Boutique general counsel law firm owner and lawyer Kim Bennett talks about her approach to flat/fixed fees, adapting and responding to client needs over time, and generally running a successful firm in 2018.
Kimberly is an avid traveler, lover of technology, legal industry disruptor, speaker, and an attorney who runs K Bennett...
Sam Glover is the founder and Editor in Chief of Lawyerist.com. Sam helps lawyers understand the economic, demographic, and...
This week, we discuss subscription fees with Kim Bennett, including her process for designing her fee options and responding to clients’ needs.
Kimberly is an avid traveler, lover of technology, legal industry disruptor and an attorney who runs K Bennett Law LLC, a boutique virtual general counsel law practice offering on-demand and subscription operations and legal services.
Sam Glover: Hi, I’m Sam Glover and this episode 163 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today we’re talking with Kim Bennett about offering legal subscriptions to small business clients. Today’s podcast is brought to you by LawPay, FreshBooks and Ruby Receptionists. We appreciate their support and we will tell you more about them later in the show. As you’ve noticed, Aaron is not with me today. I’m working from home because I’m sick and because we’ve had awful weather. But I’m still gonna share a few things with you before playing my interview with Kim.
So we previewed it last week, but we’ve now launched a bunch of big projects we’ve been working hard on, some for well over a year. So as a reminder here’s what’s new. We’ve shared our new mission values, we launched the small firms scorecard, we launched the Lawyerist Insider, we launched the Lawyerist Lab. We rebranded TBD Law as LabCon, a new capstone event for Lab members. After all, the future of law practice isn’t really to be determined anymore. We have a pretty clear idea of what firms need to be doing going forward. We redesigned the home page to help you see what’s important, as well as what’s new. We expanded our team, including a new editor-in-chief, Marshall Lichty, who will be taking over content from me. Don’t worry, I’ll still be doing the podcast and I have a lot of other projects on my plate. And we launched our first physical product, the Lawyerist Productivity Journal, which is sweet and I can’t wait for you to check it out.
So if you haven’t seen this stuff already, stop by laweyrist.com to see what’s new and make sure you take the scorecard. I really can’t over-emphasize how excited I am to have shipped all this stuff. It feels like some of these things have been in the works for years, and it’s so cool to finally be able to show it off.
So, all that said, here’s my conversation with Kim Bennett
Kim Bennett: Hi, my name is Kimberly Bennett, and I’m an avid traveler, political junkie, tech-obsessed Spelmanite that happens to be a lawyer. I run K Bennett Law LLC and it’s a virtual general counsel law practice that focuses on helping clients protect their brands and grow profitable and sustainable businesses, via subscription and on-demand services.
Sam Glover: Hi Kim, thanks for being with us today.
Kim Bennett: Thanks for having me.
Sam Glover: You dropped “Spelmanite” in there. Say more, what’s that?
Kim Bennett: So I’m a Spelman College graduate, so I love my college. It was my first choice and my only choice, so if I ever introduce myself, I love for you to know that I’m a Spelmanite.
Sam Glover: Gotcha. I saw that on your Twitter account the other day, so I kinda new what it was, but I wanted to hear you say it again. And so your law firm runs on subscriptions. First, give us the context there. How many of your clients are on subscriptions versus some other fee structure?
Kim Bennett: Okay, so at any given time, I’m anywhere from 25% to 40% on subscription, and then everybody else is on demand, so my project services. So my core model is subscription in terms of what I’m looking to grow it to and what I really want to move my practice to do, but I also still always do legal projects. So I have projects and subscription.
Sam Glover: And how do you bill for those projects?
Kim Bennett: Flat fee. I’m 100% flat fee. I completely hate the billable hour, I think it makes no sense that we’re still doing it. And so I’m 100% flat fee and my subscriptions are flat fee as well. Monthly, ongoing, when you think of a subscription.
Sam Glover: When you come to … And I’m just gonna jump around a little bit, ’cause I’m following my curiosity about your practice here. So how do you decide what a fixed fee is gonna be for a particular project?
