OpenText’s New Purchase: A Requiem for Recommind?

7 Jun

reqby Joshua Fireman, President & Founder, Fireman & Company

The enterprise search market is getting interesting again and that is a good thing for all of us. The big question this week is, “What does OpenText’s acquisition of Recommind mean?”

Why Did OpenText Buy Recommind?

I think we can safely say that, with a transaction purchase price of $163 million based on $70 to $80 million of annualized Recommind revenues, this deal was about eDiscovery revenue and not enterprise search. Recommind’s enterprise search market (for its Decisiv Search product) has been close to flat for the last couple of years, meaning that annual Decisiv Search revenue is based predominantly on support payments.

Verdict: This deal was about eDiscovery revenue, not enterprise search.

Will OpenText Add Resources to Decisiv Search?

I suggest that we look at OpenText’s historic behaviour with respect to acquisitions. Tony Byrne did a great job of summing this up last month: “The most important thing to understand, though, is that as a vendor OpenText is a financial construct in search of a technology rationale. The company follows a ‘roll-up’ strategy: purchasing older tools for their maintenance revenue streams, streams which — while not always large — are almost always very profitable.”

It is hard to feel optimistic about a long-term vision for Decisiv Search. OpenText would have to do more than add development resources to the product team – it needs to innovate in an era where basic search is becoming commoditized and innovation is being driven by data analytics and artificial intelligence companies.

Verdict: Decisiv Search will remain stable, but is unlikely to evolve.

I am a Decisiv Search client – do I need to switch?

In the short-term, you have no reason to panic. But, you should start planning for the future. I have no reason to believe that Decisiv Search will not be maintained and kept current with required operating systems and integrations. However, as recently observed, enterprise search can be a core system powering content management ecosystems and search-based applications. Moving in this direction means you should look at other search technologies.

Verdict: Decisiv Search should operate in its current state for the foreseeable future. But, an integrated information environment demands more flexible and sophisticated tools that turn search into an intelligent content platform.

Where Is the Search Market Going?

There is no question that basic enterprise search delivers results (no pun intended). But, the real value lies in leveraging the search index and publishing search results via practice-centric applications. Search can power staffing applications, support pricing analysis, and contribute to risk management programs. The right search tool for you is one that:

  1. complements your existing information infrastructure,
  2. integrates into portals and mobile applications, and
  3. delivers information based on multiple data points, including user personas, time entry task codes, application context – even the time of day.

We are also tracking the evolution of more advanced, analytical search tools. Very interesting models are emerging that can be implemented in combination, rather than to the exclusion of, other search tools.

Verdict: Viable search options are available to law firms. Currently available technologies support high-value search-based applications. This path can be pursued in parallel with the emergence of more advanced analytical tools.

Is That All?

Not by a long shot. Fireman & Company evaluates search technologies with our clients regularly and we believe that this is an area with untapped potential. Whether your firm owns Recommind’s Decisiv or another search tool or is still exploring search, you should look hard at the strategic uses of search.

Stop Limiting Your Ferrari to Grocery Trips: Using Enterprise Search for Deeper Integration

11 May

ferBy Joshua Fireman, President, Fireman & Company

The traditional view defines enterprise as a tool that allows attorneys to research and leverage work product in ways that generally are not possible with standard document management system (DMS) search. Documents are returned with contextual information, including matter and people-specific information, and results come back based on relevancy, a key advance over native DMS search. Matter profile pages are generated automatically, as are lawyer profiles based on specific expertise search criteria.

This is how enterprise search has been sold and implemented across the legal industry. The model allows firms to leverage documents, matter information and attorney expertise without the need for large non-billable time allocations and attorney content contributions, while making a firm’s entire corpus of work product available at their fingertips in a way that manual KM contribution models simply cannot scale to. Firms that have adopted enterprise search tools have, indeed, experienced measurable efficiency gains, reduced write-downs, improved internal cross-selling opportunities and produced higher-quality work product.

