This post comes from a good friend of 3 Geeks who would prefer to remain anonymous.  – RM

Image (CC) – moyamoyya

It has taken me a while to post my thought’s on Ryan’s series on The Exponential Law Firm and the technological practice of law not because I wasn’t interested but, because ironically, I took a short but personally refreshing break from technology. But I’m back and have been further inspired by Toby’s recent post, “Stop It With the Stupid Rules“.  So, for whatever they are worth, here are the thoughts of a geek librarian turned geek lawyer turned geek I’m not sure what anymore …

Like many, I chose law for a number of different personal reasons but mostly because, I naively thought, it was about what was fair. Okay, and it was about winning.  Sue me – I liked the idea of a job where I got paid to be a winner.  There aren’t many careers out there where someone officially wins and someone officially loses. But I left once I realized that law wasn’t so much about fairness, as it was about rules.  And here comes the relevance to Ryan’s posts: Although my career in practice was relatively short, it didn’t take me long to realize that robots would be better lawyers than most of the people who claim that title today. 

How did I reach that conclusion?  Well, law school started the journey that led me there.  It was all about reading and understanding rules.  Rules written down in legislation, rules written by judges but all along, it was rules that I had to memorize. Corporate lawyers know this better than anyone.  Litigators however, like to think that it is their bespoke argument about those rules that makes them uniquely capable of practicing law.  That is true to the extent that judges are (just) people too and can interpret the rules. So, based on that argument, there is truth to the argument that there is something unique about the practice of law.  But 99% of the time it’s just about knowing how the rules apply to the facts. So why couldn’t a computer do that?  Ultimately, the interpretation of rules is really just an algorithm.

Let me give you an example.  I chose to practice administrative law which, in common law jurisdictions like Canada and the UK, is more flexible than most.  We actually have the concept of “patently unreasonable” which means that an adjudicator can be wrong about their interpretation of the rules to the facts but, so long as they aren’t really, super duper wrong, their decision should stand. (There are some technical qualifications to that of course … the Supreme Court of Canada denied this standard several years ago but has practically applied it all the time in any event. And the “unreasonable” standard – which is being just wrong, but not super duper wrong – still stands).  I was acting for an anonymous tribunal who had awarded an individual with a disability the benefits to help him get a job and receive the basic necessities of life.  The government agency granting the benefits challenged the decision on the basis that the tribunal hadn’t applied the rules to award those benefits correctly. My argument was that he shouldn’t be able to know the reasons that the agency decided to reconsider their decision (another rule – they are allowed to reconsider their decisions if asked) because the rules basically said they could if they wanted to (kind of like “because I told you so”).  Did I know that this person needed these benefits?  Did I know that he didn’t have the ability to challenge a decision to deny his benefits if, in fact, that’s what they decided upon reconsidering the original ruling?  I did.  But I won. The tribunal ultimately reconsidered their decision and, because the original ruling hadn’t followed the rules, he was denied.  Just like that. 

Then I realized that the law is really just rules.  I taught law courses up until this past summer and I used to say to my students that there is definitely grey areas in law, but even those areas get black or white eventually.  Law is rules and you need to know them to win. Law and Order is just a TV show. Yes, you need to be smart but ultimately, the winners are the people who know the rules, not the people who are brilliant advocates.  The best advocate I know loses all the time. So, my thought on Ryan’s posts is that law is another profession that computers could do just as well as most lawyers – likely better. Law isn’t really bespoke.  It’s just a set of rules.  Those rules are complicated and difficult to navigate by the human brain so maybe we should give computers (and brilliant algorithms written by brilliant humans) the chance to try their hand.

So now, when people tell me they’re going to law school I say “Don’t do it!”.  Go get techie instead.

(This is part 4 of a 4 part series. You can download the entire series below.)

Just as the NCQA established standards and elements for evaluating and regulating PCMH applicants, any number of alphabet soup entities could fulfill the same type of role in legal: the ABA, the LMAILTAAALL, or my personal favorite the ACC. It doesn’t much matter who is evaluating or what authority they have, just that they are evaluating consistently and publishing an updated list of CCLP qualified firms and their associated levels achieved.  We could even create a new not-for-profit organization with CCLP certification as it’s sole purpose.  (Hint, hint.)

Once one firm is certified using an open standard, how long before large clients begin asking outside counsel why they aren’t certified?  If a first level certification is relatively easy to achieve, as it is with the PCMH, then what excuse will firms have for not doing it?  Of course, a level 1 certification begs the questions, “Why are you only a Level 1?  Which elements don’t you adhere to? And why not?”  A well-defined and open set of standards and elements, if evaluated fairly, should lead to an all-out arms race for firms to achieve a top-level CCLP certification. Which, if done correctly, should correlate to a better all-around experience for clients.