Kim Bennett: Okay, so for me I look at fixed fees as a combination of client needs … So there’s some X-factor in there, but really the value that I’m bringing plus my experience plus a little bit of time. But my goal in my practice is always to be efficient, and so I think flat fees that are solely based on time are not really an accurate way to do it. And so I think I’m always looking for ways to create a better flat fee model. A little bit of that is also driven by just what clients are willing to pay, and at some point automation happens and I embrace all those levels of automation, that some of those flat fees will go down. I also think sometimes flat fees go up, so I really try to mix it and make it make sense for my business and for the clients.
Sam Glover: It sounds like you’re trying to use various strategies to come up with a value of the service, or the outcome or the result that the client’s looking for.
Kim Bennett: Exactly.
Sam Glover: In view of your time commitment to it, and the effort you’re gonna put in and that kind of stuff.
Kim Bennett: Exactly, so outcome-driven, really focused on not basing it solely on hours, or the client [inaudible 00: 04: 47] an extent, because I think a newer client might need some additional support than someone that’s used to using legal services. But I really think outcome-driven models are much better, and so I’m looking for a way to merge all the changes that are happening in our industry with my experience and the level of service that I’m looking to provide my clients.
Sam Glover: When you think about the relationship between your fixed fees or flat fees … I’m still unclear on the difference, but some people insist on one word instead of the other. But when you think about the difference between your flat fee work and your subscriptions, are they complementary or are the subscriptions kind of an all-in-one thing, so that if somebody has a subscription, they’re not also going to ever get a quote for flat fees?
Kim Bennett: So I will say my subscription model has evolved. And I think that’s something that’s really important to mention, and I think when I look at people that write about subscriptions, I think one of the key things I like to tell people is that it’s gonna evolve. Let it be flexible, let it be focused on what clients actually want now … What we think they want.
So I’ve actually adjusted my subscription most recently, and it helps for clients … Clients can be both on a subscription and have projects in addition to their subscription that they’re doing. So my subscription is very much focused on a higher-level project-based services, so at some point clients will start doing so many projects, they’re looking for someone to really grow with their business and understand it. And those type of clients are really ready for a subscription, whether they’re just looking for compliance and not quite legal services, or they’re looking for the full gamut of what I do. So I don’t do everything, but the full gamut of what I do, and if they’re looking for that there’s also a subscription for that.
So I really am focused on creating a subscription that meets what the clients want, and not what I think they want. It’s a project-based subscription model, and not an hourly basis subscription model.
Sam Glover: I briefly did subscriptions, and it sounds like I had a little bit of a different philosophy in my approach to them. But I don’t assume that it’s one-size-fits-all, you can only do them one way. But I’m curious, how do you reassess … Like if you have a client that’s really busy and you’ve scoped the subscription while they’re really busy and they have a lot of work, at what point do you reevaluate if their business drops off, or their legal needs drop off and they don’t need you as much anymore?
Kim Bennett: Okay, so I think there are two things to kind of force out. The way I’ve done subscriptions in the past, they were still based on [inaudible 00: 07: 02]. And for me, that was difficult because it didn’t fit with my core philosophy of my practice, which was I hate the hourly model. So in that sense, when I did it that way, I’ve always been on a monthly subscription. I don’t force clients on a yearly plan. I think if they want to leave they should be able to leave. I think there’s some things from an ethics perspective that you have to consider when you do that.
So in that case, if you were on like an hourly subscription model where you’ve obsessed their needs and you’re starting them on a plan, I built in that I will reevaluate every three months. And that evaluation go up or down, so the clients understand. And it’s just being very transparent on the front-end, that “Hey, as things go on, we’re gonna lock you in for this, but if your needs go up or your needs go down, we’re gonna adjust that at that point”. [inaudible 00: 07: 49] understand of kinda where those adjustments could go.
So when I was on a hourly model that’s how I did it, and then you can go down because maybe you don’t need the services as much, or you can go up.
Sam Glover: That makes a lot of sense to me.
Kim Bennett: Yeah, so it’s not like sticking them to one subscription, and it allows the flexibility for the provider to say “Hey, this isn’t quite working. This is not what we anticipated, let’s adjust”.
Sam Glover: Okay, so I jumped right into the meat of the thing, but I want to back up … If you can peel yourself back to when you started your firm, explore why did you decide you needed to start billing flat fees and moving to subscriptions? What was the problem you were trying to solve by offering those fee structures instead of hourly fees?