Counterintuitively, the success of the “documents, matters and expertise” model has led to a general innovation stasis in law firms that own search tools (with a handful of exceptions). The simple and depressing explanation is that it has been relatively easy to benefit from enterprise search – which led, also depressingly, to a lack of market desire to leverage the extraordinary brains (the search engines and indexes) behind these tools. It is similar to buying a sports car and using it for suburban grocery trips.

I see enterprise search as a powerful integration layer that can provide access to integrated and contextualized information within both standalone applications and integrated Intranets. Viewed this way, search provides much more business value than just delivering“Google-like” search results. Rather, it can be used to:

  • Push information to users, using pre-determined search criteria (“canned” searches), where users see content views, rather than search results and can subscribe to topics and request notifications.
  • Target users based on who they are (personas), what they are working on (via phase and task codes) and where they are working (by application or via contextual location in SharePoint).
  • Power search applications responding to a variety of use cases from administrative departments (business development, conflicts and others) and practice areas.

An enterprise search selection must account for strategic considerations that go well beyond the legal industry’s widely accepted definition of enterprise search.

Intranet Integration

Users expect elegant, simple design in their Intranets, to drive and optimize adoption. This extends to searching multiple systems & repositories; these types of search must be transparent and intuitive to the user. Award winning law firm intranets now feature an integrated user-facing search box that combines search options from multiple systems into a single, guided user experience (see the illustration below):

F1Unified search, however, is just the beginning of the value that search can deliver via an Intranet because search can be used as a content management tool within an Intranet. Any content indexed by the search tool can be published in an Intranet by combining pre-populated search criteria with web parts that display result content in an easily consumable form. In other words, the search tool should be capable of displaying search results in multiple display formats (like, for instance, grids and tiles) as a component of an Intranet page.

This opens up the possibility of using search in place of application-specific web parts. Simple examples include displaying recent matters and documents via search. A moderately more complex example would be the display of user-generated DMS content in ways that surpass the capabilities of native DMS functionality (for example, by displaying a working file view). Even more interesting possibilities emerge when search is paired with user targeting (as we discuss below).

User Targeting

Innovative search uses emerge when we take advantage of “audiencing” where content is tailored based on Intranet user persona and page context. For example, an associate working on a matter can have relevant KM material suggested on the basis of matter profiling and time entry information. Similarly, experience location can be targeted to suggest peers (such as lawyers within two years of the user’s bar call) with experience on similar, relevant matters.

The combination of search and audiencing presents an opportunity to facilitate user movement through the Intranet by programmatically anticipating knowledge management and other needs. From the perspective of the attorney, the Intranet becomes a highly personalized work environment enhanced by the serendipitous discovery of relevant knowledge.

One of the most high-value uses of user targeting is the application of audiencing on matter pages to generate electronic matter files. An electronic matter file can meet several objectives, including:

f2providing users with a more relevant view of DMS (and other source) content via filters and content views than is possible with a traditional DMS, and

f3leveraging time entry (particularly where phase and task codes are used) to “push” information based on matter type, role and matter phase (checklists, similar relevant matters, peer experience, etc.)

From a strategic IT perspective, the development of an electronic matter file provides an opportunity to plan its long-term document management application strategy. As the legal industry considers the evolution of DM into back-end infrastructure, a web-based electronic matter file provides the opportunity to transition to a new DM model without substantial “big bang” change management concerns – the back-end can change without materially affecting the web-based front-end seen by the firm’s users.

