Forecasting isn’t only for your local weatherman—it’s an essential legal process too. Fortunately, forecasting income and expenses isn’t as complex as predicting where the next hurricane will hit or when the first freeze of the year will occur. But, when you’re juggling all the tasks of running a law firm, the forecasting and budgeting process can seem both challenging and overwhelming.

Law school courses don’t teach you the practical aspects of running a business, even though they come up every day in real-life practice at a small firm, especially for solo practitioners.

Creating a solid budget and getting your law firm’s finances in order are imperative. This is the only way to stay competitive in the legal market.

The good news is that with the right strategy and management tools, your firm will be off and running. Let’s take a look at these critical processes and what steps you can take to create a budgeting plan.

What is budgeting?

A budget is an estimate of revenue and expenditures for a specific time period. Basically, it’s your law firm’s plan for sustainable financial success, and budgeting is the process of creating that plan.

Budgeting provides your law firm with a measuring stick for periodic review throughout the next year. If your law firm is hitting its goals, maybe it’s time for an office party! If it’s missing your desired milestones, it’s probably time to re-evaluate and adjust. Creating a comprehensive budget is the best way to proactively manage your law firm’s finances.

What do you need to consider before creating a budgeting plan?

A good budget is thoughtful and aligns anticipated revenue and expenses with goals.

What to include in your law firm budget will depend on the size of your firm, how long it’s been in operation, and what practice areas it specializes in. However, there are a few constants for all practices that you should consider when drafting your firm’s budget. Ask yourself these questions.

1. What are your firm’s expenses?

Don’t start your budget planning in a vacuum. Instead, start by thinking about your firm’s mandatory expenses.

·       What is required of the legal professionals at your firm?

·       What is the cost of bar association dues?

·       What do their CLE expenses look like for the year?

·       Does your firm maintain malpractice insurance?

·       What is the yearly premium?

·       What about subscriptions?

Additionally, think about staffing. If firm leadership is planning to add more employees to the firm, you’ll need to know whether your firm will have money to cash flow that addition. You’ll also want to consider the tangibles: the cost of office space, hardware, and legal and accounting software. What about upgrading to new technology? Or the cost of business cards? Note that some of these expenses will be incurred yearly, some monthly, and some only once.

2. What is your firm’s projected profitability?

Once expenses and other overhead costs have been itemized, your next step is to consider profitability (and to do so realistically).

Revenue is the money your firm receives from clients for legal services rendered. When you subtract expenses and overhead costs from revenue, you have net profit (otherwise known as the bottom line).

Think about net profitability in real terms: how many clients will your firm need to service over the next quarter (the next two quarters? the next year?) to bring in the desired level of revenue? Are your firm’s rates high enough to support the practice? What is the required cash flow to keep the lights on? Can improving your invoicing practices improve that cash flow? What about accepting alternative payment methods like credit cards?

If your law firm is hitting revenue milestones without increasing net profit, it means you might need to cut expenses and overhead costs. Be sure to consider seasonality when it comes to revenue. If you’re a tax firm, you’re likely booming in April and slow in July. With awareness, your firm can account for these patterns and set aside capital accordingly so that the necessary funds are still available during less profitable months.

3. How will you keep track of your budget?

Keeping track of your law firm budget can be time-consuming and stressful. Many new law firms will opt for Excel spreadsheets or budgeting templates to get started with tracking planned expenses and revenue. However, when your law firm grows and its workflow increases, keeping track of your law office budget on those tools might prove even more time-consuming and stressful. The right legal reporting software puts a host of budgeting and financial reports at your fingertips, each of which will help your law firm organize your finances, optimize your practice, and help you strengthen client relationships.

When it comes to how often to review your budgeting process, we recommend assessing your budget each month. This regularity will provide your law firm with a good idea of whether you need to make any adjustments. Additionally, your firm should review its budget yearly to adjust for goals, new practice areas, or unforeseen circumstances (like a market crash or, say, a global pandemic).

What are some tips and tricks for budgeting?

While budgeting will look different for each firm, we suggest a couple of tools of the trade to get you started on creating or rethinking your law firm budget.

Think short-, mid-, and long-term

Setting your law firm goals is one of the first steps in creating a workable budget. Goals are a benchmark to help you determine where to put capital and where to cut costs.

We recommend classifying your goals into the following categories: (1) short-term goals that you can reach in the first six months of your fiscal year, (2) mid-term goals that can be reached by the end of your fiscal year, and (3) long-term goals that will take your firm longer than a year to reach. Also make sure that each set of goals is specifically laid out, measurable, and realistic.

Work smarter, not harder

Using the right tools and legal tech can transform a firm’s profitability and law practice management. While it may seem like just another line item expense, technology can actually help keep your costs low through workflow and document automation, which frees up your lawyers and staff to work on billable matters (i.e., tasks that pay).

The right legal tech will help your firm simplify nonbillable tasks like client intakepractice managementbilling and collections, and time tracking. With more time for billable work, your firm can raise its revenues. And with the right tech that offers a streamlined experience and integrations, your firm will minimize its use of subscription services and administrative time and thus minimize your overhead costs. The result is the perfect recipe for increased profitability.

Keep an eye on trends

We aren’t yet out of uncertain times, and keeping a pulse on what’s to come is important when setting your budget. If your law firm hasn’t yet undergone a full return to the office, your budget may need to include capital for the transition. Or, if your law firm has stayed committed to a hybrid workplace, you might still need to budget for increased tech costs and stipends to employees.

Additionally, many law firms are amplifying their marketing strategies. It’s likely worthwhile to consider how marketing efforts can fit into your budget and increase awareness and thus revenue.

What are the differences between forecasting and budgeting? How do they play into one another?