The hardest part will be defining those standards and elements.  Here again, I think we can look to the PCMH as a guide.  Of course the individual elements to achieve will be wildly different for legal, but the standards will have some overlap. The 6 PCMH standards are to: 1) Enhance Access and Continuity, 2) Identify and Manage Patient Populations, 3) Plan and Manage Care, 4) Provide Self-Care Support and Community Resources, 5) Track and Coordinate Care, and 6) Measure and Improve Performance.

Adjusting for legal specific terminology, these all kind of work as is.  We would want a CCLP certified firm to meet the minimal obligations to Enhance Client Access to firm resources, Identify and Manage Client Populations (Business Intelligence), Plan and Manage Matters, Provide Self-help Legal Support and Resources, Track and Coordinate Matters, and Measure and Improve Performance over time.  There are probably better ways to phrase these standards and there may be more or different standards we should add, but even with this simple translation a proto-CCLP could begin to take form.

My intention is not to say that the legal industry should immediately adopt this concept as pioneered by the medical industry and run with it, but to suggest that maybe a more holistic approach to imagining the future of law is called for.  Here on the 3 Geeks blog we each have our areas of interest and we all attend our separate conferences to discuss the roles of technology, knowledge management, library and information management, project management, pricing, competitive intelligence, and on and on and on… But maybe we need to think a little bigger.  Rather than trying to fix the law firm model one discipline or one system at a time, maybe we should put the client in the center and rebuild the firm around them.  If we can imagine and define that type of firm, then we can give firms a path to follow and a goal to strive toward, and we can give clients a series of metrics with which to evaluate the quality of the legal services they are receiving.

For more information on the Patient Centered Medical Home concept
see the following articles and resources:
Rittenhouse DR, Shortell SM. The Patient-Centered Medical Home: Will It Stand
the Test of Health Reform? JAMA Vol. 301, No. 19 May 20, 2009 
Nutting PA, Miller
WL, et. al. “Initial Lessons From the First National Demonstration Project
on Practice Transformation to a Patient-Centered Medical Home” Annals
of Family Medicine Vol. 7, No. 3 May/June 2009
Download the
complete NCQA
PCMH Standards and Guidelines (2011)
in PDF format for free.  Requires
registration.

(This is part 3 of a 4 part series. You can download the entire series here.)


In previous posts I have addressed the similarities between the legal business and the medical business, and briefly described the Patient Centered Medical Home approach that the medical community has taken to address some of their issues.  In the next few posts, I would like to imagine what a similarly designed Client Centered Legal Practice might look like.

I think the four general areas that the PCMH addresses, can be copied and pasted almost wholesale into our CCLP.  The CCLP should seek to establish 1) Team-based Legal Support, 2) Active Client Involvement, 3) Evidence-based Practice Improvement, and 4) Comprehensive Legal Payment Reform.

Team-based Legal Support

The primary relationship in any legal services transaction is necessarily between the partner and the client, just as a medical transaction is primarily between a doctor and patient.  However, in both cases, there are entire teams necessary to maintain and support these relationships. Those teams must have direct and regular access to the client. In a law firm that would mean, not only the associates and staff immediately involved in a particular matter, but also fellow partners who could step in when the primary partner is not immediately available. If the client’s satisfaction and well-being is to be the central focus of a legal practice, then legal partnerships must become actual partnerships and not loosely affiliated solos sharing expenses and resources.

Active Client Involvement

In many ways, this is much easier in a legal context than it is in medicine.  Clients usually know exactly what their problem is before they contact their attorney.  Many matters are managed with regular and comprehensive input from the client, but lawyers rarely keep their clients up to date on all aspects of a matter’s progress.  In the CCLP context, active client involvement would include keeping the client “in the loop” at all times. Giving them web access to track the team progress throughout the management of the matter. Clients should be constantly aware of hours spent and tasks completed, when and by whom.  They should have education  resources available through the firm to answer basic legal questions without racking up charges for speaking to a partner.  Clients should never be surprised by the content of a bill, unless they’ve chosen to actively avoid firm resources.

