The price is right, or is it?

Jun 02, 2020
Des Peelo shares his one guiding principle for setting a fair professional fee.

Professional fees occur in many occupations including dentists, doctors, accountants, solicitors, barristers, and architects. Public relations practitioners, management consultants, estate agents, investment bankers and technical advisers of all kinds also charge professional fees, as do lecturers and conference speakers.

But how should you calculate a professional fee? There are no guidelines as such, other than custom and practice within a particular sector. Competition law prevents price-fixing within a sector. Nevertheless, norms or rules of thumb usually develop over time.

Enquiry suggests that a routine GP visit costs between €55 and €70, while a medical consultant may charge between €250 and €300. An estate agent may charge 1-2% plus outlays and VAT on the sale price of a property, and an architect may charge a percentage of the project costs.

Practising accountants typically charge an hourly rate for routine services such as audit, accountancy, and tax work. For more complex work, mainly carried out by larger firms, such as a major investigation or a difficult liquidation, an hourly rate of €450 per hour plus VAT has been quoted in the High Court for a partner’s time. This €450 currently seems a benchmark rate and is scaled downwards for less senior staff.

In general, straightforward work such as audits for an accountant, conveyancing or probate work for a solicitor or routine dental work for a dentist is competitive, and fees fall within identifiable ranges. It is difficult, however, to generalise in linking a fee to the mix of expertise provided, responsibility taken, and the value to the client. What is the value of a careful and competent diagnosis of a malady from a GP, or a substantial tax saving through expert knowledge? What is the value of the identification and rectification of a serious IT glitch, or a crisis successfully managed by a skilled public relations practitioner?

Round sum fees are common for non-routine work or work not measured in terms of time incurred. There is the story of a computer glitch that closed down an entire business. A technician arrived, turned a nut, and got the system up and running again. The bill was €1 million, and the client demanded a breakdown. The response was €100 for the hour in turning the nut, and €999,900 for “knowing which nut to turn”.

Legal fees, apart from routine matters, can be a mystery – particularly in litigation. There are regular reports of substantial fees across all types of litigation. A UK judge once remarked that the Savoy Hotel and the courts are open to everyone. In my experience, this is because of the extensive input necessary in almost any litigation, such as identifying the issues and the law relating thereto; assembling the relevant documentation and preparing the required procedural paperwork; accessing expert evidence; consultations; and, of course, the actual court hearing.

There is an amusing story about legal fees allegedly involving a firm of solicitors in the United Kingdom. A long and complex litigation case had come to a satisfactory conclusion, and it was time to finalise the bill. The more technical aspects had already been completed as to measuring the files at £100 per inch and weighing the files at £150 per pound. Instead, each partner had to review the files and put his or her estimate of the total fee in a sealed envelope, placed in a box. When the box was opened, the partner with the lowest estimate did not share in those fees and the partner with the highest estimate had to collect the fees. An optimum balance.

Investment bankers charge astronomical fees. This is because they can. The transactions involved are mega takeovers or the funding of large projects. The enormous sums of money involved are often backed by prestigious names, not necessarily professional expertise, and this is what underpins the hefty fees. Fees of 1-3% of the amounts involved do not seem unduly high when expressed that way, but these percentages translate into millions of dollars or euro.

George Bernard Shaw observed that professions were conspiracies against the laity. This, of course, does not refer to Chartered Accountants and professional fees. A guiding principle as to good professional practice is to ensure that the subsequent fee is not a surprise to the client. Service before remuneration.
Des Peelo FCA is the author of The Valuation of Businesses and Shares, which is published by Chartered Accountants Ireland and now in its second edition.