Budgeting and forecasting are both helpful tools that your law firm can and should use to establish a financial plan. As discussed throughout this article, budgeting is the game plan for where firm management wants to take the firm.

Essentially, your budget is an outline of financial expectations and goals. Forecasting, on the other hand, is interpreting whether that plan is working and whether the firm is moving in the right direction by estimating revenue, costs, and ultimately profit that will be achieved at a future date. Generally, forecasting looks at historical data (like last year’s or last quarter’s profits) and then anticipates future outcomes based on it. It’s like a crystal ball, but only better because it’s filled with cash.

Forecasting helps firm management make needed adjustments in practice areas by hiring in anticipation of a boom and, more generally, helps you develop an informed business plan. You can then take that informed business plan into consideration when developing a budget.

It’s time to start creating your law firm budget

With some critical thinking and the right tools, your firm will be ready for the coming year. Remember that no budget is perfect, but by having one in place and monitoring it regularly, your law firm can forecast big changes and adjust as needed.

Think faucet, not ocean. When you think about your law firm’s cash flow, it shouldn’t ebb and flow like the tide. It should be a constant, steady stream.

But if your law firm is like many others, you may have been struggling to ensure your cash flow stays consistent — especially in the aftermath of the pandemic. This can really hurt your firm’s bottom line.

Most small law firms and midsize law firms have past due accounts, which can kill your cash flow and make it possible to pay your employees and bills. And it’s often uncomfortable to ask your clients for money!

Some practice areas may be doing better than others. But no matter the current state of your law practice’s financial health, you’ll always find that there are opportunities to reduce costs, improve lawyer productivity, and get more cash in the door.

How can I improve my law firm’s cash flow management?

If you’re struggling to keep your firm’s cash flow consistent, here are 10 steps that you can take to improve your law firm’s current cash flow.

1. Assess your law firm’s financial health.

If you haven’t yet taken the time to do a deep dive into the status of your law firm’s finances, start there. One place to start is by projecting your firm’s cash flow by month, quarter, and year.

Begin by understanding your fixed expenses, such as your rent and utilities. Then add in fluctuating costs such as payroll. Consider whether there are any opportunities to reduce your costs by negotiating with your service providers, such as your phone or internet companies, or to set up a fixed payment structure for your utilities so you can better predict your expenses.

Once you’ve pinned down your costs, it’s time to estimate how much client revenue you expect to receive. This will give you a sense of whether you’ve got a negative or positive cash flow.

2. Establish a cash flow forecast.

Once you get a handle on your law firm’s current finances, you’ll be able to create an accurate cash flow forecast. And with the right practice management software, you’ll be able to quickly generate billing and accounting reports so you can understand your incoming receivables, study where you’re making and losing money, and compare your firm’s cash flow over time.

3. Make it easier for lawyers to bill their time.

When legal professionals are busy and stressed, they’re less likely to focus on keeping accurate accounts of where they spend all of their billable hours. If the lawyers in your firm aren’t keeping up to date with the hours they bill, you’re likely suffering from billing leakage. They may be losing up to 30% of their billable time!

This is especially true if you’re working on fixed-fee projects. It’s all too easy for projects to creep in scope and for lawyers to provide work that they don’t charge their clients for. To make it easier for your lawyers to capture every billable minute, implement technology that automatically captures their time throughout the day for calls, texts, emails, appointments, and more.

4. Make it easier for clients to pay you.

If you’re struggling to get your clients to pay on time, it may be because there’s friction in your payment processes. Set up a system that accepts different payment options, including online payments, to streamline your invoicing and collection processes. If you aren’t already sending your clients bills by email, now is the time to start.

Typically, accepting credit cards will expedite your payment cycle and make it easier to track incoming cash. It may be worth paying a small convenience fee to a processor to get payments in the door more quickly.

5. Unlock cash that’s locked up in your firm.

Speeding up payment requires firms to lower the time between completion of work and billing. Make sure your lawyers are invoicing for their billable hours as soon as possible — either when work is completed or at a reasonable point in the interim.

If your attorneys take too long to review their bills, send them reminders and set a policy that bills must be reviewed within a set number of days. Clients don’t like it when they receive bills months after work is completed. And it’s often helpful for clients to receive a bill at the beginning of the month, which is often right after their payday.

You may also entice clients to pay faster if you offer a discount for earlier payment, such as within 15 or 30 days of your invoice. Typical discounts are between 3 and 5 percent of the bill.

6. Follow up with clients about unpaid invoices.

The longer an invoice remains open, the less likely it is to be paid, so review your accounts receivable regularly and set a cadence for following up.

It can be uncomfortable to ask clients for payments. But it’s necessary to have these conversations and offer your clients a solution, if necessary. Instead of asking clients when they can pay you and how much, it’s often more effective to present payment plans to your clients. Consider proposing a 60-day plan with installment payments, which may make the overdue amount more palatable. Another effective strategy is offering clients a brief email reminder with a link to pay online.

Because lawyers in your firm may worry about jeopardizing client relationships, it may make sense to have a billing or accounting professional manage the collections process; you may also want to consider outsourcing collections to a third-party provider.

7. Avoid surprises on your bills.

If your client retainers are running low, increase them before you run out to avoid shelling out cash that won’t be replenished immediately.

You should also avoid surprising clients with billing for items they don’t expect. Make sure your agreements spell out upfront what new clients should anticipate. If you have an unexpected expense or if you have a large bill, prepare the client with a short call to make sure they fully understand the cost before they get your invoice. This way, you’re more likely to avoid the need for write-offs.

8. Pay your firm’s bills on time.

Make sure that you are paying your bills when they’re due. If you pay them after their due dates, you’re likely exposing your firm to late fees. And if you pay too early, you’re tying up cash that you could use for other purposes.

