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Toby Brown and I have had a number of discussions over the past few months on how law firms gather information during the new business intake (NBI) process. Toby comments that all of the focus on NBI is process driven, and that we are speeding up the process, but not really doing a great job of creating better information that can help the firm create a competitive advantage at a later time. Very little in the NBI reform/reinvention process is about better data. It focuses more on faster input of information to speed up the time to open a new matter, thus creating a faster turnaround on when attorneys can start (legally) billing time to a matter. It’s kind of like putting a huge engine in a Volkswagen Golf. Sure, it looks impressive, but if keep the same overall structure of the vehicle it doesn’t matter that you have amazing horsepower, if you can’t get those wheels to actually stick to the road. The same is true with the NBI process improvements.

Of course, with any of these process improvement projects, the idea is to solve problems that actually exist. Problems that “keep partners up at night” are usually the best ones to solve, and with NBI, the time it takes to open a new matter tends to be the biggest issue that partners dislike. Moving the NBI process from paper to electronic (even if the work flow process remains exactly the same) usually will speed up the time it takes to open the new matter. Tapping into existing client information, human resources, and accounting databases can help normalize some of the data, as well as auto-populate some of the fields. However, the information being gathered is essentially the same as you would get if you still had a paper-based system. Speed and accuracy have improved, but quality and better strategic data gathering has not.

So are we putting too much emphasis on the intake process, and not finding ways to improve identifying key data points of the matter? Once the matter is opened, no one wants to go back and update the data again. What if the matter type was wrong? What if the summary of the matter was wrong? What if the estimates of what this matter’s estimated costs were wrong? The typical reaction that I’ve seen to these questions is, “So what? If the matter is open, and we can bill… then let’s bill!”

Many of us depend upon the information gathered in the NBI process. Toby’s group attempts to analyze matter budgeting, matter management, and costs to take on a matter using details gathered in the NBI process. Marketing uses the data gather during the NBI process to determine big matters for Public Relations news releases, and submissions to third parties like Chambers. Business Development uses this information to determine what types of work the firms is strong and weak. Conflicts uses the information to determine what work we may not be able to take on in the future. Incomplete, or bad information gathered during NBI can have a long-range negative impact on the firm.

Let’s just call the new NBI process what it truly is: A way to open a matter quickly and ethically. Now, let’s identify what new NBI process is not: A competitive intelligence, business development, knowledge management, big-data tool. At least, not by itself. Perhaps if you combine the data from the NBI system with other pieces compiled along the timeline of the matter (e.g., billing data, financial data, personnel data, document records, docket information), you can improve the ability to make good decisions and streamline other processes, but bad data in the beginning can cause a domino effect down the line. If a matter type is mislabeled during the NBI process, it can cause a shift in results in later analysis. So, what do we do?

I’m reminded of a post we did a couple years ago on firms needing to do After-Action Reviews for matters. If we don’t ask ourselves what happened, and how can we get better, we tend to continue to act in a similar fashion (good or bad) in the future. If we misidentify information, and never incentivize partners to correct that information, we’ll continue to misidentify. Most firms have absolutely no incentives for partners to identify when information gathered during NBI process needs to be clarified or corrected. We also give almost no incentives to close matters. Yet, both of those processes are key pieces in our quest to better know our clients (KYC), gather BI/CI information, assist in identifying cross-selling opportunities, and gathering historical information to better plan how we price and staff similar matters in the future. I would think that the return on investment in beefing up a mid-matter review (MMR), and the closing matter process (CMP) would be substantial.

Just off of the top of my head I could think how a quick MMR and a sustained CMP process would help trim down the time it takes to identify key matters to be used for PR purposes. How it would accurately identify which attorneys are experienced in certain matter types. And, how it would assist in business intelligence gathering when pitching for client RFPs or new firm industry business pushes. I understand that the MMR and CMP procedures require billable attorneys to take time out from billing and actually identify the business development and overall matter management needs of the overall firm. Our first instinct would be to place this responsibility on the shoulders of the Billing Partner or Relationship Partner. We all know where that would lead… well, actually, that’s probably why were where we are at the present time. Instead, how about we look at this as a Professional Development, or as a Mentoring, or as a Succession Planning process? The MMR might be handled by a Senior Associate or Junior Partner and allow them to see how a matter is being staffed, and determine what has happened between the opening of the matter and the current state of the matter. The CMP could be handled by another Partner that worked on the matter, and allow them to also review what could be handled better the next time a similar matter is opened. A quality MMR and CMP structure allows for better data, better matter management, and a better leader for the next matter.

Perhaps we stop thinking of the New Business Intake in a vacuum. Instead we combine the NBI, MMR, and CMP into an overall process of cradle-to-grave matter management. The NBI is step-one, and should be improved to help speed up the process of getting matters opened, conflicts checked, people assigned, and have the firm start working on behalf of a client. But it is step one only. If we ever want to leverage our prior work in order to improve or gain new work, then the NBI cannot be the first and only step.