Kim Bennett: Okay. So, probably this won’t come as a surprise, but probably like most lawyers, I billed hourly and I didn’t get paid for everything I billed, or I had just outstanding bills that never got paid, and I was still working on those things. And so that just got to be frustrating over time, to have to continually bill and not get paid. Then I also … I started my career in-house, and so I started in a company, and although we tracked our time it’s not like a firm’s version of tracking.
And so when I came out and I was in a firm model, it just didn’t work for me. I didn’t like it, I didn’t think it was focused. It was a lot of tracking things that I thought were just silly to track, like every call that someone made. It just didn’t seem like it was client-focused. I think maybe a little bit of my psych background comes in there as well, just being client-driven. But so all those things together, hating the hourly billing model, finding clients that weren’t always paying, having to come back and say “Well here’s your bill, here, pay” and then sometimes having to adjust down bills. I just didn’t think that was a sensible model, and I didn’t like it.
And so I thought there has to be a better way to do this, and I thought there has to be a better way that clients will be happier about paying these bills, and I’m not chasing bills down. And then I was like well, what about flat fees? So I always started as flat or fixed … I know people … I’m like you, I don’t which is the best word … But flat fees, and I started there, and then from that, that’s kind of … Down the line came the subscription.
Sam Glover: I mean, it’s interesting, now as you’re talking about people not paying, I feel like lawyers don’t necessarily think about that as what they might indicate. But I think if somebody isn’t paying you, it’s probably a pretty good indication that … It’s possible that they’re just disorganized and lazy and bad at paying bills, but that’s not how client-centric thinking works. It seems more likely to me that that’s actually a judgment of how much they value the work that you’re doing, right? And so something about the way you’re structuring the relationship from your end is causing them not to prioritize you and your fee in the way that they would if they actually really thought highly of you and valued your work. Which is kinda depressing, actually.
Kim Bennett: Right. And I agree, and I think that’s part of lawyers not looking at ourselves as business owners, and not being very clear about how you’re describing your services and what you do, and the value you add so that they can understand that at the outset. And then I think just having unpredictable bills … I know I personally don’t like unpredictable bills, and I think no other consumer likes it. And our clients are consumers of our services. So I think that part of it is really on us to provide a better client experience at the very beginning, and I think that is why they don’t value it, ’cause maybe we don’t give them that.
And as a new attorney when I started doing it, I realized this can’t work. And I think I probably was still learning and growing and didn’t know any better, and just did it the wrong way so many times in the beginning. So lessons learned, I love flat fees, would never do hourly again.
Sam Glover: So I’m curious. So you started out with flat fees, you started introducing subscriptions. What problems did you run into early on, and what problems are you still running into as you’re trying to make that work and fit it to the client’s needs?
Kim Bennett: Right, so I probably started some version of subscriptions I think six or seven years ago. I looked at old engagement letters … I’m trying to think of when it was. But I looked at an old engagement letter and I thought “Oh wow, I was thinking about this”. It’s so crazy how time flies. But in the beginning, I think which is why I came to the project model of a subscription service now, was that I did it on an hourly model. And it really was still focused on delivering services that way, which didn’t really work for clients in a lot of ways, didn’t really create the experience that I wanted.
But I think in the beginning, even when I’m thinking about the first client that I had on this, ultimately they were happy with it. I think the business either … What I’ve seen happen, why it maybe doesn’t work, businesses end, because I work in the smaller, solo or new entrepreneur start-up space, so things just don’t always work out. Some of the things they don’t work, just billing by the hour still … That friction that was there. The issues that I was trying to solve by creating the model, I actually wasn’t solving it by the way I initially built it out.
And then I think some of the reasons why … Just not utilizing the services. So like you were saying, if someone is on a subscription, and they’re not using all the time, then the value is lost. So for me, that’s really why I will never put anybody on 12 months. I think a month-to-month makes more sense. And as people understand it and use it, they see the value, and if it’s not working for them for whatever reason they’re not locked in.
But I think those are the main things. So business close, maybe they’re not utilizing it enough, or whatever.
Sam Glover: Do you feel like you had to teach clients why flat fees or subscriptions are better for them, and has that been challenging?