9. Set aside a cash reserve.

You should have enough cash saved up to cover all of your law firm’s expenses in case of a rainy day (or, say, a global pandemic). Use your cash flow analysis to predict your expenses and set aside an amount sufficient to pay your firm’s bills for three months. That way, you won’t have to panic in case you experience a seasonal slump or another temporary downturn.

Some law firms also establish a line of credit to ensure they have an additional financial cushion in the event of a shortfall. If you don’t use it, you won’t incur any interest, and it will be there for you when, and if, your firm needs it.

10. Establish metrics that enable you to measure your cash flow.

Setting reasonable key performance indicators will help you keep your firm on the right path. For example, you might track the number of days that bills remain outstanding and measure whether that number drops over time. Or you might study the change in your working capital over time, which is a ratio of your current assets divided by your current liabilities.

You can also account for variances that may account for any changes in your forecasts. The possibilities are almost limitless, especially if you have access to reporting features in your billing or practice management platform.

How can technology improve my law firm’s cash flow?

The most successful law firms integrate their accounting processes with a cloud-based practice management software platform that helps them improve their firm’s efficiency, productivity, and profitability.

When your firm chooses the right technology, you help your timekeepers eliminate countless minutes that they would otherwise spend on administrative tasks — including timekeeping, invoicing, and collecting on overdue invoices — that take away from your revenue. And you can more accurately (and quickly) project your firm’s finances and study your historical and projected cash flow so you can plan more accurately and set realistic goals for the months and years to come.

We’ve talked before about the importance of legal analytics and legal technology for law firms. If you’ve already made the leap to using a cloud-based legal management system, you might be overwhelmed by all the data it’s collecting. After all, most lawyers don’t moonlight as statisticians.

It’s difficult for leaders to know what metrics are the most important for the firm’s success in the long term and how to use those metrics to make higher-level decisions that help drive law firm profitability. The best way to start is by tracking the metrics with a convenient and easy-to-use tool that keeps them organized all in one place.

That tool is called a dashboard. Every law practice can use dashboards to easily track financial metrics, make informed decisions, and grow their business.

What is a dashboard?

A dashboard is a customizable page that uses simple graphs and visuals to monitor key performance indicators (KPIs) in real-time.

Usually, a dashboard is a landing page and part of a larger cloud-based law firm management platform. Dashboards provide law firm management with an easy-to-digest snapshot of the metrics and relevant data for their goals. Instead of struggling to understand the big picture, dashboards provide much-needed perspective and turn raw data into actionable information.

Dashboards are a tool to help law firms increase productivity and stay on track. They empower law practice management to monitor progress and make informed decisions that drive firm strategy, hiring, staffing, pricing, and more.

Dashboards aren’t just for law firm management. They can also help lawyers and staff monitor appointments, tasks, and individual metrics. Access to dashboards helps employees stay on task and improve their collaboration while allowing management to do a deeper dive into individual employee productivity.

What are data points?

Data points are raw numbers without any context. Data points are the building blocks for the information that is displayed on the dashboard. Data informs metrics and KPIs and the graphics that appear on your screen.

Legal technology platforms constantly collect data. For example, when timekeepers input data (like their billable hours or completed tasks) into a case management system, it is automatically populated and incorporated into other aspects of the software and may also interface with other technology solutions.

A great example of a data point is the number of employees in your law firm, the number of daily website views, or an employee’s time spent on a particular task, like billing. Data points are different from metrics because you can’t influence them. Data is data, no matter how you spin it.

What are metrics?

Metrics add meaning and context to data sources and inform KPIs. Metrics measure the overall health of a law firm. Law firms track key metrics to create KPIs that measure progress toward achieving a larger business goal.

Some examples of metrics are the actual minutes or hours that lawyers spend on particular billable tasks per week (instead of just a raw number), the lawyer turnover rate in the office, or the percentage of new clients who view the website and request a consultation.

What are key performance indicators (KPIs)?

KPIs reflect a law firm’s progress (or lack of progress) toward achieving a particular goal. They are forward-thinking data collected to analyze productivity.

KPIs are based on specific metrics related to different aspects of a law firm’s functionality, including budgeting and billing, education and training, overall client satisfaction, and internal processes. The law firm’s leaders identify a goal based on the metrics and then use KPIs to measure progress toward that goal.

KPIs based on our example above include reducing the time that lawyers spend on billing processes by 25% each month, generating 30% more clients in the upcoming year, or retaining employees for at least 3 years.

Data points are the foundation for a metric, which gives data meaning. Then the metric (or multiple metrics) are used to create a KPI and monitor progress towards a particular goal.

What are the best practices surrounding dashboards?

Dashboards are only as helpful as the information that they display. Even though they are simple, dashboards require some forethought to set up. Legal practice leaders should take time to customize their dashboards to be the most practical and effective.

Define your KPIs

Before using your dashboard, you’ll need to have KPIs. A clearly defined KPI helps you achieve your business goals. It keeps everyone in the office on the same page and makes your dashboard more useful. A well-defined KPI is SMART: it is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound, meaning that it has a specific deadline.

A great example of a KPI is to bill 25% more hours in the first half of the fiscal year. This KPI is clearly defined so that every timekeeper can get on the same page. It is a realistic goal that can be measured and tracked throughout the designated period.

Declutter the dashboard

A dashboard is designed to be a snippet overview of your progress toward reaching KPIs and the health of your law firm. Most law firms have many different business goals that change over time. It is important that you declutter your dashboard and only focus on the most important KPIs for your purposes.

