I was asked to determine the Return on Investment (ROI) for a law firm. Return on investment is the “return” from an action, divided by the cost of that action. The first time I saw this metric, it was used to determine the effectiveness of a marketing program. The “ROI” for a law firm is not so obvious. My first thought was that it would be the total revenue generated minus the total expenses divided by the expenses. One problem with most law firms is that they make the lawyer’s earnings equal to any leftover profit. This was a problem because it makes the expenses equal to the revenue. My next idea was to assume a zero cost for the lawyer, and that gave me a false view of true cost. The compromise I came up with was to assign a base salary and make leftover revenue after expenses be a bonus. This provided an ROI I could use for trending.
I could see a problem developing. It is relatively easy to discover the revenue, but what was the dollar amount of the investment that created that revenue? One idea for getting the expense number is to eliminate any expense that did not directly contribute to generating the revenue. This is often referred to as overhead or indirect cost. For example, the cost of a building does not directly contribute to making revenue, so it is an indirect cost. Does that mean it is part of the investment or not? This can quickly turn into an interesting discussion.
Or, you can make the case that all expenses are part of the investment. I have found that it does not make much difference as long as you know where the numbers come from, and they are consistent.
But getting back to ROI. Once you get a clean number for the investment, the formula is ROI = (earnings – investment) / investment. Return on investment is, by definition the gain from the investment minus the cost of that investment and then divided by the cost of that investment. I have found that the number, by itself, is not very meaningful. I can play with the numbers and create any result you want. The best we can do is create a trend using an ROI measure and see if we are doing better. So is it a good metric or not? I think the trend can be a good indicator.
By “trend”, I mean calculating the ROI every month or quarter to see if it is going up or down. As long as the definition of the numbers is consistent you can develop a trend. I like to use a rolling average over a span of two years.
The exercise to determine expenses is also a good exercise. Remember that expense category we called overhead? Overhead describes all of the costs a business incurs that do not directly produce output. Overhead would be office rent, liability insurance, membership fees, firm vehicles, business taxes, office equipment and most administrative costs. Well, another good indicator is the percentage of total expenses that is overhead. You would want to keep this low and make sure that the trend is not going up. The tricky part is to agree to what you consider to be overhead. As long as you keep your definitions consistent you can create a good trend for this number.
One of the keys to all of this is a good financial system that can keep track of expense and revenue categories. Once you have that you can drop those numbers into a “bucket”, like overhead. I pull numbers from the financial system into an Excel spreadsheet and calculate any of the metrics I want. What metrics do you like?