Outside Counsel Guidelines and Collective Conversations

I hate outside counsel guidelines. Hate. It's visceral. I have never encountered a set of guidelines I liked. My antipathy includes guidelines I had a hand in writing.

As an associate I worked for a client whose guidelines forbade time entries that suggested any form of communication between lawyers--meetings, conversations, conferences, correspondence. So, too, any form of research and many other essential elements of producing work that were impossible to avoid within the delivery framework within which we were operating.

The client's guidelines did not change the underlying behavior. The SOP remained:

  1. Get assignment from the partner (which necessitated communication)
  2. Do whatever research needs to be done
  3. Draft
  4. Iterate - ask questions of or receive feedback from partner (more communication)
  5. Do additional research
  6. Repeat ##3-5 until product satisfies partner

Because lawyers are pretty good at playing games with language, this would all be captured under "write motion" or some other acceptable description. While the guidelines saved the client no money, they did waste considerable time. Because the client had an extensive external review process, the firm had an intensive internal review process to make sure the billing language satisfied the client's guidelines. Internally, entries were constantly being sent back for rewrite but not writedown.

Few associates mastered the word games because we actively avoided working on the account. Beyond the painful time-entry protocol, the client had negotiated steep discounts. That's fine in and of itself, except the firm was then experimenting with making associate bonuses and promotion (instead of partner compensation) dependent on revenue and realizations, rather than just hours. Associates chafed at being forced to do work that generated little revenue and reduced their realizations with each hour recorded--accountability without authority is aggravating. The result was that the client did not benefit from the accumulation of intellectual capital within the firm.

From where I sat, the relationship screamed out for a fixed fee or other AFA. I still believe that. But leaving pricing aside, I understand the client's urge to play a role in shaping the way legal services were being delivered. What I object to is the counterproductive combination of micromanagement and blunt instrument.

For all the effort that both put sides into satisfying and enforcing the guidelines, they would have been much better served to engage in a structured dialogue about continuously improving project management (communication) and knowledge management (research), as well as other aspects of service delivery such as templates, automation, analytics, and staffing. With respect to staffing, the client should have been interested in maintaining a stable team that was familiar with their work. Which, of course, means that I just suggested a new guideline as part of a screed against guidelines. I'm a bit of a hypocrite.

While I disdain billing guidelines, I consider them a necessary evil. Clients need to communicate how and when invoices are to be submitted. Clients should have policies on traditional pass-through costs like ediscovery, court reporting, and expert witnesses. We can debate the merits of particular policies and prohibitions, but I have yet to meet anyone who advocates for a total abolition of billing guidelines. After all, "send invoices to" is a billing guideline.

And, yet, there's a problem: we don't really have a forum to debate particular policies and prohibitions. Outside counsel guidelines are presented as a fait accompli. Pushing back on them in the context of the relationship is hard. Simon Chester, the former GC of the former Heinan Blake, has detailed many of the problems in billing guidelines and believes that firms "have to be prepared to walk away" from the engagement. But how many firms can afford to walk away in a world of flattening demand, lateral hypermobility, and inherently fragile firm structures?

Content is not the only challenge. Outside counsel guidelines are sometimes quite long--they are, after all, written by lawyers. And they tend to be all over the map, not just in requirements but in language and structure. Billing guidelines are frequently not read, let alone followed, by outside counsel or even the inside counsel who were not part of the drafting team. Guidelines are often treated as formalities, trivialities, and inconveniences more honored in the breach.

Compounding the problem is that firms often provide, and clients frequently sign, engagement letters that contradict the guidelines. These, too, often go unread. In not being read, guidelines and engagement letters are like 99.9% of the executed contracts in existence. As litigators know well, most people only read the contract when something goes wrong, which, frankly, is not too often in percentage terms but is common enough in raw numbers to keep us employed.

Ironically, the law department/firm relationship is among the worst papered commercial relationships a corporation will enter into because their lawyers are otherwise so vigilant when it comes to the business units' commitments and obligations. Most of the time it's fine. Except when it isn't. And then it is bad. I didn't realize how bad until I had a recent chat with someone who audits legal bills for a living. We're talking five to seven figures and immense stress on relationships. He explained to me that violations of the billing guidelines were, by far, the lowest hanging fruit.

Both law departments and law firms have a contract management problem.

Even recognizing all this, what is to be done? If you are a client and want to write new, improved guidelines, where do you start? For the firm, while a few clients may actually have really good guidelines (some do), the good ones still won't align with the disparate guidelines from all your other clients. Both clients and firms may, understandably, be inclined to turn to technology. But technology vendors have to deal with the same problems of lack of standardization and the attendant need for deep customization, especially on the firm side.