If there is too much information on your dashboard, it takes away from the tool’s simplicity. The more data that’s displayed, the harder it is to quickly digest important trends and track progress. As time passes and you reach certain goals, you can re-evaluate your dashboard and add or subtract KPIs as necessary.

Use multiple dashboards

The great thing about dashboards is that you can have more than one. Instead of having a dashboard that tracks everything under the sun, you can set up different dashboards for each area of the business. For example, you should have a dashboard dedicated to financial metrics and a separate one dedicated to client metrics.

Using multiple dashboards also lets employees track the metrics as they relate to their own performance and responsibilities. To reach your law firm goals, you’ll need to rely on your staff. By giving timekeepers access to their own dashboard and the ability to track their own metrics, it keeps them focused and sets clear expectations for their work. Instead of nagging lawyers about how they spend their time, they can self-monitor and make adjustments along the way.

What metrics should my law firm track with dashboards?

Your law practice can use a legal dashboard to track just about any metric. Law firms should consistently track financial, learning and growth, client services, and project management metrics for every practice area. Each of these categories should have a dashboard that reflects the KPIs related to them.

Of course, many of these metrics tend to relate to a law firm’s financials. After all, streamlining internal processes, increasing lawyer productivity, and having happy clients all affect revenue. An easy way to start is by creating a dashboard to track financial metrics.

What financial metrics should my firm track?

Small and mid-size law firms that want to grow will benefit from tracking some combination of the following financial metrics:

  1. Billable hours by timekeeper
  2. Average billing rates
  3. Revenue per lawyer
  4. Revenue billed vs. revenue collected
  5. Realization rates
  6. Collection rate
  7. Utilization rate
  8. Law firm debt
  9. Operating account balances
  10. Annual costs
  11. Accounts receivable outstanding
  12. Net income as a percentage of the revenue
  13. Overhead
  14. Fee per ongoing matter
  15. Fee per new matter
  16. Revenue per employees

Just because law firms should track all of these financial metrics doesn’t necessarily mean they should all be included on the same dashboard. Law firms need to take the time to identify the metrics that are specific to reaching their financial KPIs. Law firm management may opt to have multiple financial dashboards that subdivide these metrics even further.

What are the benefits of a good dashboard?

A well-thought-out dashboard can benefit a law firm by driving productivity and helping the overall business development. Dashboards help law firm leaders turn data into usable information to inform decision-making. They are an excellent tool to track financial performance and monitor the firm’s finances without wasting time staring at meaningless numbers. Dashboards can also be used in conjunction with other best practices, like reporting, to increase the bottom line.

Well-organized dashboards can also keep law firm management focused on the big-picture goals for the business instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae. Plus, dashboards can help keep everyone in the office on the same page about firm performance and give them the business intelligence they need to focus on their role in growing the firm.

When you think about the function of a law firm, your thoughts probably go straight to the provision of legal services. But law practice administrators must recognize that their firms are also revenue-earning businesses that need money to operate. For this reason, it is imperative to keep tabs on financial performance. They need to know whether the firm is bringing in enough revenue, as well as whether strategies and expenditures benefit or hurt the firm.

With regular reporting and analytics, firms can track metrics that provide valuable detailed financial analysis. This blog will take a closer look at some of those metrics, including what data they provide and how often firms should review them.


As the name suggests, these reports provide a detailed look at the law firm’s finances, including how much money is coming in, how much is on hand, and how much is being spent. To gain a complete view of a firm’s financial status, administrators can consider the following financial reports:

Firm Productivity

Law firms need to keep an eye on the productivity of the firm in order to promote efficiency, cost savings, and maximized profitability. While we tend to think of productivity as the pace of work being completed, there are a number of additional factors to consider within a law firm environment:


Many law firms pour extensive amounts of money into their marketing strategies with little understanding about the effectiveness of their efforts. The following marketing performance indicators need to be part of a law firm’s regular reporting process so that administrators can evaluate what approaches are working and what needs to be tweaked:

Practice Area Performance

Law firms often build their practices around a single niche or a few specific practice areas. But societal changes can result in evolving needs among potential law firm clients. For example, the pandemic brought about a surge in such practice areas as bankruptcy, health law, and employment law.

Firms should take a look at the performance of their practice areas at least annually to determine whether they are still performing at a profitable level. This data can be collected externally from legal industry reports and studies, as well as internally from practice area comparisons of new matters and revenue generation. The information can then be used to make crucial decisions about the firm’s practice area direction.

Law Firms Need Regular Reporting to Stay Financially Healthy

These are only examples of the numerous types of reports that help law firm administrators evaluate the viability of the practice. It’s important that administrators identify metrics that specifically speak to the health of their firms and take steps to monitor them on a regular basis. With weekly and monthly reporting, administrators can promote what is working and make timely changes to address what is not.

With the continuing change in the landscape for law firms, it is increasingly important for firms to understand where their most profitable areas of practice lie. Gone are the days of multi-generational client loyalty. As a result, firms must hone their skills and identify the areas that are most beneficial in adding to the bottom line. Regardless of how altruistic your firm’s core values are, without a profitable business, you will be unable to support your clients or your employees.

There are multiple metrics a firm can monitor to ensure financial success. Having good billing protocols is a good place to start. Once those procedures are functioning well, you can accurately identify which areas of practice are most beneficial to your firm. Knowing where you should be focusing your assets (time) allows you to strategically make decisions on what cases to accept and what cases should be declined or referred out.

Identify Your Practice Areas

Begin this process by identifying the practice areas in which your firm most often practices, and ensure they are entered into your billing system. Using a billing system that allows you to identify practice areas and run reports quickly and efficiently is an important piece of this process. The identification of practice area should be a part of your client intake protocol to ensure that cases are properly identified at the outset.

