partners and drastically reduce overhead — without actually cutting any costs at all.
Other factors that may impact overhead rates include your location, the size of your firm, and the type of law you practice.
For example, if your rent is a much higher percentage of your overhead, but it garners trust from more profitable clients, then it may be worth retaining your current location from a profit standpoint.
While understanding the “average” overhead rate is helpful, it should be used only as a comparison tool within reason.
How to Cut Your Law Firm Overhead
Most lawyers charge a lot of money but don’t end up actually making a lot of profit because their firms are expensive to run. Or, they get caught in a cycle of trying to grow and then trying to support that growth while profits leak away.
For many small law firms that haven’t adopted lean practices, overhead can cause them to leak out 60% or more of their revenue. It can literally drown their legal businesses.
There are two ways to fix theses profit leaks:
- Reduce overhead
- Increase cases without adding costs
Or, you can do both —- by reducing your costs and implementing technology solutions that make it easier for lawyers to spend more time on the legal work and less time on non-billable work like tracking hours or scheduling client meetings.
Here are four strategies for reducing law firm overhead and realizing higher profits.
Get Creative With Office Rent Costs
For many firms, rent is one of the highest overhead costs they have. And it's critical — unless you want to run a digital law firm, you have to have a place to do business.
But, are you getting the biggest bang for your rent buck?
- Is your office rent competitive for your location?
- Does your current location meet the needs of your firm, your clients, and your prospects?
- If you are considering moving to better quarters, can you "afford" it?
- Would current and prospective clients think more highly of the firm if you had better offices, thereby allowing you to take on higher-paying cases?
- Have you analyzed your current office space to see if it is being utilized at max efficiency? For example, are ghost meetings taking up valuable conference room space?
Next, look for creative ways to reduce office space costs — can you rent out a portion of your office? Move to a smaller location? Or can you add to your team (which would then allow your firm to produce more) and lower the overall ratio of income spent on rent?
Reduce Turnover Rates
High employee turnover rate is a profit killer — and here's why. For starters, interviewing, onboarding, and training a new employee can cost your firm big time.
How much? One study found that companies can expect annual costs related to employee turnover to increase to $680 billion by 2020.
Those costs can eat through profits. Here are several ways to reduce costs related to employee turnover:
- Start by hiring the right people: Instead of hiring the person who looks best on paper, look for the hire that matches your firm culture, who is willing to lean into what your firm stands for.
- Offer competitive pay: This might sound counterintuitive when you are looking at ways to cut costs, but it can pay in the long run by reducing turnover rates.
- Flexible working hours: The way we work is changing. A recent survey found that flexible working options are the "most important factor" 69% of workers consider when choosing a company to work for. Consider options such as longer four day work weeks, early or later starting times, and occasional work-from-home days.
Law firms are notoriously high-stress workplaces — which can drive overhead costs and kill profits. Focusing on employees as people is better for everyone — and it can improve your firm's bottom line.
Use Online Billing Software
A formal study by Thomson Reuters of more than 300 solo and small law firms discovered that attorneys spend 40% of their time on activities other than the practice of law. That time is often spent on tasks related to billing, admin, and research.
An easy way to increase profits is to allow lawyers to spend a much greater portion of their time on tasks only they can do. That means outsourcing tasks related to admin as much as possible to assistants, paralegals, and — in some cases — to software.
Online billing software can streamline time tracking, automatically create invoices, and even reconcile accounting data. This can free up lawyers to focus on cases that drive profits rather than admin tasks.
Law Firm Meeting Management Tools
One of the largest overhead costs law firms face is office rent. While you can't cut the cost of office space entirely, you can make sure you are making the most of your current space and reduce admin tasks with law firm meeting management tools like AskCody.
AskCody can help your firm:
- Reduce the amount of time you waste planning meetings.
- Streamline the guest check-in process by automatically sending directions, wifi login instructions, and meeting location updates.
- Track how hot desks and meeting rooms are used so your firm can maximize your current office space
- Order AV equipment, meals, and other equipment to meeting rooms right from their inbox.
By streamlining the meeting management process, your firm can focus on generating profits — without sacrificing client service.
Final Thoughts on Finding and Fixing Profit Killers
The legal field is continuously evolving, yet many firms remain rooted in the way they have always done things. The reality is, firms that want to grow in the coming years need to be prepared to leverage technological solutions like online billing, time tracking, and meeting planning software.
These solutions will allow your firm to reduce overhead costs and drive great profits — whether or not your firm takes on more cases.
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