I’ve been labeled a Legal Rebel, an Innovator, and a “humorless moron.” The last one I understand. But the first two have always struck me as a slightly silly. I feel like what I am best known for—the suggestion that legal professionals should get slightly better at using the machines they’ve been staring at eight to eighteen hours a day for the last twenty years—borders on banal. I took a while to realize that the innovation was not in the call for increased proficiency but in the approach.
Instead of throwing work over the wall and then reactively complaining months later about inefficiency while reviewing information-poor invoices, I tore down the wall to proactively address root causes. I defined the problem. Measured it. Analyzed it. Then I sought to improve on the status quo and maintain control of the improvements. One would think some form of this methodology would had have been in use for the past 60 years, at least. Unfortunately, in the legal market, any disciplined approach to process improvement is somewhere between innovative and revolutionary.
What was once the Legal Tech Audit is now the Service Delivery Review (“SDR”) because (a) the word “audit” makes people uncomfortable, (b) the audit concept is too one-sided, and (c) a comprehensive vendor management program has become confused (my own fault) with its most well-known component, Basic Technology Benchmarking. While the lack of basic technology training garnered the headlines, it is only one out of ten categories in the SDR. The categories are:
- Document Assembly
- Process/Project Management
- Knowledge Management
- Billing Hygiene
Each category is supplemented by an onsite review. I will discuss each category and the onsite review in subsequent posts.
The SDR is the initial step in an ongoing structured dialogue. As inside counsel, it was my responsibility to set priorities and communicate clear, achievable expectations for my outside counsel, rather than just complain in vague terms about inefficiency. It was also important for me to listen and understand how my internal team and I could assist outside counsel in achieving their objectives.
To take one example, my first SDR was of a firm that preceded my tenure in-house and, no matter what happened, was going to be there long after I left. They were the quintessential sacred cow. And for good reason. They turned out to be some of the finest lawyers (and people) I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Not only were they true substantive experts in a rather niche area, but their institutional knowledge of our mutual client was also unparalleled. While I do not think incumbency should be unassailable, it does confer legitimate advantages, which this firm had earned.
But to say that they were the very best at what they did is not to say they were perfect (no one is, author included). To their eternal credit, this group of domain experts was genuinely interested in improving the more generic aspects of their legal service delivery. They greeted the SDR with open minds (despite being professional issue spotters). When the SDR was complete, the relationship partners and I had a frank dialogue about what the findings meant and the concrete steps that should be taken as a result. They committed to a number of process improvements, which they delivered. These included better associate training on basic technology. But that was only one aspect of the review and one area in which they measurably improved.
It is worth noting, however, that, beyond their substantive expertise, these long-time incumbents also had the best knowledge management practices I ever reviewed. While, like every other firm, they got dinged where they performed below expectations, the SDR also resulted in them earning substantial goodwill in the many areas where they excelled. Combined with their commitment to, and subsequent delivery of, process improvements, the end result of the SDR was a deeper, more collaborative relationship.
Collaboration runs both ways. I, for example, needed to get more disciplined about putting new matters into the system earlier (most matters were initiated with an email, and the matter management system was updated later) in order to facilitate better accrual practices and quicker turnaround of invoices. We also developed a secure file sharing protocol that meant they had ready access to the regular reports, rather than waiting for my paralegal or me to respond to an email request. This firm was a critical piece of our workflow and better integration benefited both parties.
In short, without yet knowing the term, I had adopted a strategic sourcing perspective on supplier relationships:
All this was a bit of a surprise to me. I moved in-house with the attitude that many of the problems with the legal market are result of inside counsel being too soft on outside counsel. I still think that is true to a certain extent. But, as I will detail in my next post, there are different approaches to taking a firm line with long-term suppliers. My initial impulse to rely solely on strong-arm tactics was misguided. I owe a debt of gratitude to the law firm partners who showed me a better way. Commitments to collaboration and coprosperity were important evolutions in my thinking about the relationship between inside and outside counsel.