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Becoming a Cost Center: the Story of Attorney Andrew

image   by Sheila Blackford   ©2016   I get to talk with attorneys who are trying to figure out the best method of increasing business. Should they do a Facebook firm page? Should the try using Google AdWords or try advertising with Yelp! or start a blog, or twitter feed? There are more ways to spend money than to make it. What all lawyers can do is pay attention to what they are spending their money on. A good way to look at expenditures is to view how many hours of work you must spend to pay for this purchase. If you work for a salary, it is easy to calculate your rate of pay. You have your annual salary. You can calculate how your hourly rate of pay from there. If you worked 52 weeks – no time off– then divide your annual salary by 52. If you work 40 hours a week – in your dreams, right?– then divide the weekly salary by 40. What you get is your hourly rate.

This is very different when you work for yourself. You have a billable rate, but you have overhead costs, and you likely do not collect the same amount of money that you bill.  Let me introduce you to Attorney Andrew, admitted to the Oregon State Bar in 2005. Andrew has a billable rate of $200 an hour. He spends six hours working on the Client Carlton matter. He knows he really should have been able to do the work in four hours so he writes the Client Carlton bill down to four hours, $800. Client Carlton is billed $800 and pays $800. There are 10 additional clients billed during the same month totaling $8,400 and is paid only $6,600.

Attorney Andrew’s office rent is $1,200 per month. Allocating 1/12 of the Oregon State Bar annual membership dues equals $46.42; allocating 1/12 of the Professional Liability Fund annual assessment for the basic $300,000 malpractice insurance coverage and additional $50,000 claims expense allowance equals $291.67.

Attorney Andrew’s total gross income is $7,400 for the month. His proportionate expenses are $1,538.09. Attorney Andrew’s net income would be $5,561.91.Will he take the full amount as take home income? Or will he buy more paper and ink for his printer? Or should he save the money as a cushion against any future expenses.

What are Attorney Andrew’s numbers looking like? Attorney Andrew wrote down $200 on the Client Carlton time charges. What amount of time did he write down on the other client matters? If he billed $9,180 but only collected $7,400 then his collection rate for this month was 81%.  $7,400 divided by $9,180 = 81%.  COLLECTION RATE EQUALS THE AMOUNT RECEIVED DIVIDED BY THE AMOUNT BILLED.

But if his time charges entered for the entire month were 60 hours (value = $12,000) and he wrote off 14.10 hours and only billed 45.90 hours (value $9,180), then at his $200 billable rate he was only paid for 37 hours ($7,400). As a result, his realization rate is on 62%. $7,400 divided by $12,000 = 62%. REALIZATION RATE EQUALS THE AMOUNT RECEIVED DIVIDED BY THE VALUE OF TIME RECORDED. 

If you haven’t run screaming from being in front of this blog post, take a look at Attorney Andrew’s net income of $5,561.91. We realize there are other monthly overhead costs besides rent, and 1/12 of the  annual OSB bar membership dues and PLF assessment for malpractice insurance coverage. You can do your own precise calculations with all your numbers. If I told you that Attorney Andrew was somewhat prudent and only paid himself $5,000 gross salary a month, then his gross annual salary is $60,000. Based on 52 week in year, 40 hour work week, Attorney Andrew’s gross hourly rate of pay is $28.85. Considering how proud Attorney Andrew is to have a billable rate of $200 an hour, that gross hourly rate of pay is something else isn’t it?  Well, though painful, it isn’t accurate: don’t forget federal and state taxes and other withholding amounts for social security and medicare that Attorney Andrew must pay. His net pay is not $28.85. It’s less…

For the sake of our sanity, let’s just run with this $28.85 an hour gross hourly rate of pay. Attorney Andrew wants to purchase a new leather sofa long enough to nap on, delivered to his condo from Pottery Barn, he will spend $3,499. Not bad! He better like it because it will take him 121.29 hours to earn the price of that leather sofa based on his $28.85 gross hourly rate. And we won’t talk about the dream car Attorney Andrew is dreaming of buying. It is pretty cool looking for a car.  Okay, I’ll tell you what his dream car is so you can google it and share the dream: the 2016 BMW i8 with a MSRP of $140,700. If Attorney Andrew had a savings account to clean out, it would take 4,876.95 hours based on his $28.85 gross hourly rate to put that baby in his garage. I wonder what his condo cost if it has a garage. Hmm…

So the moral of this story of Attorney Andrew is multi-layered.

  1. Don’t get overly impressed that your billable rate is $200 an hour.
  2. Look at your collectible rate.
  3. Look at your realization rate.
  4. Before falling in love with new furniture and cars, calculate how many hours you will have to work to pay for them.
  5. Before getting more clients, look at how efficiently you are serving the clients you already have.