Netflix has just released a marvellous new documentary about Sir Alex Ferguson, Never Give In, in which the great man, now mercifully recovered from a cerebral haemorrhage, reflects at length on his life. It captures all the significant moments: growing up in Govan; being shaped by the values of the shipyard where he was apprenticed and later became a shop steward; his scarring experiences as a player at Rangers; domestic and European success at Aberdeen, which led him to Manchester United, where he overcame early struggles to become the most garlanded manager in the game.
One personal triumph was not mentioned. In 2010, when United awarded a mega-money contract to Wayne Rooney, Ferguson made it known that in his very firm view no player should ever be paid more than him. Without hesitation, the owners agreed, and from then on he was guaranteed to be the highest-paid person at the club. At a stroke, his income increased by millions of pounds a year.
Knowing one’s worth and not being afraid to assert it is such an important quality. So few lawyers have it. In years of working with firms of every size and shape, I’ve rarely come across one which does not underestimate its clients’ willingness to pay. “How often do you get pushback on fees?” I ask. “Never”, or “Hardly ever”, is the usual reply. They take it as a sign of client satisfaction, and in a way it is, but it is also a sign that they are short-changing themselves every day.
There are several reasons. First, because dealing with legal matters is our everyday bread and butter, it is easy to forget the importance of what we do. To the seasoned lawyer, for whom as life goes on there is less and less novelty, it’s easy to think of work as “just” a divorce, a conveyance, an executry, a case, a business deal. We forget that for the client, while it is happening, it is often the most important thing in life, and that has a profound effect on what they think is a fair price.
We lack confidence. Our starting point is gratitude for being instructed, which is fine, but not when accompanied by the fear that only if we charge modestly will the client stay. Clients are rarely driven away by price alone, and those that flee only in search of something cheaper are usually doing us a favour. If they feel they are getting a great service, have a close rapport with us, and understand in advance how fees are calculated, they will be willing to pay a substantial price. This is how good, profitable work is won and retained, not by being cheap.
Time is the enemy
Perhaps most of all, we are hindered by our continued fixation with time, asking “How long is this going to take?”, rather than “What is the value to the client?”
As the noted Australian lawyer and consultant John Chisholm puts it, “There is now irrefutable evidence that professional firms, including law firms, can ditch timesheets and the billable hour and still be viable and profitable. Moreover, the ones that have taken that step and instead price their services and products upfront like most businesses the world over, report the following benefits:
- substantially improved cash flow;
- reduction and often complete elimination of cost disputes with clients;
- improved value creation for their clients;
- enhanced relationships of trust with their clients;
- and a genuinely collaborative internal culture.”
Shifting the focus from hours to the only thing that really matters, results, allows us to think clearly about the worth of our work, and have transparent, upfront discussions with our clients about what a fair price looks like. It also allows us to escape the hamster-wheel mentality which is the bane of so many lawyers’ lives, where all that matters is the number of six-minute units one can produce (or pretend to) in a month, a quarter, or a year. It is little wonder that so many creative, aspirational professionals declare themselves miserable and burnt-out, toiling in such a regime.
The gateway to knowing one’s worth is a clear, logical method of calculating it, and value pricing is such a mechanism. But making the leap can be scary. Hourly pricing is a well-worn comfort blanket, and it is tempting to “always keep a hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse”. There is a big prize for having the courage to come out from behind her skirts.
Sir Alex was the epitome of a results-based professional. He served his club with the devotion of a samurai, but at the same time, understood where his own interests lay and was equally fearless in advancing them. It’s a fine example to follow, wherever we choose to play.
Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, non-exec and trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide.
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