I don't have a solution. But, if there is a solution, it will probably not be unilateral. I once wrote a piece on a billing guidelines project that did not get off the ground. Here was my take:
Conformity gets a bum rap. Absent the crowd, there is nothing to stand out from. Common standards bring clarity, provide bases of comparison, and establish frames of reference. Total separation from the herd is isolation, not freedom. Indeed, the entire idea of coming together as [organization] is to bring collective resources to bear on common challenges. In many areas, clients are probably not conformist enough.
Thus, the newly formed [sub-group] invites you to submit your outside counsel guidelines (or legal procurement policies or master outside counsel relationship document or matter engagement agreements or….) to [email address]. The billing guidelines committee, under the leadership of [awesome person from awesome company] is expanding on a project begun by [other awesome person]—also on the committee—to collect and synthesize member guidelines. The tactical objectives are to create a set of model guidelines and an automated template assembly tool that will permit any member to craft custom guidelines by selecting from a series of dynamic menus. The strategic goals are far more profound.
The immediate value of the collected billing guidelines are the similarities. By pulling out common language on, for example, photocopying charges, the committee can craft model clauses for each of the standard approaches (e.g., price limits, requirement that jobs above a certain size go to a pre-selected vendor). Offering these model clauses within an automated tool will make it much easier for members to update their guidelines, for law firms to understand their obligations, and for technology vendors to embed automated rules in the products used by both inside and outside counsel.
The intermediate value of the shared resource is gaining statistical insight about variation. The existing guidelines submitted and the guidelines produced through the document-assembly tool will reveal consensus or the lack thereof. Where there is consensus, the data will provide communal reinforcement and establish member expectations for our firms and vendors. The baseline consensus will relieve members of the burden of discussing standard industry practices and instead focus their supplier outreach efforts on their unique requirements. Likewise, by exposing areas where consensus is absent—e.g., whether law firms should be required to pay a fee to the client’s ebilling vendor—the [organization] will be able to identify topics that warrant further constructive debate. The most interesting panels are usually those where the panelists disagree.
The long-term value of the project will most likely to be found in the outliers. That is, not the areas where most member companies agree or have reached divergent conclusions, but in those areas where only a few members have even thought to create policies. The outliers are where the innovations happen. By establishing a communal resource, the committee hopes to create a new mechanism to introduce those innovations into the collective consciousness. Precedent is a powerful force in the legal marketplace. Our community is well served to collect and learn from our own precedents, especially those that have yet to become part of our paradigm. New ideas always feel a little foreign, and we need a means to shift the Overton Window.
The Overton Window is an idea that for a new policy to gain traction it must, at the very least, be within a window of acceptable alternatives.

The sweet spot is in the middle. Too much distance on either side of center means a concept is not ready for prime time. The initial step is to establish the Window. The next step is to identify those policies that fit within the Window. The final step, however, is to shift the Window so that once radical ideas can be deemed acceptable, sensible, and popular on their way to becoming policy. The [sub-group's] billing guidelines project has the potential to accomplish all three (establish the Overton Window, identify the policies that fit within it, and shift the Window over time).
The project has considerable potential. But realizing that potential depends on you. This is a collective effort. It begins with members submitting their outside counsel guidelines to [email address]. This is an ongoing duty. New or updated guidelines should also be submitted. The guideline-assembly tool will make that easier. Finally, it is incumbent on us all to innovate, introduce those innovations to our fellow members, and participate in the on-going discussion of what innovations are worth spreading. Conformity gets a bum rap because it is too often another way to refer to unthinking complacency. Neither descriptor—“unthinking” or “complacent”—attaches to the members of [organization].
So that didn't happen. But I am reflecting on what could have been because something that has the potential to be better has filled the vacuum. The members of the Corporate Legal Operation Consortium (CLOC) recently published some mercifully short model Industry Billing Guidelines. In addition, CLOC made the decision to invite everyone--law firms, alternative providers, law schools, vendors--to participate in their CLOC Institute (starts tomorrow).

The first part, common billing guidelines, is good. The second part, an ecosystem approach to addressing communal problems, is intriguing. You'll notice that the proposal I wrote about only contemplated input from corporate counsel. While I take a client-centric view of the legal market, I think it is folly to treat clients as the sole stakeholders or as somehow having a monopoly on insight.

As our environment becomes more complex, the need for collective conversations grows. We do not need unanimity on every detail, but consensus frameworks around billing guidelines, task codes, cybersecurity standards, etc. would go a long way towards making everyone's life easier. Clients would not need to reinvent the wheel. Law firms would benefit from clarity of obligations and settled expectations. Vendors would have the critical mass necessary to embed rules in their systems.

Per usual, I am note sure if I am skeptical optimist or an optimistic skeptic. I do not expect magic. I do not expect the industry to change overnight. But I do see the existence and orientation of the CLOC Institute as another sign that incremental improvement continues and may be speeding up. We may not be anywhere close to perfect (a world that has no need of outside counsel guidelines), but we do seem on track for better.

Casey Flaherty is the founder of Procertas. He is a lawyer, consultant, writer, and speaker focused on achieving the right business outcomes with the right people doing the right work the right way at the right price. Casey created the Service Delivery Review (f.k.a., the Legal Tech Audit), a strategic-sourcing tool that drives deeper supplier relationships by facilitating structured dialogue between law firms and clients. The SDR is premised on rigorous collaboration and the fact that law departments and law firms are not playing a zero sum game--i.e., there is more than enough slack in the legal market for clients to get higher quality work at lower cost while law firms increase profits via improved realizations.
The premise of the Service Delivery Review is that with people and pricing in place, process offers the real levers to drive continuous improvement. Proper collaboration means involving nontraditional stakeholders. A prime example is addressing the need for more training on existing technology. One obstacle is that traditional technology training methods are terribleCompetence-based assessments paired with synchronous, active learning offer a better path forward. Following these principles, Casey created the Legal Technology Assessment platform to reduce total training time, enhance training effectiveness, and deliver benchmarked results.
Connect with Casey on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter (@DCaseyF).

Bookmark and Share


Ben Weinberger said...

Great piece Casey and I couldn't agree with you more. I've spoken to GCs at a number of law firms and they're all concerned about Outside Counsel Guidelines, especially as they're getting contradictory demands from various clients.

Technology will be absolutely crucial for firms to track them and it's a capability we've built into Umbria to address our customers' needs.

If anyone is attending the ARMA conference next week in NY, Keith Lipman is leading an educational session on the topic (http://bit.ly/24vc6Bs) as it's a problem that he's spent a significant amount of time trying to solve.


© 2014, All Rights Reserved.