Search Applications

An enterprise search tool can also be the engine behind targeted applications for different audiences within a firm. The following are examples of search applications:

  • Matter Auto-Prediction/Classification & Budgeting: Predictive coding has been in place for almost a decade in the litigation document review space; some search tools could be used to predictively code matter types, and obviate the need for lawyers to code them when opening a matter. With better and more comprehensive matter types associated with more of your matters, you could locate matters of the same type to help create budgets from the data.
  • Matter Location: Locate relevant matters to leverage past experience for RFP responses and AFAs; support LPM.
  • Conflict Checking: Leverage dynamically joined data across repositories; reduce risk with concept searching (e.g. Pepsi = Frito Lay); issue alerts when conflicts arise mid-matter.
  • Staffing: Make more effective use of legal resources and matching the right people; leverage dynamically joined data across matter intake, HR, Time and Billing, finance repositories; locate people based on multiple factors (experience, billing rate, geography, realization).

f4f5

The development of search applications is dependent on (1) access to the search index’s data layer, (2) the ability to present content in multiple view types (grids, multi-select tables, tiles, etc.) and (3) a categorization engine able to scale sufficiently to crawl all relevant repositories and be trained on your content. The right tool, integrated with the firm’s existing data and workflow infrastructure can lead to the development of extremely valuable, purpose-driven applications.

Conclusion

The enterprise search market is about to leap forward, as search vendors work with clients to realize the true potential of their tools. For years, clients asked for “Google for the law firm”. Today, we realize that this was the wrong question. Instead of trying to mimic other products, we needed to look at our interactions and relationships with information in the context of the practice of law. Building those use cases takes time, but the payoff is worth it.

Staying Ahead of the Artificial Intelligence Curve

15 Mar

chessby Lesha Van Der Bij, Principal, Optimize Legal

I recently attended a panel discussion organized by Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone (LIZ) on “Legal Tech and the Future Impact of Artificial Intelligence.” The event featured Andrew Aruda, CEO and Co-Founder ROSS Intelligence, Matt Gillis, President at Neota Logic Inc, and Hersh Perlis, Director of LIZ.

One of the participants asked the now familiar question when discussing the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) for the practice of law: does AI mean the end of lawyers?

The panel unanimously answered no, observing that lawyers will always be needed to interpret the information provided. AI is about easily retrieving information, allowing lawyers to do their jobs better, improving access to law and justice, and making law more accessible.

I agree with all of these points. However, I think that in addition to enabling lawyers to work more efficiently and non-lawyers to gain better access to the law, AI provides a real opportunity for lawyers.

Increasing Commoditization

As most lawyers are very aware, the practice of law is changing, and has been for many years. The commoditization of law, in particular, is not a new topic. Several years have passed since commentator Richard Susskind began talking about the fragmentation of law into bespoke legal work and routine or commoditized work.

Many clients are increasingly frustrated when asked to pay high hourly rates for routine legal work. The value of such work appears to be diminishing. AI may provide lawyers with a way to respond to this growing division in legal work.

Meeting Commoditization Head-on

Law firms seeking to increase efficiency, reduce costs, or add value for clients should consider the many forms of AI available, including e-discovery, contract management, due diligence and contract analysis, legal research, document automation, and self-service compliance platforms. If you are interested, I would suggest reading Michael Mills’ excellent series on “the state of play” of AI in the legal profession. In this post, I am going to focus on self-service compliance platforms or other types of on-line legal services.

Getting back to the Ryerson event, Matt Gillis explained how Neota Logic helps lawyers create databases that automate their expertise into an accessible format and make it available on demand. Basically, Neota Logic adds scale and a “self serve” feature to repetitive legal work.

For example, Norton Rose Fulbright offers ContractorCheck, which helps clients and potential clients determine whether their new hire is an employee or an independent contractor through a series of yes or no questions. Users are provided with a final report, which suggests that they contact a Norton Rose lawyer for additional advice.

While some firms offer these services for free (as a part of an intake process, for example) others charge clients a flat or ongoing subscription fee to access these arrangements. As Gillis commented, “You can make money while you sleep.”

Gillis zeroed in on a seemingly obvious benefit – the potential for law firms to profit from a service that answers fairly routine queries.   And as I have noted, clients increasingly have little interest in paying high legal fees to have these basic kinds of questions answered anyway.