Evidence-based Practice Improvement

This one is much trickier in legal than in medicine.  In medicine, there is a constant metric for progress, the health of the patient. If the patient’s health deteriorates, stop what you’re doing and try something else. If it gets better, then try what you just did on the next patient. (Of course, I’m grossly oversimplifying, but the concept is sound.)  There is not an immediately obvious equivalent metric to patient health in a legal context.  In fact, there are very few metrics in the law firm. And those that exist are virtually meaningless. (Profits per Equity Partner, tell’s you what exactly about a firm.)  This is what we must change.  An old adage says, “You can’t improve what you don’t measure.”  We need to begin to measure efficiency, productivity, and profitability at the task, matter, and firm levels, so that we can begin to adjust our practices to improve all three.  Until we accurately measure these things, any changes we make are just guesses as to what might be better.

Comprehensive Legal Payment Reform

Notice, I didn’t say billing reform. This is not about adopting alternative fee structures, or non-hourly billing schemes, this is about aligning the financial incentives for the attorneys and the firm to the needs of the client.  In medicine that means ending the practice of fee for service, where doctors get paid based on the total number of procedures they perform instead of for maintaining the health of their patients.  In legal, we need a similar realignment from meeting hourly targets to maintaining client satisfaction.  How we should do that is a huge topic of conversation, beyond what can possibly be summarized in this paragraph. This change will be a difficult adjustment for attorneys and firms, but is absolutely key to putting the client at the center of legal services.
In the final installment, I’ll look at some specific elements of the PCMH and imagine how the regulatory aspect of a CCLP might work.

 (This is part 2 of a 4 part series. You can download the entire series here.)

In the midst of the very same economic turmoil that set Law Firms spinning in 2007, a number of medical care professional organizations came together to craft the Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH).  The PCMH is part manifesto, part best-practice guidelines, designed to put patients at the center of their own medical care. I believe the use of the word “home” in this case muddles the meaning, but it’s intended to be less off-putting and more inviting to patients than the words “Medical Practice”.  The PCMH model, is an attempt to re-engineer the practice of medicine from the unholy mess that naturally evolved between the interactions of hospitals, doctors, government agencies, and insurance companies in the late 20th century, into an efficient 21st century medical care machine, with patient well-being as its primary focus.

There are four areas that the PCMH addresses:

Team-based Primary Care is about doctors sharing the responsibility for patient primary care with “nurses, care coordinators, patient educators, clinical pharmacists, social workers, behavioral health specialists, and other team members.”(1)  Historically, doctors have been very proprietary with patient access, refusing to allow other doctors, or especially non-doctors, to treat their patients. In a PCMH, data and records are openly shared (within appropriate regulatory guidelines) and primary patient care is a group effort.

Active Patient Involvement is making patients active participants in their medical care, rather than passive recipients of treatment.  This requires the help of the larger team to educate and work with the patient to arrive at the best course of action.

Evidence-based Practice Improvement means applying the scientific method to common medical procedures, which sounds obvious, but has not always been the case.  Doctors often believe that the way they have always done something is the best way to do it.  Practice improvement challenges the status-quo by testing and confirming best practices with actual data rather than anecdotal evidence.

And finally, Payment Reform is restructuring the way that doctors and insurance companies are paid to align the financial incentives in the medical industry with the needs of the patient, instead of the needs of the medical practitioners or insurance companies.

This sounds great, but the value is not in defining the areas that need reform, but in actually creating a clear path to get there.  There is a regulatory component to the PCMH that is administered by a non-profit organization called the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA).

NCQA has established clear guidelines for any medical practice to qualify as a PCMH.  They’ve broken the guidelines down into 6 distinct Standards which each include between 2 and 7 individually scored elements and a single Must-Pass Element. The Must-Pass Elements are:

1) Access During Office Hours;
2) Use Data for Population Management;
3) Care Management;
4) Support Self-Care Process;
5) Referral Tracking and Follow-Up; and
6) Implement Continuous Quality Improvement.

These 6 Must-Pass Elements are things that any competent medical practice should already be doing.

Barely squeaking by on the 6 Must-Pass Elements will give a PCMH applicant a minimum score of 15 out of 100.  If they can cobble together another 20 points out of all of the other elements to get a score of 35 out of 100, they will qualify as a Level 1 PCMH.  Level 2 requires the 6 Must-Pass and a score of 60; Level 3 the 6 Must-Pass and a score of 85.  The value of this system is that the barriers to Level 1 PCMH qualification are truly minimal.  Most organizations should already meet Level 1 requirements, or should meet them with a very few enhancements to their practice. At the same time the Standards and Elements provide a clear road map to improve patient centered care and to eventually reach a Level 3 certification, which is much more comprehensive and difficult to achieve. A Level 3 PCMH is a truly exemplary practice in which Doctors, Staff, and Hospitals work together seamlessly to provide the best possible care to a very well-informed and participatory patient.