Kim Bennett: So my first client, no, which is interesting. No. I think it just made sense, it’s kinda what they were looking for. It was like “Yeah, yeah”, and I’m like “Yeah, let’s do it together”. But since then, yes, I do think that educating clients on the value is just a part of it. And I think when people start subscriptions, just like they start flat fees, it’s like, well people aren’t using it, it’s not working. Well, if you keep on talking to clients, and that’s what I do, I keep on talking to prospective clients, they love the idea.
The question is are we developing a subscription that works for what they need and not what we think they need, right? But every client, any potential client I’ve ever spoke to, loves the idea of it, period, right? I think though education is there, and I think that’s because of what we’ve done as a self-governing body. We have created legal services, or we’ve provided legal services in such a way that clients ultimately look at us still as a reactive model. They only come to us when there’s issues and don’t think about legal in all the ways that it touches your life. And so I think some of that, educating clients, there’s that part of it, and just getting them to understand that. And I think we’ve just put that on ourselves by how we’ve restricted how legal services are provided to our clients.
Sam Glover: So we need to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors, and we come back, we’ll keep talking about this. We’ll be right back.
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Sam Glover: Okay we’re back. So Kim, it sounds like the way you price things and price subscriptions and flat fees has evolved over time. And I know you’ve mentioned it a couple times, but give me the summary of what does a subscription look like now that it didn’t when you started doing it?
Kim Bennett: So in the very beginning, I think my initial subscription was really based on just calling. And I think that there are a couple of models out there, and that was kind of lead-generation models, where it was always the calling. I wasn’t a person that did the $100 subscription, I never started out that way.
Sam Glover: You mean it was based on phone calls, how many phone calls you’re gonna have with the client?
Kim Bennett: Exactly. How many phone calls … Communication, it was really focused on communication. Phone calls, emails and counseling. That was really my initial model. And then I built into that as you did things, and I thought well, that doesn’t makes sense. Whatever you needed in the hours that you were paying for I would do. So if it took four hours that month and we’ve maximized it, that’s it, then your subscription was done for the month and we would roll it over to the next month. And I would allow for sometimes, initially, some parts of my business, and then at some point I added every part of my business. You just whatever you needed to do, it just needed to be done in that amount of time.
Sam Glover: I mean, it sounds like you’re basically positioning yourself as outside general counsel.
Kim Bennett: Right. And so it’s a little of [inaudible 00: 18: 01]. Kind of like an outside general counsel model, and that’s I think still kind of where I look at myself. I do it virtually though a little bit, how I try to practice. But yes, an outside general counsel model, and that focus on business and counseling. And I think a lot of what I saw and a lot of the subscriptions which I was maybe doing at first that I was modeling was really just doing the counseling and the first touchpoints. And as I’ve grown over time, I’ve added either more services, and then eventually to this point which was eliminating the hourly part of it, and really focusing on projects.
And give some core things, and allow clients the flexibility on a month-by-month basis to go up and down in my subscriptions. So just like you can go and sign up for one subscription and you can take plan A or plan B, but the next month, if they’re one of those month-to-months, you can go down to plan A. That’s the same exact thing a client can do with me, and so that they can build it out for what they need. Or, if their needs aren’t maybe ready to get to the next jump in the subscription, you can just add on a project. You just add on a project for that month and you’re done, and we move on, and you’re still in your subscription with all the core things that you need.
Sam Glover: So it’s just very flexible.
Kim Bennett: Exactly. Allows the client … My model as I’ve talked to more people, it is allowing the client the flexibility to create the delivery of legal services the way that they need them. So a lot of that is just saying “Okay, I need these certain things, but if I don’t have this going on, I don’t want to pay for it for five months”. And I don’t think they should either. And so that’s how I built it.
Sam Glover: So what are you currently planning to change with subscriptions, or is at the point where you’re pretty satisfied with it and there isn’t a whole lot you want to change about the way you’re doing subscriptions?
Kim Bennett: Oh no, I definitely … I’m looking to scale it. I don’t even know if this is actually where I’ll end, right? I think the way we deliver legal services are different now, and I hope to be part of the group of lawyers that are leading the way for a better delivery of legal services, a better practice of law, period. And so I’m doing subscriptions now. It may not stay that way because maybe there is a better way to service clients. So I’m always open to that, and I’m always open to thinking outside the box.