Identify Departments

Depending on firm size, there are different ways to go about the identification of departments. If your firm typically has specific attorneys and staff working in each practice area, it is intuitive to define your departments by practice area. You may have a real estate department, a civil litigation department, a criminal litigation department, and a corporate department, for example.

If most of your attorneys are working across multiple areas of practice, you may want to define your departments by supervising attorney rather than by practice area. This will allow you to determine whether profitability is impacted by practice area or by managing attorney, for example.

Start Monitoring Your Metrics

Once you have identified the practice areas you want to track and how you would like to divide your billable timekeepers (attorneys and paralegals) into departments, you can start monitoring the revenue you are seeing from each practice area and department. By putting your clients into buckets of practice areas, you can:

  1. Identify the average Client Acquisition Costs (CAC) for each practice area;
  2. Identify the average Client Lifetime Value (LTV) for each practice area;
  3. Determine the net revenue for each practice area;
  4. Determine the overall profitability for each department.

Client Acquisition Costs (CAC)

The cost to acquire a client may be different depending on the practice area. Your physical injury cases may come to you through television advertising, which is going to have a different cost than your probate clients, who may come to you through word of mouth. By identifying your client acquisition costs by practice area, you can get a more accurate evaluation of the true profitability of each case type.

Client Lifetime Value (LTV)

Likewise, the lifetime value of a matter is going to be different by practice area. As is the case with acquisition costs, by identifying your average lifetime value by practice area, you can drill down even further on profitability by case type.

Net Revenue By Practice Area

Once you have calculated the average acquisition cost and lifetime value for your cases by practice area, you can determine an overall average net revenue for each area. This does not take into account the costs of your timekeepers or firm overhead – this is strictly net revenue after taking into account the cost to acquire the matter. For example:

Net Revenue By Department

Once you have calculated the net revenue by practice area, you can break things down even further to determine your revenue by department. In this calculation, you add in the direct costs of your timekeepers in each department.

To begin, you need to have calculated the hourly cost for each of your timekeepers. By knowing what it costs for each of your timekeepers to work one hour, you can calculate their costs in each practice area by running a report showing total hours billed by practice area or department. In the example below, the firm’s departments are identified by practice area:

Using What You Have Learned

Now that you know what it costs your firm to conduct business by practice area and department, how can you use this information?

  1. Narrow your focus. Knowing where your firm is most successful financially, you can use this information to focus more on the areas that help to meet your financial goals.
  2. Better identify your firm’s mission and vision. Using this information can help to bring clarity to what you are doing. Having clarity will help everyone in your firm to perform better!
  3. Learn to say no. Once you have decided on the areas on which you will focus, learn the difficult task of saying no. Taking work that does not benefit your firm will only create a financial loss and take focus of your valuable assets (your attorneys) away from the work they should be doing. That doesn’t mean you can’t take on loss leaders if you think they will bring value in other ways, but you can be more intentional about those decisions.
  4. Identify who should be performing what tasks and delegate accordingly. If there are areas of practice that you do not want to give up but you see that the current timekeepers performing the work do not allow you to be profitable in those areas, how can you change that? Are there younger associate attorneys who can handle the tasks currently being performed by senior associates or partners? Are associates performing tasks that could be performed by paralegals? Have you considered the option of using of counsel or part-time attorneys for some areas? The options are endless once you have the knowledge to make informed decisions.

By identifying these important metrics for your law firm, your firm can become more profitable, and your attorneys will be more fulfilled and effective with an improved clarity of focus.

There are a lot of fancy definitions for the term “strategic planning.” But at its core, all it means is to pinpoint a direction you want to go and then make decisions on how you plan on allocating your resources to get there. It is important to see the difference between strategic planning and marketing. And you may raise an eyebrow at that, but you’d be surprised how often people view these as the same thing. Strategic planning encompasses many operations of your business. Marketing is merely a piece of that coupled with things like your budgeting and reporting.

It is very important to note that strategic planning is not about grand ideas or mission statements. It is about where you want to be and how you’re going to get there, all within a short and defined timeframe that is typically no longer than 5 years at a time. 

Typically, smaller firms can respond more quickly to changing conditions than larger firms, and because of this, there is a temptation for the smaller firms to get lackadaisical in their planning. Larger firms know that it is significantly harder to pivot, so they prepare and they do not take their strategic planning lightly. 

Key Elements to Strategic Planning

  1. Top-down planning process

From a high level, strategic planning consists of what we call a top-down planning process. Your firm has to first set the overall goal and then create a realistic framework and path that will allow you to get there.

  1. Measurable objectives

For instance, if you set a goal for your firm to have a family law practice area in two years, the next question you have to immediately start asking is how are you going to achieve that? Your goals must always be measurable. Period. There have to be measurable objectives, otherwise reaching that end target is going to be very difficult and you’ll be more likely to set goals that are unrealistic in that proposed time period. 

  1. Resource analysis

Once you’ve set your goal and defined your measurable objectives, the next thing you need to do is analyze your resources. What skills do you already have within your law practice and if you’re missing skills, what are you going to do to fill those gaps? Are you going to go out and learn them or are you going to hire people with those skills? When you begin analyzing your results, you need to also ask yourself, what do you need to get there? Sometimes firms will opt to hire an outside consultant to help guide them, others prefer to make those decisions on their own. Either way, you should figure out what assets you have and which assets you still need.

  1. Regular status meetings 

Schedules are busy, but it is essential that you and your team find time to pencil in status meetings into your calendar. Part of the reason you set measurable goals is so that you can measure them. These meetings don’t have to be once a week, they could be bi-weekly or once a month, but they do need to happen, and you do need to communicate with your team and constantly be monitoring your progress. Time always moves faster than you think, don’t let timelines and due dates sneak up on you. 