Summing up, a real opportunity to continue to profit from what has often been termed legal commodity work seems to exist. Yet, apart from a few large law firms that have dived into the area, we are not seeing many law firms offering such services. Why not?

We Do Bespoke Work

Many lawyers still pride themselves on doing, almost exclusively, work that cannot be distilled down to a relatively simple question and answer format. While it is true that lawyers often are asked to apply their knowledge and expertise to unique issues, at least some routine components usually arise within even the most complex practice areas. Providing easy access to these routine questions can, in turn, drive additional bespoke work to lawyers.

Potential Liability

Whether based on general distrust of technology or fear of legal answers being misunderstood without the benefit of a supervising lawyer, lawyers often fear posting even the most basic legal advice online. Obviously, disclaimers can (and should) be included on any online legal service. In addition, many of these services, like Norton Rose’s ContractorCheck, include a lawyer referral component – particularly where the user’s answers to the questions lead to a “grey area.”

Just Too Busy

For any of these legal self-serve offerings to truly add value, obtaining input from lawyers and capturing their expertise is a must. And, this does take time no matter how seemingly simple the underlying platform appears to be. That said, one could argue that lawyers cannot afford not to put in the time, as clients continue to seek out alternative service delivery models and competition among firms increases. I would also note that once lawyers put in the time, they can continue to see the benefits, while committing far fewer resources to maintaining the site.

Let’s Wait and See

We all know that lawyers tend to be risk averse and skeptical. (Frankly, as a typical lawyer, I also exhibit these traits from time to time.) But the time for waiting seems to be over. Law firms that delay moving forward on AI solutions may find that they have been “leapfrogged” by other service providers or in-house counsel willing to take the initiative.

While we are still in the early days of AI, it is already clear that AI will have a significant impact on the practice of law. Whether that impact is positive or negative likely will be determined by decisions law firms make today.

The Secret to Addressing Your Clients’ Real Problem

13 Nov

readmindby Melissa LaFlair, Principal, LaFlair Legal and Project Management Services

Once a problem is identified – and I mean the real problem, not the symptoms – identifying the relevant solution usually is fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, when it comes to running the business part of their practice and managing client expectations (rather than solving legal questions), at best many lawyers unwittingly fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between addressing the symptoms and addressing the underlying problem.

This is readily seen in the context of lawyers’ responses to the ever increasing RFPs from clients. Many lawyers and firms view preparing RFP responses as something their administrative or management team should address with little or no lawyer involvement. While I am quite confident that many talented professionals fill these administrative and managerial roles, most times these professionals do not have relationships with the client and need the lawyer(s) actively involved in the response process to provide the context needed to identify the real problem triggering the RFP.

In hope of helping those administrative and managerial professionals who struggle to get their lawyers interested and actively engaged in reviewing and responding to RFPs (or any client relationship efforts for that matter) and those lawyers who mindlessly respond to RFPs,  I am sharing some examples of what this spectrum looks like and the impact on results.

The worst symptom-approach example I know of concerns a firm that assumed that a long-standing client’s RFP was a formality that need not be taken seriously – after all, the firm was the clear incumbent. The firm invested little deep thought in preparing its response; in the end, the firm’s submission missed the mark and lost the very large (as in lots of zeros) repeating client business to another firm. I heard about this one after the fact.

Conversely, the best real-problem-approach example I have witnessed was a firm that took an unexpected RFP from a key client (regarding services the firm had been providing for the past ten years) seriously, despite being undisputed experts in their area of practice and the client’s go-to provider. The result? The firm earned a spot on the client’s final list of approved vendors moving forward. That two other firms were added to that list confirmed that the RFP process was real, with no guaranteed outcome. Full disclosure – I know because I helped the incumbent firm prepare its RFP response.