And so what I’m looking to do initially though for right now is continue to automate some of them, looking to bring on other parts of traditional business services that maybe lawyers don’t use, like folks that are focused on customer engagement and satisfaction, as a part of my team. And so I’m looking to grow the team and scale it, and so bring on other pieces of technology that allow me to scale it and provide more efficient services to my clients, and more efficient … Providing services to my team once I grow out that team.
Sam Glover: Have you already scoped out the shape and size of the team you want to have, and built a roadmap to get you there, or is that still in the works?
Kim Bennett: So now that I’ve adjusted the way I’m modeling it now, it’s a little bit different. But I know for me, one of the next things will be like a project manager. So I actually don’t think-
Sam Glover: That is not the first hire that you normally hear from a lawyer. That’s awesome.
Kim Bennett: Yeah, ’cause I think it’s really focusing on delivery and good customer experience, and value-add. And because my model is focused on helping clients be sustainable and profitable, I want to be able to provide that in a lot of different ways, and legal services is just one of them. And so I think I can see so much value … I do project management aspects myself, I get it. But I want someone that that is their thing. They know it, and we can really replicate and grow this practice model, tenfold hopefully.
Sam Glover: Very cool. So I’m gonna switch gears and spring something on you-
Kim Bennett: Okay.
Sam Glover: -which is your website is one of our top 10 best this year.
Kim Bennett: Oh wow, is it really?
Sam Glover: It is, and what’s cool and different about that is I understand that you built the whole thing yourself, didn’t you?
Kim Bennett: I did, I did build it myself. I love tech stuff, I really do.
Sam Glover: I mean, we’ll put the link in the show notes, and you guys can go check it out. It is very striking, and it’s really well-done. It’s all done on Squarespace even, is it?
Kim Bennett: It is. Everything’s on Squarespace. I’ve actually … Credit a friend of mine, who years ago … So this is not the first website I’ve built, I built this for another firm before. And so I built it on Squarespace years ago when they were still quite new in the game and everyone was still doing WordPress. And I tried WordPress, and I feel like I’m a tech-savvy person, but it just wasn’t working for me and I wanted something that was a little bit easier. So over time I’ve learned … I mean, I’ll do little coding things here and there and adjust stuff, and add features and really focus on creating a better experience that reflects my brand and who I’m … The clients I’m looking to attract.
But yeah, I love Squarespace. I built it on Squarespace, I add in add-ins that make sense, or I hope that makes sense, for my business. But I’m also looking to do some little other tweaks, and I’m always tweaking it to improve upon it.
Sam Glover: Yeah, I mean I noticed that you’re playing around with building a knowledge base out and attaching that to the website. But one of the things that I was struck by as we were going through the contestants and the nominations, is you have a really clear and obvious call to action right on the front. You’ve got a landing page with a striking picture of you, and a very clear call to action to people who land there, I assume to move them through your funnel. Is that something you just do instinctively, or were you following a guide? I guess, how did you figure out how do build an effective website?
Kim Bennett: Well first of all thank you. I totally appreciate that.
Sam Glover: But I mean, we see a lot of DIY websites, and very few of them make it into our top 10. And so I think it’s interesting to chat a little bit about how did you do that?
Kim Bennett: So I really look at myself as a business first and a law firm second. And I think, when I look at a lot of law firm sites, I didn’t want a very stereotypical law firm site. And I wanted that feel when you come to it, you can do something. And so I have adjusted that call to action a couple of times to try to figure out what’s working, what’s not, but I found … I’m sure I took a webinar somewhere, I probably was on a HubSpot thing or something, or somebody’s webinar or podcast or something that was saying ways to drive the customer acquisition journey, or whatever. I really want my website to do that, and I know I needed to add call to actions to make sure that they were doing what I wanted to be my first step in my funnel, which is give me a call.
Sam Glover: Very cool, cool.
Kim Bennett: And let’s see what happens. It came from wanting to be a little more business-centric, a little more focused on getting clients engaged initially, and less like a stereotypical lawyer site, but not going too far. So yeah, that’s how I got it. That’s how I did it. But I keep … I’ve adjusted, I’ve added things, I’ve … Like I said, even with the knowledge base, it’s a new ad for me that I’m working on growing. And I think it’s an important ad and I think I’ll find some great feedback from it from people.
