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Budgeting (Exactly What Does That Mean?)

August 09, 2017
Budgeting (Exactly What Does That Mean?) - blog post image

Most firm (business) owners begin to think about how their business has performed for the year and also begin thinking about how to improve upon that performance for the next calendar year around November. Without a target to measure against, performance is usually simply measured against how the firm did last year. Although better than no measuring stick at all, “better than last year” is not the optimum standard for which to gauge financial performance.

Ok…what is the optimum? Answer: a well prepared budget of expenses and a projection of expected revenue compared to actual performance. In other words, “What did we think would happen and what actually happened?” It is also at this time that we should be asking “What do we think will happen next year?”

Before we go further, let’s define, for purposes of this article, the word budget. (By the way, my wife’s only definition of it is that it is a rent-a-car company.) Budget is only meant to mean “what we expect to happen, given the circumstances as we know them today.” It does not mean that a certain amount of money is “set aside” to be spent on certain line items or groups of expenses and we will spend no more. As we all know, situations change and plans need to be somewhat flexible as the circumstances dictate.

So, how does one construct a budget of expenses? There are a myriad of different approaches, but the most simple is to actually begin with last year’s line item expenses analyzed on a monthly basis...then ask those “in the know” or those responsible for the spending decisions what they expect for the upcoming year, on a monthly basis, and why they expect “that” amount. This approach will create a valuable thought process and discussion. Each month a budget to actual analysis should be produced with all material variances scrutinized. If there is good reason for the variance….then great….no issue. But if we don’t know why there is a variance, the reason should be investigated and resolved. This is financial expense management 101.

Often we hear that in a plaintiff firm revenue projections are “impossible.” Untrue….they may be less accurate to predict… but not impossible. We go by the adage that if you aim at nothing, you hit it with amazing accuracy! We should set reasonable goals. You know, or should know, what cases are in inventory, your average case fee, and your time on desk. (If you don’t know these things, it is time for another conversation!) Armed with this information, reasonable expectation of revenues should be possible. You may also find that this information can be shared with individual attorneys so that they will have individual targets based on their case loads. We have found that the conversations that these projections provoke are valuable in themselves.

This goes without saying…but I am going to say it anyway! Even though we are attempting to predict the future for the firm financially….ultimate case handling (settlement, trial, etc.) must be dictated by what is best for the client. Never, should a case be resolved to “hit” financial objectives of the law firm.

By spending the time to create an “as accurate as possible” expense budget and revenue projection, profitability targets can be established. A review of “how we did last year” according to our plan and “what does next year’s plan look like” are the basis of a sound financial review and planning process.

It has been our experience that the firms that follow this process get better at it year after year and the budget to actual variances are rarely surprises. The work put into the monthly and annual budget to actual comparisons and the annual budget/projection exercise, substantially reduce the stress of simply not knowing where the firm stands at any given time….thus improving the quality of life for the stakeholders of the firm.

And that is what it is really all about, isn’t it?

Jerry Parker
"Vista has been a consultant to our firm for almost 2 years. One of the best business decisions I made was to retain Vista. They know plaintiff personal injury firms A-Z. And that's how they analyze your firm, its efficiencies (or lack thereof or worse), office design/flow, reception procedures, telephone procedures, equipment of all types, etc. If you think your office is running at the top of its game and you don't need them, you're probably wrong. I can't imagine Vista not being able to improve even the best run firms. The payback from what they do is likely to be realized within the 1st 3-6 months."
- Jerry Parker
Jim Reed
"I have to confess, I was initially skeptical that Vista could significantly improve my firm. Heck, we are a small firm (4 lawyers) in a small city and have been in business for 60+ years. Frankly, we were already doing well and had managed to carve out a successful business handling personal injury and malpractice cases. But I met (and liked) Tim McKey and we were having a good year, so I thought, let’s give them a try to see if they can offer any meaningful improvement. I am happily surprised to say that hiring Vista is one of the best business decisions I ever made. Vista analyzed and made recommendations in a few key areas and helped us implement changes in those areas. In less that one year, we are already reaping substantial dividends from those simple changes. As lawyers, we think we are pretty smart and know our business pretty well, but I can tell you that inviting an outside set of experienced eyes to take a close look at the way your firm operates WILL reveal many things you never saw and many areas for improvement. If you want to REALLY learn about your firm and how to improve it, I HIGHLY recommend a consultation with Vista."
- Jim Reed / Owner
Paul B. Harding
"As our firm grew, it became difficult to track the progress of cases through the various units, along with the customer service provided to our clients. VISTA developed dashboards for all this and more! When viewing our dashboard, I now have all the important data at my fingertips: client contact, file review, the number of demands filed, files placed in suit, and so much more! Our unit managers also use these tools to ensure that attorneys and staff are staying on-track. As Managing Partner, I am pulled in many directions at once and am often out of the office — the dashboard allows me to zero in on issues as they develop, regardless of my location or the time of day. Great solution for us!"
- Paul B. Harding / Managing Partner