Whether a symptom- or underlying-problem-approach was taken, in each example an initial question and answer about the RFP likely went something like this:

“Interesting, we just received an unexpected RFP from our client. Has the client issued an RFP before?”

“No, this is the first time and this is odd. We were introduced to them ten years ago by a mutual contact they trust, we are specialized in their main area of need, and they have been really happy with our services so far.”

My guess is many firms (including the unsuccessful firm in the first example) stop asking themselves any more questions as long as everything looks pretty straightforward and they have many precedents to pull from in answering the RFP’s questions. From what I have heard and seen, many of these automatic RFP responses do not end well for incumbent firms.

Those interested in maximizing their probability of success will dig further to understand the motivation and context behind the RFP. Using the second example described above, additional questioning might go something like this:

“Why would the 10 year client issue an RFP at this time?”

“I don’t know. They aren’t able to discuss the RFP, but I think it’s because our main client contact now has a new boss.”

“Why can’t they discuss the RFP?”

“Because they are a government-related entity and want to be sure there is no bias or unfair advantage at play when selecting vendors.”

“Why would the new boss trigger an RFP request?”

“I’m not sure, but it may be because the new boss wants to confirm that the law department is complying with the organization’s requirement that vendors be reasonably priced and selected by way of an open bidding process.”

“Why would their relationship with your firm be a concern?”

“Well, we started working with them 10 years ago from a word-of-mouth introduction. The requirement was introduced 2 years ago and, at that time, we were already regarded as a well-established, cost-effective supplier in a specialized area where there are no other real competitors – so no RFP was issued.”

“Why did the client introduce the requirement?”

“I would think it’s because a few similar governmental organizations have been found to be working with vendors who hadn’t been selected by a bidding process and were charging higher than market rates. So, they needed to demonstrate that they were prudently spending the public’s money.”

As you can see, asking “why” five times (a classic approach to identifying root causes to issues, symptoms, and problems) and considering the answers revealed that the main client contact needed to issue an RFP to:

  1. comply with organizational requirements in place for 2 years,
  2. establish that the main client contact’s historic decision to retain the firm was (and remains) wise (thereby looking good to the new boss and not looking foolish for having neglected the RFP requirement for two years), and
  3. demonstrate that the public’s money is being spent prudently.

Keeping this context in mind, the firm answered each of the many RFP questions in a way that demonstrated their understanding and responsiveness to the organization’s needs and sensitivities, expertise in the field and how that expertise specifically benefitted the client in the past and would continue to do so in the future, and overall cost-effectiveness. While not expressly asked, the firm also identified the main types of work that the client relies on the firm for, areas where retainer and fixed fees may be appropriate (providing cash flow certainty for the firm and cost certainty for the client), and alternative fee approaches for more specialized work (again to provide the client with more budgeting certainty).

Notably, while the firm was not able to ask their client for background, self-posed questions needed to identify the client’s underlying problem helped the firm piece together the most likely reasons behind the RFP. The firm could answer its own questions based on general information from the firm’s existing relationship and public knowledge to craft a relevant, meaningful, and competitive response.

Even with imperfect information, trying to understand why a client has put out an RFP (or included questions on topics like budgeting and project management capabilities) goes a long way to helping you identify and address your client’s real, underlying issue. And that is what client service is all about. So if you are not already, I strongly encourage you to ask these sorts of questions and have these internal discussions. Your clients (and your bottom line) will thank you for it.

Does Anyone Do Taxonomy Anymore?

27 Sep

taxonomyBy Andrea Alliston, Partner, Knowledge Management, Stikeman Elliott

In an environment of increasing enterprise complexity, integration of technology systems, desire for better data and analytics, and pressure to become more efficient in our delivery of services to clients, it is time to dust-off that old taxonomy and put it to better use. Let’s start by defining taxonomy.