Why can’t the same concept work for legal?  As established in the last post, we have very similar problems, and very similar needs.  Of course the details are different, but we could easily have a non-profit regulatory organization that certifies law firms as Level 1, 2, or 3 Client Centered Legal Practices.

In the next installment, I’ll explore what a CCLP might look like.

PS. I’ve published a short post on this same topic at the Lexis Future of Law blog. (Not my title.)

(This is part 1 of a 4 part series. You can download the entire series here.)

Like all good children living far from where they grew up, I try to call my parents at least once a week. I usually discuss family matters with my mother for a while, then she puts my father on and we talk shop. My father is the Medical Director for Quality Improvement Service at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. To all appearances, he and I could not be in more different lines of work, and yet, over the last few years, we have noticed that our conversations about the legal and medical businesses have overlapped a great deal.

I often drone on and on about this correlation with my fellow 3 Geeks, and they generally nod politely, give each other a knowing sideways glance, and order another round of beers.  Geek #1, Greg, recently tweaked my little pet topic by forwarding a tweet from fellow blogger, and legal industry pundit, Jordan Furlong.

As usual, I mostly agree with Jordan. However, I want to make a distinction between the legal and healthcare systems and legal and healthcare businesses.  Both systems are unquestionably flawed, difficult to navigate, and in desperate need of reform. But the systems are merely the environments in which the businesses operate, not the businesses themselves.  Law firms and hospitals are like exotic fish in a dirty aquarium. While many hospitals have begun to take a scientific approach to changing the way they work in order to improve the functioning of their ecosystem, most law firms are comfortably swimming in their own filth and complaining about the view.

This is the point where many people pipe up and say, “Other than both being professional service providers, doctors and lawyers have nothing in common.” I will concede that the law and medicine are very different practices, but I think it’s a mistake to conclude from that that the businesses of law and medicine are so wildly different that one cannot learn anything from the other.

First, doctors and lawyers aren’t so different. They are both highly educated professionals that use impenetrable language to practice their generally poorly understood “dark arts”, and are therefore simultaneously revered and despised by the general public. A lot of physicians bristle at the idea of performing “cookbook medicine”, while most attorneys can’t stand the thought of producing “commodity” legal work. Hospital medical staffs have historically been made up of solo and small private practice physicians, while most BigLaw firms are partnerships in name only and are more closely akin to solo practitioners sharing support staff and office space. Physicians are extremely intelligent and trained to look for problems; since they can imagine all of the difficulties down the road, they will often reject potentially innovative solutions out of hand. For many doctors, the patient relationship is proprietary, with some insisting that no one else should see or treat their patients, even at the expense of the patient’s own health. Physicians often fall prey to the circular logic that because they are successful, they must be doing things correctly, because they are successful, etc.  (I stopped with the analogous attorney behavior, but drop me a line if you don’t see the correlations.)

In addition to the personal similarities between physicians and attorneys, the businesses of law and medicine are both currently undergoing extreme changes caused by forces largely outside of their control. Jordan FurlongBruce MacEwen, and our own Toby Brown, among many others, have written extensively about the outside forces affecting firms – I won’t reiterate their points here – but many similar forces have been acting upon hospitals and doctors.  As recently as ten years ago, even if they were affiliated with a hospital, most physicians were self-employed or in private practice.  The rising cost of insurance, the needs to invest in technology (including Electronic Medical Records and complex billing systems), and new requirements to account for performance quality, have led many solo and small practice doctors to join large conglomerate medical groups or become full-time hospital medical staff.  Doctors are not “owners” of these companies in the same sense that law partners are “owners” of a firm, but the management of these newly affiliated, formerly autonomous actors is remarkably similar to that of a law firm.

While physicians and hospitals are fundamentally different entities than attorneys and firms, I believe the modern relationships, interactions, and struggles between Hospital, Doctor, and Patient are very analogous to those between Firm, Attorney, and Client. The medical profession is enduring its own New Normal and they are dealing with it very differently than we are. It would be well within character, but we would be sorely remiss if we were to ignore their activity, and fail to learn from their experiences, simply because they are not attorneys.

In tomorrow’s installment I will discuss one particular innovative concept in medical care that I believe we could and should adapt to the practice of law.