  1. Budget

Set a reasonable budget and adhere to it. You need to be asking yourself, what does your law firm's cash flow look like this year? How about your net income by year-end? Having a quality budget in place removes the guesswork and ensures you end up where you want to go. Additionally, ensure you have a good general ledger chart of accounts. If you are not familiar with the chart of accounts, it is simply a list of income and expense categories used to track your spending. Building a budget is a very crucial step in the process, if you’re wavering on how to begin, check out our 4 tips on building a better budget.

How to Plan

Planning is not everyone’s strong suit and that’s okay! However, having the ability to plan is crucial when you begin targeting and mapping out your firm’s future. Fortunately, being a planner is a learned skill for most people. But they say you don’t know what you don’t know, so if you’re unsure if you fall into this category, there are plenty of personality tests that you can take that will give you an idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® is a great resource if you’re curious! Additionally, check out seminars from the American Management Association and the Chamber of Commerce. 

Financial Basics

Strategic planning sounds great, right? But what if you don’t have the financial background to adequately develop these plans? Don’t sweat it, you don’t need to have a degree in economics to know what you’re doing. 

The key is to have a benchmark or expectation to see why your actual figures differ from expectations and take action based on what you find. The expectation in our financial management function is why we need a strategic plan and a sound budget. To start, use current and past budgets to create an expectation. Don’t make this part harder than it needs to be, take the information you already have and use it to build out the broader picture. 

There are five basic financial statements you should be reviewing every month to help your strategic planning efforts:

The Balance Sheet

This shows the financial position of a company at a specific point in time. This is usually run or prepared the first week after the close of each month. So if you’re going to look at your March financials, for example, you’re going to run them the first week of April. 

This is why it is so critical that you have all of the financial transactions posted to your chart of accounts on a timely basis. If you’re at a larger firm and the accounting team starts putting pressure on you to get your timesheets in, this is why. If you haven’t posted all your costs, advances, your time, and complete your billing, then your reports will not be accurate.

Remember this formula: Assets = Liabilities + Equity

Your balance sheet is somewhat customizable when you’re comparing your designated points in time. You could choose to report on your current month, your activity year-to-date in a comparison against budget, or it could show you year-to-date in previous years. If you’re using a practice management system, you should have the ability to generate such reports. It is important to note that not every software gives you the ability to customize your reports whenever you want them. Many vendors will only offer boxed, off-the-shelf reports, so be wary of this, as typically firms end up needing more flexibility in their reporting than they initially expect or anticipate. 

Income Statement

This reports on a company’s revenue and expenses over a period of time. Typically, the income statement is reported every month. Most law firms tend to lean towards cash basis accounting meaning that revenue is not earned until it has been received. Therefore, your income statement and balance sheet do not show accounts receivable or WIP. Those are separate, internal reports that you can run with your accounting software. Keep in mind that although these reports are run separately, they are crucial for your law practice. 

We cannot express to you enough how essential it is to have a good chart of accounts so that your reports are meaningful. An issue that will make your accounting reports difficult to read is if there is not enough account detail in those chart of accounts. The chart of accounts should reflect the way your law firm is organized, for example (to name just a few) you could have reproduction expense, marketing expense, technology expense, partner compensation expense, etc. Doing this will make your reports more specific and meaningful to you.

Now, when you’re looking at gross profit and net income, or net profit, an important test to conduct is to look at your top paying clients and add up what these people or groups are earning for your firm. Then take that number and look at it as a percentage of the gross revenue. This is a good indication of how flexible your law practice would be if you suddenly lost that work. An even more telling test would be to do that same calculation, take your most lucrative type of work, and view that as a percentage of your net income. For a lot of law practices, this can be quite scary because it will show that they have very little to no flexibility at all.

Statement of Cash Flow

This reconciles net income to the change in cash by showing sources and uses of the cash.

On cash flow statements, you’ll typically see net income first, followed by adjustments in reconciled net income, cash from operating activities, and depreciation. Other line items you might have include cash flows from investing activities and financing activities. 

Owner’s Equity Statement

The owners’ equity statement outlines the changes in the owners’ equity accounts during the year. 

In this statement, you will have members’ equity at the beginning of the year, then any contributions added by those members, added net income (money before distributions), and then finally the members’ equity at the end of the year following the dispersal of those distributions. 

Putting it all Together

Now that we have taken a high-level look at these key statements, how do they all relate to each other? Are they even connected? Do they make a difference when you begin thinking about your strategic plan for the future of your firm? Let’s see... 

So let’s look at the balance sheet, statement of owner's equity, the cash flow statement, and the income statement. If you look at your cash, this will be showing on your balance sheet and your cash flow statement. Your net income is also shown on your statement of owners’ equity, the cash flow statement, and it is also shown on the income statement. Owners’ equity is shown on the balance sheet, and of course on the statement of owners’ equity as well. 

So you can see why naturally, all the statements have to balance and agree with each other. They are all interconnected and work to provide checks and balances to your firm.

All of these statements will ensure that your books are balanced and in order. Without this information, you will not be able to strategically plan for your future. Finance is all about the details and monitoring the cash coming in and the cash coming out of your firm. You don’t have to go at this alone, technology today has made it much easier to strategically plan and build out these reports the way you need them. If you’re unsure of where to start, take a breath, think about the direction your firm wants to go, and slowly begin mapping out how you will get there. 

In, Accounting 101 for Law Firms we discussed how when firms are asked, “How do you want to define growth?” The leading response is always through revenue

That is great, right?! “Revenue.” We all love this word, it’s great a great way to track performance, but how do you actually track revenue? Is it as easy as simply counting the dollars that come through your door? We wish. 