Taxonomy is not the browse trees that once were the backbone of our old intranets and KM repositories. Today’s environment requires a modern approach to taxonomy, covering the full range of controlled vocabularies, thesauri, taxonomies, ontologies, and knowledge graphs. Think about your taxonomy as a holistic system of terms and concepts used to classify, manage and identify content in the law firm, enterprise-wide.

Facets in Search

Many firms have chosen search as the tool of choice for surfacing content and information. As a result, the taxonomy is primarily used as facets or filters rather than for browsing or boosting search results. It is a subtle, but critical change that affects how the taxonomy is developed and managed. Unfortunately, it is not simply a matter of turning a browse tree into facets. The purpose of the taxonomy is different and that needs to be taken into account.

Linking Information Across Systems

A uniform enterprise taxonomy is valuable for linking data between disparate technology systems. If we want to ensure that lawyers are as efficient as possible by having access to the content and information they need, our taxonomies should support that objective. By using consistent tagging in your KM, DM, HR, financial, experience and CRM systems, you can gather information from them around your taxonomy tags. Without consistent tags, you may have related data and information, but no easy way to extract it and present it to lawyers when they need it.

New Challenges

Newer activities, such as pricing and process mapping, also require support from an enterprise-wide taxonomy and should inform its development. Linking financial information to experience databases is not new; however, pricing activities may force us to rethink the taxonomy we use for that information. Pricing may also require new ways to tag data to extract the information needed to develop effective budgets and fee arrangements. The increased focus, use and expansion of the UTBMS phase and task code taxonomy is an example.

Similarly, process mapping will affect our taxonomies and the way we categorise content. Common outputs of process mapping exercises are checklists and precedents. To surface those resources at the right stage of the process, they must be aligned with that stage and one way to do so is through taxonomy tags that map to the stages of the process.

User Experience

An underlying theme to enterprise taxonomy is a desire for a consistent user experience.   Lawyers, other timekeepers, and assistants should not need to figure out how information is categorised and tagged within each system they use. The taxonomy in a closing book database should match that in an experience database and the file opening process.

Lessons Learned

All of this is top of my mind as my firm recently acquired a new taxonomy management tool. Here are a few tips I have learned from the journey so far.

  • Collaboration is essential. Working with your colleagues in other business departments is critical to any firm-wide taxonomy initiative; their perspectives and needs will differ from yours.
  • Understand your requirements. For my firm, taxonomy management is made more complex by the Canadian dual legal system and bilingual (English and French) requirements. Make sure you understand your firm’s particular needs.
  • Be prepared for fresh thinking. As observed, today’s taxonomies extend far beyond simple browse trees and are used very differently. So, you need to think about the taxonomy differently; making the shift is not always easy.
  • Take it one step at a time. Making changes to taxonomy lists and integrating them into systems can be complex. Now that a centralized tool holds our master taxonomy, we are integrating it into each technology one system at a time.
  • Get help. We had one chance to get our taxonomy tool set up properly in a way that would accommodate our requirements. We also needed help shifting from a browse tree to a facet approach and simplifying the taxonomy where possible. We have been fortunate to work with Joseph Busch and Vivian Bliss of Taxonomy Strategies who, together with Jim Sweeney of Synaptica, have set us on the right path. Goodness knows what mistakes we would have made without their help.

Organizations dealing with enterprise data, information and content management should be highly motivated to re-examine their current taxonomies, where they are used, how they are managed, and how they can support the firm’s objectives. It may not be the coolest thing a legal KM practitioner does, but it is a fundamental part of legal KM and if you get it right, your firm will thank you in the long run!

Lawyers: Jump Out of the Pot!

22 Jul

frogBy Melissa LaFlair, Principal, LaFlair Legal and Project Management Services

Fact: the legal profession is operating in a mature market undergoing significant change.

Fact: many lawyers think the change doesn’t apply to them (after all, while their colleagues and peers might not, they have great client relationships and provide unique services) or that clients don’t understand what is involved and are just seeking to pay less for something worth far more.