The Legal Duck is a brand new, very exclusive, and extremely expensive restaurant owned and operated by Lena Dewey and Daniel Cheatom, two of the most successful attorneys in our fair city.  Last week, we sat down with Lena and Dan to discuss their new endeavor…

3 Geeks:   So, what inspired you two to try your hand at being restaurateurs?

Lena:  Dan and I were partners at DCH for nearly 25 years…

Dan:  We both made partner the same year.

L:  Back when we were associates, we realized that we were both passionate about good food. We dreamed about one day opening a restaurant together.

D:  A couple of years ago, Lena strolled into my office and said, “You know, Dan, I think it’s time. We’ve got the money. We’ve got the knowledge.  We’ve still got the passion for good food. Let’s do it.”

L:  So we went for it.

3G:  And you decided to go with a legal themed restaurant?

L: You know what they say, go with what you know, right?

3G:  A number of critics have faulted you for your unusual style. For instance, the average lunchtime meal at The Legal Duck lasts about 4 hours.

L:  When we set out on this journey we decided we would take everything we had learned from our combined 70 years the legal business and apply it to running this restaurant.

D:  We would provide only the finest foods, prepared by the finest craftsmen in the business.  Our Partners and Associates are artists, creating unique and wonderful experiences for our customers.

L:  Perfection takes time.

3G:  Which brings us to another complaint that I’ve heard about the food not living up to the promise.

L:  Really? Where have you heard that?

3G:  Michelin gave The Legal Duck their first ever 2 Negative Stars.

D:  Well, I don’t think their reviewer really understood the value that we are bringing to our diners.  We are exclusively focused on providing the greatest meals to the people with the biggest appetites.  We aren’t really interested in creating commodity food.

3G: Which raises an interesting point. Michelin seemed to believe that’s exactly what they were getting.

L:  In consultation with our service associate, the Michelin reviewer decided to have a simple sandwich, the “Big Mike”.  

3G: Yes, he described it as, “two grass-fed Kobe beef patties, a mild tomato and mayo spread, a sprig of romaine lettuce, gruyere cheese, thinly sliced gherkin pickles, Vidalia onions, all on a sesame encrusted brioche bun.”  Doesn’t that remind you of anything?

D:  It sounds like an amazing sandwich.

L:  Yeah, my mouth is watering.

3G: Changing the subject… You mentioned the initial consultation with your Service Associate.  Can you talk a little about the unusual experience of dining at The Legal Duck?

L:  Sure! You are greeted at the front door by our lovely receptionist and asked to take a seat in the waiting area. 

D:  We believe anticipation is a big part of an enjoyable dining experience, so we ask people to wait even if there are no other diners.

L:  Once you are seated, you are visited by our Service Associate, who asks you a few questions about the kind of meal you are interested in having. 

D:  The kinds of meals you’ve eaten before? Who you’ve eaten them with? Etc. 

L:  Exactly. Then she or he will take that information and do some research on the kinds of meals that other people in your situation have eaten in the past. The associate, will consult with a more experienced Senior Service Partner or two and together they will draw up a customized menu for your perfect meal.  

D:  Then the entire service team will seek advice from an expert chef on the best method for preparing your meal, presentation suggestions, etc. 

3G: You mentioned your chefs, but I understand that you don’t actually have a kitchen in your restaurant.

D:  That is correct.  We’ve determined that the actual preparation of the food can be accomplished more efficiently and economically off site.  

L:  We have subcontracted food preparation to an industrial food services company that primarily caters to major airlines.  We’ve found that they can prepare the food at a tenth of the cost that we could do it ourselves. We pay them ten times what the airlines pay and they give our meals priority.  It really is a win-win.

3G: But isn’t the preparation of food the actual service that you, as a restaurant, should be providing your customers?

L:  (laughing) No. We work in conjunction with our customers to design and implement the perfect meal for their enjoyment.  

3G: Which someone else makes?

L:  Yes.

3G: Uh…OK.  One final question: The average bill per diner for lunch at The Legal Duck is over thirty-five hundred dollars.  First, how is that possible? And as a follow up, how do you justify those prices?

D: Yes, I admit our restaurant is expensive.  But we provide unparalleled customer service and we stand by our work.  We have only had to sue a handful of our diners for non-payment.

L:  And thirty-five hundred is not so much when you realize how much work is being put into each meal. To produce the typical four-hour meal requires at least six hours of a Service Associates time at, let’s say, a hundred and fifty dollars an hour. Then each Partner is charging around three hundred an hour, Expert Chef’s don’t come cheap, maybe five hundred… 

D:  Yep, depending on the time of day. Then there’s the minor incidental expenses for the ingredients, the preparation, and of course, the delivery of the food.  Before you know it, it’s real money.