The first thing you need to do is start utilizing KPIs. Your key performance indicators will be your best friends and the figures you need in order to answer the question, “how do I track my firm’s revenue?” It is important to note that these indicators are merely that, indicators. You should use them as a guide and lean on customized reports to really gain valuable insight into the productivity and performance of your firm.

At the end of the day, your firm is a business, so although you have spent 10,000+ hours honing your craft as an attorney or legal professional, you still have to be able to wear that business hat to keep the lights on. 

That may sound dreadful, but don’t let the idea of numbers discourage you! These metrics can be used to help you make real-time business decisions that are going to greatly impact the future of your firm.

Profit Margin

To jump right in, let’s talk about profit margins. That is how many cents on the dollar are you able to push into your pocket at the end of the day. If it is 35%, that means you get $0.35 of every dollar at the end of the day. Your profit margin can be looked at as your net income divided by your revenue.

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Average Rate Billed Per Hour

Next, think about how much your time is actually worth, or rather, your average rate billed per hour. This can be calculated over multiple time frames, but make sure the time frames you choose are always the same. So if you’re looking at the total hours billed for the month, don’t divide it by the total hours billed for the quarter. All of your time frames must match, otherwise, you’re comparing apples to oranges. You can calculate this amount by dividing the total hours billed for whatever time period you’re looking at, by the total dollars billed in that same period.

[cb_calculator name="AVG Rate Billed Per Hour" title=" " formula="Average Rate Billed Per Hour = Total Dollars Billed / Total Hours Billed"]

Collection Percentage

The next KPI is important: your collection percentage. You work hard week in and week out, and although you may know how many hours you billed each week, do you know how many of those hours you’re actually getting paid on? It is easy to rattle off those initial billable numbers, but the numbers you have to dig for below the surface are much more valuable. So when you’re thinking about your collection percentage, take the total cash you have collected in a time period and divide it by the total dollar amount billed in that time period.

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Operating Expense Per Timekeeper

Some more advanced ratios include things like how much do you spend per timekeeper at your firm? This is very important to look at. All you need to do here is take your total operating expense that you would get from your Profit and Loss statement and divide it by the number of timekeepers at your firm. This is going to give you a really great insight into how much it costs to actually run your business. 

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Profitability by Client

Where it gets interesting is where you can use the figure you calculated from the operating expense per timekeeper to determine if you and your team are working on profitable clients. Profitability by client is huge because as you start to unpack this, you can quickly determine which of your clients truly brings your firm more revenue and which are just eating up your time. Everyone has a few clients where it costs you more to serve them, even though you may have higher billing rates. The problem with this is that most firms do not pinpoint these clients until the work is already done. So, to determine your profitability by client, simply take the fees generated by the client and subtract that estimated cost per timekeeper per hour worked. 

[cb_calculator name="Profitability by Client" title=" "]

Utilization Rate

Lastly, are you hitting your targets? Your firm’s utilization is important because the more informed you can be about your productivity, the easier it will be to make decisions on matters like staff expansion. Is an extra timekeeper necessary for your growth or can you manage by simply shifting staff around? How do you determine what the right thing to do is? To calculate this utilization percentage, divide the total billable hours of a timekeeper by their total working hours. This percent may fluctuate throughout the year based on caseload, so it is important to keep your external factors in mind when making considerations for your staff.

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There are many KPIs and reports you can generate and use to monitor and track your firm’s revenue. You don’t have to be a finance buff or accounting expert to do this math, and once you start incorporating it into your weekly or monthly routine, it will become second nature! Until that time, we have tried to make it as easy as possible for you to get a handle on your numbers, so we have created a KPI calculator that you can access here to get you started!

In the unpredictable world we live in, it isn’t uncommon for you to wonder if your firm is charging too much or too little. Are your billable rates in line with your competitors? Is it best to bill by the hour? By flat fee, subscription?  It's no question that there are a lot of options. So with all this in mind, how do you determine your firm's profitability? How can you make decisions that will be in the best interest of both your firm and your clients? Let's take a look.

Determining Your Profitability 

There are five critical steps you should be taking when you're considering how to price or re-evaluate your legal services.

  1. Think about the products you’re offering
  2. Identify your revenue model
  3. Consider your customer acquisition costs (CAC)
  4. Determine your case value and customer lifetime value (LTV)
  5. Understand your fixed costs

Product Offering 

Yes, you are delivering legal services, but that is not your quote-on-quote product. Take the time to evaluate your niche and your unique value proposition. 

Whether you’re a software company or a law firm, you are ultimately selling a product. There are millions of products in the world, so being able to narrow down and pin-point your offering is crucial to making you stand out. Are you a real-estate attorney with subject matter expertise in environmental liability issues? Are you a family law attorney who has expertise in same-sex couple adoption? As you begin to look at your profitability metrics, it is important to narrow down what your firm specializes in and use those case numbers to more accurately reflect how lucrative your firm is. Drilling down on what makes your firm unique will only bolster your client experience, but your profitability as well. 

Revenue Model 

When you look at your revenue model and you’re considering how you want to bill your clients, the first place you need to be looking at and research are the market demands. Analyze what your potential clients want, what they are looking for, and what they’re demanding. Are you serving small business owners who may want to pay for services as work pops up? Or perhaps you’re serving primarily start-ups with small budgets who prefer to see all costs upfront? No two clients are the same, so it is important to understand what they’re looking for and how you can best meet those expectations. Additionally, you must also take into consideration the operational requirements needed to manage those clients. For example, if you’re billing hourly, then the operational requirements to successfully do this would require a software that allows you to capture and track your time. 

Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC)

The truth of any business is that it costs money to acquire new clients. Customer acquisition costs represent the time, money, and effort required to get leads and then convert those leads into paying customers. 

Look at the data you have available. It is best to go over things in increments of 6, 9, and then 12 months to ensure you’re getting the most accurate information. When you’re considering your sales and marketing costs for your firm, the first thing you should think about is your time. This could be the time spent on business development, networking events, anything that takes time out of your day to pursue in the effort to expand your book of business. Next, tabulate any additional money spent on digital advertisement, or direct mailings. These hard costs will be the foundation for determining your customer acquisition cost. Your costs to close a lead are incurred through the bottom of the funnel activities that take up your time like consultations or meetings.   

Let’s go through a fictitious example utilizing 12 months of made up data:

In this example, we took the estimated cost of your time plus the amount you spent on marketing and targeted campaigns to determine a total sales and marketing figure. We then took that figure and divided it by the total number of clients you work with throughout a given year. With that number, you subtract the final estimated costs associated to close that specific lead, and what is left is your total cost to acquire that particular client.

So going forward when you consider growing your business, this type of easy calculation will be able to help you understand that if you invest X amount of dollars, you will be able to attain X amount of new clients. By adding some predictability into your equation, you will be less surprised at the end of the road if things don't go your way.

Customer Lifetime Value (LTV)

Customer LTV represents the amount of business value or gross margin that is received over the course of a client’s lifetime. When that client first steps through your door, you must begin to evaluate how much revenue you are gaining from your client on a case-by-case basis.

Let’s go through a fictitious example of an attorney who bills by the hour utilizing 12 months of made-up data:

In this example, we took the number of hours this fictitious attorney was spending on Client X’s matter and multiplied it by their billable rate. Next, we took a look at how much money the attorney was spending to do that work. In this case, 25 hours of work resulted in 17 billable hours, which converts to a little over 70% profit margin. And lastly, we multiplied that total profit margin number by the total number of matters Client X typically brings to this attorney in a 12 month period. This resulted in an LTV around $14,400. A customer’s lifetime value is important to calculate because it will highlight to you which clients bring you repeat business without you having to spend those marketing and sales dollars to get them through the door.

Understanding how to calculate LTV in this easier scenario will allow you to replicate this information when you start looking at multiple fee arrangements. Like discussed earlier, if the market is demanding subscription billing, or consolidated billing (to just name two), you and your firm need to be able to meet these needs in order to remain competitive. Your customer experience will make or break your business, and how your clients want to be billed needs to be met with “yes we can make that happen,” not “sorry, we cannot accommodate that billing arrangement.”

Fixed Costs

At this point, you have figured out what expertise and skill set you have that sets you apart, you have determined what specific product you’re offering, how your want to set up your billing structure, how much money it costs for you to get clients in the door, and how much margin you can generate from that client in a given period of time. The last step now is to understand your fixed costs. Fixed costs represent the amount of money you are spending to support your law firm as a whole. On an annual basis, how much money are you spending to pay the firms office rent, support staff, legal technology, annual license fees, etc? These are your fixed costs.

What Does All This Mean?

The things that are really important when you look at customer acquisition costs and lifetime value are the scalability of your law firm and whether or not you can be sustainable in the long term. 

The first thing you can do when you have these numbers is to look at how long it takes you to recoup your customer acquisition cost. To do this, you take your total $627 CAC cost and divide it by how much profit you generate, which in our fictitious example was $4,800. So, what this means is that you recoup your CAC by the time you are 13% of the way through your first case with that client. A general rule of thumb is that you recoup your customer acquisition costs within that first year of starting the particular matter. This low percentage indicates that you have a little more room to spend on acquiring new clients if you so choose.  

The second thing you must do is ensure you’re making money over a customer’s lifetime. If you take the $14,400 LTV we calculated in the fictitious example (profit per case multiplied by the number of cases that client brings to you in a year) and divide that amount by the $627 CAC cost, that’s roughly a 22.3x return on investment per client. This is a huge number! This indicates that you could lower your billable rate to get clients through the door and still make a decent size profit. Do your research and determine where the market stands and then evaluate if you have room to adjust.

Scalable Business Model

Your CAC and LTV are what we describe as unit economics. In the long term, if what we calculated are your unit economics, can your firm ultimately make money? The answer would be yes. From a business perspective, there are always things you can do in the short-term that will get you by, but those bandaids will eventually come off to reveal a less than favorable result. Let’s do some quick calculations. If you’re generating $6,800 in revenue per case (determined from our LTV example), and you’re taking on about 50 cases per year, that’s about S340,000 in annual revenue. Now let’s say your direct costs total around $95,000 a year to serve that revenue, you’re left with a gross margin of around $245,000. Now, after your fixed costs, and sales and marketing expenses (for this hypothetical example, let’s say those total up to $50,000), your total income before tax comes to $195,000. If you can make these calculations each year, you will be able to determine if you can serve your clients profitably, while also saving enough cash for future growth.

All of this leads to what you should walk away with… without favorable unit economics, you will not have a sustainable law firm in the long run. Understanding how much it takes to bring new clients in and how much money those clients bring to your firm over the course of their lifetime will ultimately tell you how successful your firm will be in the future. There are levers you can pull after you understand this data. These levers are either revenue or pricing driven like billable hour vs. flat fee, or whether you’re above market or below market. You can adjust these metrics accordingly. The other thing you can do is adjust your service levels. If you’re spending too much time serving one client then you need to either keep your service level the same and bump up your rate, or if your rate is already in line with your competition, then keep your rate the same and spend less time performing that work. 

The goal is to understand your data at the customer level to determine whether or not you’ll be successful in the long term with your entire book of business.