I wish these lawyers could see what I regularly see and hear what I regularly hear. Clients, under ever increasing pressure to provide integrated, practical legal input while reducing costs, express frustration due to the lack of data, innovation and partnership offered by their lawyers. The result is that many relationships either limp along on life support or are suddenly terminated after years of a lawyer being the go-to provider.

I know from working with consumers of legal services that while they are indeed often seeking to pay less in the aggregate for legal services, they are also often willing to maintain or even increase spend on certain must-have elements of services and are quite pleased to see changes in the nature and type of services received (from scope to product to process). As a result, change doesn’t need to be a zero sum game for providers.

Those clients who truly do want the exact same product for less are sending a clear message that they no longer see the work as unique or worth what they are asked to spend.  In that situation, lawyers have two choices; they can:

  • stick to what they know, continue as they always have, and eventually operate at a loss or lose the client’s business, or
  • figure out how to help their clients address the same issue (not necessarily with the same product) for less.

I also know from working with firms that many are frustrated by the lack of attention, input and appreciation they receive from their clients. Examples abound of firms receiving detailed RFP requests with no ability to ask questions or receive context regarding the underlying business objectives. In many instances, firms work hard to suggest complex alternative fee arrangement options, only to have clients select something from off the menu – a fixed reduction in hourly rates. More often than not these situations arise when clients don’t have the data or time required to provide the necessary context or assess whether the suggested alternative fee arrangements are reasonable.

While clients do bear some responsibility for addressing the current state of affairs, at the end of the day the lawyers are the service providers and the onus is on them to come up with viable solutions. Even with cooperative clients, no silver bullet will completely address a rapidly, ever-evolving operating reality. Given the complexity of forces and interests at play, I have yet to see a firm-client relationship that is above improvement or lends itself to a quick fix. You would think these attributes would make finding a solution right up most lawyers’ alleys. After all, what lawyer doesn’t love a nice juicy problem to solve? Puzzling then that many avoid this problem like the plague. While many reasons for this aversion exist, two particular qualities hinder many lawyers’ ability to successfully take the action needed to thrive in the long term.

The first is the pursuit of perfection. Not only does a quest for the perfect legal answer fly in the face of what most clients seek, but it can also kill relationships. I have seen lawyers steadfastly cling to their historical approach of producing their ideal legal product only to lose their book of business to lawyers willing to innovate and take new approaches to clients’ needs. The journey to innovative approaches is rife with missteps, dead ends, mistakes and imperfections. Recognizing that no one right answer is out there in this time of change, and that trial and error are part of the iterative development and change process, is required for lawyers to adapt and adopt an approach that works for everyone.

The second is the perception that lawyers need not be hasty in figuring out how to proceed – after all, plenty of time remains before they will (if ever) face a burning bridge. So, many observe from afar the myriad of existing technologies that can help lawyers adapt to the new market. They consider and often reject Legal Project Management (LPM) principles, processes, tools and techniques that support identifying and making the change necessary to adapt to the new market realities. They are apparently waiting for technology that is simple, intuitive, inexpensive and helpful enough to make adoption a no-brainer. They are waiting for a simple template that can be presented in a one hour LPM workshop, adopted the instant they leave the session, and allow them to address all their clients’ needs without changing their approach to practice. They wait until everyone else has accepted and adopted a new approach. As they wait, they fail to realize that they are the frog in the pot of boiling water. Sadly, it may well only be at full-boil when those lawyers realize the water is too hot because the bridge is burning.

Some level of data gathering, analysis, strategic thinking, decision making, hard work, risk-taking and failures are inevitable for lawyers to make the adjustments necessary to successfully continue to delight their clients, while living a life that doesn’t involve routinely toiling behind their desks until the wee hours of the morning for a sliver of an ever shrinking pie.   My money is on the lawyers, firms and organizations that are taking the temperature of the water and figuring out how to use technologies, LPM principles, tools and techniques to help them insulate themselves and – ultimately – jump out of the pot.