L:  But it’s worth it.

D:  Yeah, we couldn’t be happier.

This post is the final part of a whitepaper written by Scott Preston and Ryan McClead. The full paper can be downloaded here.

Conclusion

Image [cc] – ANDRA Drag Racing

By now it is obvious there will be no return to the glory days of an ever-expanding legal market and steadily rising hourly rates.  Legal Project Management, in its earliest incarnation, awakened many firms to the need for better project planning and greater control over budgets. But it also put a heavy burden on partners to ensure delivery of services at an agreed upon price without providing them any mechanism to control the process.

The second generation of Legal Project Management, by incorporating task management and monitoring and control mechanisms, now gives the partner a more effective way to deliver services on time and within budget.  LPM 2.0 makes it possible to catch problems as they are happening not weeks after they’ve already occurred.  It improves communication with clients by being inclusive of the client and making the end-to-end process as transparent as possible. This gives clients an opportunity to have meaningful and contextually relevant discussions with their attorney, greatly increasing the level of trust between them.

In shifting from a time management paradigm, in which attorney hours are often captured days or weeks after the work has been completed, to a task management paradigm, where pre-assigned tasks are checked off as the work is done, LPM 2.0 leverages technology to provide contextually appropriate support resources to attorneys at the precise moment that they are needed. This leads to a better use of resources, time, money, and ultimately to a better understanding of the legal process for both the client and the attorney.

Legal Project Management in its more complete form, incorporating all three stages: Planning and Budgeting; Execution; and Monitoring and Controlling, provides many benefits to clients, to attorneys, and to firms. By far the most important benefit to everyone is a more consistent, repeatable, and continually improving practice of law.

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This post is the fourth part of a whitepaper written by Scott Preston and Ryan McClead. The full paper can be downloaded here.

Legal Project Management 2.0 

The next generation of Legal Project Management software (LPM 2.0) extends and expands on the Planning and Budgeting capabilities of earlier products, and it includes tools to help with the Execution and Monitoring and Controlling stages of Project Management. Personal beliefs to the contrary, most attorneys do not execute, monitor, or control their projects any better than they plan and budget for them.  LPM 1.0, with its focus on Planning and Budgeting is a great introduction to the concepts of Project Management, but LPM 2.0 fills in the missing pieces.

Execution

Image [cc] – Tim Olson

The Execution stage is where those who were assigned tasks during Budgeting interact with their tasks. Execution may seem the most intuitive and simple of the stages, but it is this stage that will be the most difficult for firms to embrace, because quality Execution requires a wholesale change of attorney mindset from meeting hourly requirements to completing assigned tasks. This, more than any other aspect of Legal Project Management, most fundamentally cuts against the established practice of most firms. Hourly goals determine bonuses, equity points, promotions, office selection, and nearly every other aspect of an attorney’s professional life within a firm. In LPM 2.0 efficient quality work beats quantity work every time. This turns conventional law firm “wisdom” on its head.  While convincing firms to drop their existing pay structures and adopt a new model is way beyond the scope of this paper, and we absolutely do not expect such a change to take place immediately or to happen easily, we do expect it to happen eventually. The benefits of a task-based system of execution far outweigh that relic of a bygone era of plenty, hourly targets. Those benefits are realized in the final stage of LPM 2.0.

Monitoring and Controlling

By systematically focusing on task completion, rather than hours worked, this final stage can produce accurate project status reports and track financial projections to ensure that the project is on schedule and within budget. With up-to-date task information it is also possible to produce ongoing budget to actual variance reports, for both time and costs, which can be shared with clients or used for internal evaluation and efficiency improvement.  Until we begin to attribute work to tasks, reporting budgeted to actual work is a manual process involving the deconstruction of time entries and/or the reliance on phase and task codes, which in the past have proven unreliable. Monitoring task completion also provides a context for the work being done. The client can look through agreed upon tasks and get a much better sense of how a project is progressing.  This transparent process builds trust with the attorney and eases the pain should the project run into unforeseeable stumbling blocks or cost overruns. For the attorney this eventually becomes a much more intuitive way to work. No one gets up in the morning thinking, “I need to spend 4 hours and 6 minutes on this, and 2 hours and 24 minutes on that.” They think, “I need to complete this task, and when I’m done with it I can begin on the next one.”