Sam Glover: So one last question. I know that you are thoughtful about business and marketing and client-centric design and things like that. So when you find yourself in a conversation with somebody who you’re talking with about law firm as a business, and things like that, is there a book you recommend?
Kim Bennett: One of the books that I started off as a business … I’m trying to think if she was as a business … But I love Solo by Choice. I think I always talk about this book. Years ago I started with Solo by Choice, and everyone was reading the one everyone reads, and I thought “Yeah, but this is not for today. What’s a better way to think of it for today?”. And so I still love that book. I still go back to it every so often-
Sam Glover: It sounds like you’re not going to be solo by choice very soon.
Kim Bennett: I know, I’m not. True. Which is a change from where I started, because I definitely always thought “I’m also going to be solo, that’s exactly how I want to be”. That’s why I started virtual at first, so I can move around and travel like I want. But still gonna do some of that, but grow more of a team. And maybe I’ll still be a solo practicing attorney in all my team, but there’ll be a team of people.
Sam Glover: I think it’s hard … Hit work-life balance goals and hit your income goals and stay a true solo. It just strikes me that that’s pretty hard to do, and the people who are really able to accomplish those things are few and far between. I could be wrong about that, but I meet a lot of solos and I don’t see a lot who’ve nailed that.
Kim Bennett: Yeah, I think I would agree with you on that. I think it’s a tough road to be able to do a million things, and you really have to do a lot of things to be successful. I mean, if I’m posting on social media, which means I’m not researching for an issue or I’m not attending something I need to meet, or I’m not drafting this document, and so there’s only one person. You only can do so much. So I over time have learned that yeah, absolutely, more people are important. So I do look to do that. I feel like I went off from what we were talking about, but-
Sam Glover: Yeah, well I interrupted you while you were talking about your second book. What was the second book recommendation?
Kim Bennett: So the second book that I love, which I most recently read, and I know some people love or hate it, is Profit First. I kinda like love it. I am adjusting my operations to flow through that, and it’s more I think just being a cash flow-positive business. As a lover of technology, I try a million things. I try a lot of things that come on the market, probably way too much. Also trying to streamline my practice and be profitable, and like you were saying, as a solo I think a lot of solos just aren’t profitable. They don’t talk about their real numbers, they don’t really go into saying “This is a hard road to go down”. It might be fun and interesting, but it’s not always easy, and I think if you take the position that you’re gonna focus on driving a profitable business immediately, that that helps that road be a little bit easier. And really focus on just behavior and using human behavior to drive how you look at your money so that you make the right decision most of the time. And so I-
Sam Glover: I assume you don’t mean … I mean, profit first is different from profit only, which would be kind of ruthless capitalism and just-
Kim Bennett: Absolutely not, right.
Sam Glover: -makes me think about sucking value out of your clients. Profit first is different than profit only, I guess.
Kim Bennett: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. So it’s the actual book, and I’m losing the guy’s name who wrote it.
Sam Glover: We’ll find it and we’ll put the link in the show notes.
Kim Bennett: Yeah, yeah. So it’s a book that focuses really on how you manage your cash flow and using human behavior, and basically coming up with a certain set of accounts that you break your money in, and that you as a business owner start taking a little bit of profit immediately, pay yourself immediately, and then whatever’s left over is what you spend on your business, right? Because a lot of us do revenue minus expenses equals profit, and his model is revenue minus profit equals your expenses, right? So that by the time you get there, and I probably might have made that a little too simplistic, but by the time you get there, you’re not spending everything on your business. You’re growing it organically, you’re being purposeful, you’re being intentional.
And then for me, I think as solos and smalls as we’re growing, being intentional is really important. I’m trying to make my practice personally aligned with my personal beliefs and value systems as well, and one of that is just being better about managing money and my personal and my professional life. And so I really like this book because it’s not replacing your accountant, or anything like that. It’s just really a different system of bookkeeping or cash flow management.
Sam Glover: Cool.
Kim Bennett: So that’s one of the things that I recently read that I like.
Sam Glover: Well thanks for those book recommendations and for walking us through your approach to subscription and flat fees. It’s been a really fun conversation. Thanks Kim.
Kim Bennett: Thank you.
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