In the traditional hourly work model, After Action Reporting and Analysis, should they be done at all, are little more than personal assessments of “how we did” or “where we need to improve”. They are at best subjective analyses heavily influenced by personality and politics. A change in focus to task-based Execution and Monitoring will provide hard statistical data, allowing firms to continually improve their processes and procedures, and to correct or reward their employees based on actual work performed and tasks completed. Over time clients will begin to see improvement in the firm’s delivery of legal services, efficiency and productivity should increase and costs should come down. In addition, this process of tracking tasks and closely monitoring results has implications for several other aspects of practicing law, including:

Managing Risk –As soon as a firm begins working the perfect project plan, reality intercedes and the plan must adapt. Tactics may change as they learn more about the project; and resources change as the workload fluctuates. Timing constraints and requirements may change as a client’s needs evolve.  Without task-based execution and monitoring, the partner has no control or oversight of the impacts these changes have on the project and no ability to effectively keep the client informed about the impact of these changes on timing and costs.

Improving Workflow – By accurately tracking task completion firms will have a much better understanding of the “bottlenecks” currently slowing project completion. Resources can be brought to bear on specific areas giving the team an opportunity to navigate troubled waters more effectively.  

Resource Management – The most valuable (and expensive) resource a law firm has is its attorneys and support staff.  For decades law firms have added headcount on an annual basis, irrespective of any real analytics to support that decision.  Many believed that even if the work wasn’t there immediately, they could always raise rates later to make up the gap. By incorporating the execution and monitoring phases of LPM into a firm’s standard operating procedure, the firm can start to truly understand how it actually works and begin to intelligently “right size” its workforce.

Defensibility – The execution phase, because it memorializes who did what and when, provides an audit trail of exactly how a project was worked and completed.

A Universal Project Plan – By incorporating the execution phase into an LPM solution, firms can manage and monitor projects that include external resources.  This might mean pushing work out to lower cost centers (for example outsourcing e-discovery services) and tracking their progress, or it might mean allowing a client to follow the progress of the project plan (to an agreed upon level of detail).  

Improving Future Project Plans – By tracking task performance firms will have a much better ability to streamline workflow for future work as well as improve project plans for future use.  This makes each iteration of the project plan more accurate than the one before and greatly simplifies the creation of new project plans.

Improving Experience Databases –A complete LPM system tracks individual performers’ execution of specific tasks, which can provide detailed information about who within the firm has experience performing which specific tasks and how much experience they have. This information can be leveraged by various knowledge systems and “Know-Who” databases.
Identifying Professional Development Opportunities – The complete LPM system tracks not only the tasks that individuals complete, but also the time it takes to complete a task. This provides valuable insight into Professional Development and continuing education opportunities.

This post is the third part of a whitepaper written by Scott Preston and Ryan McClead. The full paper can be downloaded here.

Legal Project Management 1.0

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Even before the economic slump a handful of legal technology vendors recognized an opportunity to help firms better understand and budget for their non-hourly billing or Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFA). AFAs are not new to the legal industry; contingency and fixed fee pricing have been available for a long time, but in recent years there has been a significant increase in AFA requests from the client side. Corporations have begun to push back on the standard annual increase in lawyers’ billing rates. They want not only better pricing, but better communication and a better understanding of the amount of time and effort spent completing individual tasks. Attentive vendors have started adding AFA planning and budgeting functionality to their existing software solutions, or in some cases writing new solutions from the ground up.  These rudimentary systems have quickly garnered the label Legal Project Management software (LPM 1.0).

While Project Management as a discipline has had nearly 60 years to mature and develop, the application of PM principles and techniques to the legal environment is still very much in its infancy. Traditional Project Management can be thought of as a stool resting on three iterative and overlapping developmental stages: Planning and Design, Execution, and Monitoring and Controlling. For our purposes in LPM we call the first stage Planning and Budgeting rather than Design. All attorneys believe that they execute, monitor, and control their projects already, but many will concede that they do not plan or budget adequately. Consequently, Planning and Budgeting is the clear low hanging fruit of LPM 1.0 and vendors have focused most of their efforts where they believe they can most easily gain a foothold.

Planning and Budgeting 

After a new legal project opportunity is defined planning begins to determine the full scope of the project. This is done by defining the desired outcome for the project and developing a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) that will ultimately lead to that desired outcome.  The WBS defines any major objectives and project phases, and then breaks those down into discrete tasks required to meet the objectives and complete the phases.

Once the desired outcome and list of tasks is established, the project manager can determine the necessary resources and levels of expertise required for each task, as well as any resource constraints that might impact the outcome.  Those constraints might include expertise (Do we have the right people to do the work?), or time (Do we have the capacity to complete the project on time?), or technology (Do we have the right systems in place?).

Budgeting is intended to provide a realistic estimate of the eventual costs to the client as well as considering the firm’s expenses.  The project manager assigns individual people, or resources, to specific tasks identified in the WBS, and then estimates the amount of time each task should take to complete.  This is where the various alternative staffing scenarios come into play. By experimentally adjusting the degree of leverage on a particular matter (i.e., pushing work to the lowest cost performers who can adequately complete the work while meeting all other project completion criteria), the firm can reduce the cost of its services for the client, better compete with other firms on price, and potentially increase their own profits.

LPM 1.0 promises to provide firms with three new abilities: (1) The ability to create baseline preliminary project plans or templates; (2) the ability to create matter specific budgets based on prior client work that can be used to win new client work; and (3) the ability to compare alternative staffing scenarios, which will allow the firm to produce the same work product at a lower cost to the client while still making a profit for the firm.

Unfortunately, most of these first generation LPM products struggle to balance the development of project plans that are detailed enough to create accurate budgets without being so complex that they slow the budgeting process to a crawl.  Many of them have trouble modeling a firm’s prior work to develop project plans for future work, because phase and task codes available from past matters are not accurately or consistently recorded. And while alternative staffing scenario analysis sometimes makes it possible to reduce the cost of services to the client, it does little to help the firm better understand the process or arrange their staffing levels over time.

In contrast to the Project Management three-legged stool, LPM 1.0 is a one-legged stick chair. It can hold up as long as the project is otherwise perfectly balanced, but the slightest wobble sends the project swiftly to the ground. Legal projects are rarely so well balanced. The greatest plan and budget in the world is often out of date as soon as the matter begins. Attorneys must “work the plan” and adjust as they go. If they don’t actively manage and adjust resources throughout the course of a project, then successful completion of a matter or even successful achievement of today’s immediate goals may be nothing more than coincidence and will certainly not be easily repeatable. LPM 1.0 with it’s focus on Planning and Budgeting is a good and necessary step, but on its own it does nothing to reduce the risk of bad outcomes, cost overruns, time delays, or client dissatisfaction. Additionally, it does nothing to improve the firm’s efficiency, or to increase the transparency and quality of communication between the firm and the client.

The promise of LPM 1.0 is that Planning and Budgeting, in conjunction with the work a firm is already doing, will be enough to meet client demands and maintain business, but in reality, it is in the next two stages that the proverbial LPM “rubber meets the road”.

This post is the second part of a whitepaper written by Scott Preston and Ryan McClead. The full paper can be downloaded here.

The Tipping Point

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There is no longer any doubt that the legal market has fundamentally changed in recent years. Every firm felt the weight of their clients’ demands and responded in whatever way they were able: cutting rates, cutting expenses, making promises, and often begging for work. We believe we, as an industry, have reached a tipping point where client demands for better price predictability, reduction of risk, better communications, and an overall transparency of service will require a systematic and consistent approach to providing legal services. Firms that choose to continue rely only on customer loyalty and brand recognition will begin to lose out to those who open up the process to their clients and embrace the greater consistency and predictability of LPM.

However, LPM is not simply a tool that improves the client experience. It can also ensure that partners needs are more consistently met as well. Partners are concerned with many of the same things they always have been: How to get new business?; How to make the client happy so they’ll return?; How to limit risk to themselves and the firm?; and ultimately, How to make a profit doing it? Legal Project Management addresses both client and partner needs.

Robert Brunson, a partner at Nelson Mullins who has been using Microsoft Project to manage complex litigation for more than ten years, provided his view on using Legal Project Management:

“LPM provides a framework of accountability, transparency, predictability and ultimately less cost.  By creating a plan at the outset, client and counsel are forced to consider the many different paths and outcomes of a particular piece of litigation, including consideration of staffing alternatives such as virtual law firms or offshoring in advance of the work, which could potentially lend itself to these alternative staffing options.  This dialogue often leads to a better engagement by the client in important details early on, details that can be the seeds of unwanted surprises which so often frustrate clients and sour the professional relationship.”  

While the points illustrated above are obviously not the only points of concern between a partner and his or her client, they are central to every engagement and are the points most frequently discussed by General Counsel. Meeting the price is important, but more important is the opportunity to have meaningful discussions with a client about the progress of their matter.  All of the points and discussions outlined above are inter-dependent and when done correctly lead to trust.