Lean matter management: a novel and practical innovation

10 Jul

k1By Gordon Vala-Webb, Principal at Building Smarter Organizations

Part two of a series about practical and novel innovations for law firms and legal departments.

There has been much ballyhoo regarding the use of LPM approaches – both the legal project and the legal process management varieties – in law firms and legal departments. Unfortunately, while some successes with both forms of LPM have occurred, neither approach has really lived up to the hype.

This is ironic given that, like Moliere’s M. Jourdain who was “speaking prose without knowing it,” most lawyers intuitively have been using some form of their own (light-weight) project and process management. However, when firms or departments formally implement either kind of LPM, it tends not to work for two reasons:

  1. the majority of lawyers’ work varies too much – both in the nature of the work itself and the day-to-day (minute-by-minute) priorities, and
  2. both formal project and process management run strongly against the grain for most lawyers who are typically task-oriented (“I don’t want to plan, I want to do.”) and value their autonomy (“Don’t fence me in.”); the result is strong (passive or not so passive) resistance when leadership attempts to apply LPM.

However, law firms and legal departments feel the pressure to be more efficient and effective and desperately seek ways to manage and improve legal work.  An alternative that I call “lean matter management” (LMM) does this by solving two fundamental problems that make firms and departments inefficient:

  • The work itself is invisible (unlike, for example, manufacturing widgets), making it difficult to
    • co-ordinate who works on what (especially as priorities constantly change) and
    • identify how the way the work is done could be improved (because inefficiencies and gaps are hidden).
  • The workers – primarily lawyers – inefficiently switch between too many different pieces of work (this switching-cost problem is a little understood, but substantial drain on legal productivity).

Also called kanban,  LMM comes from the lean (Toyota) production approach, but applied to legal work. The recipe for simple LMM is as follows:

  • Start with the “to do” lists lawyers already keep (either in their heads – the risk of error boggles the mind! – or in a notebook or electronic device).
  • Take each “to do” for a matter and place it on a shared board under one of three columns indicating status, namely To Do, Doing, and Done.
  • As work progresses, tasks move across the columns (consider adding another column titled “Waiting” for work that has been sent for client for review).

This can be done on a physical board, with each item of work – and the name of the person responsible for the task – on a separate Post-It (see image) or using software (many free or relatively inexpensive kanban software tools are available – Trello is any easy one to try).k2

With an LMM board, the work is visible and everyone immediately sees who is working on what, what has been completed, and what remains to be done. You can add information to the work items by, for instance:

  • colour coding for priority (for example, using red for high priority items),
  • including due dates (many software tools allow the board to be viewed as a calendar),
  • categorizing tasks (to allow for filtering by certain types of work, such as pleadings on a particular issue), and
  • using size (for example, small, medium, and large boxes) to indicate hours or complexity of work.

For larger matters, team meetings could focus on reviewing the board to co-ordinate work, identify where work might be stuck, and look for opportunities to do the work more efficiently or distribute it more evenly. You could even share a (perhaps restricted) view of the board with clients to provide up-to-the-minute information on the work you are doing on the matter.

Critical to the LMM/kanban approach is understanding that adding more work to a lawyer (or other team member) who is already fully committed to other work has four negative consequences:

  • A backlog of work waiting for that person develops.
  • Time is wasted as that person switches among the larger set of tasks now assigned (because reorienting deep attention on a task takes several minutes each time; so, the more tasks, the more time wasted).
  • The heavily tasked person becomes stressed worrying about all of the balls in the air.
  • Stress increases the possibility of errors.

The LMM solution for this is to limit the work-in-progress that each individual involved in the matter has at any given time (for instance, each person can have no more than a set number of hours of work in the “doing” column at any time). Placing limits forces individuals, the team, and leader to rebalance work and priorities realistically in the moment. The alternative is to pile the work on, have people work inefficiently, and be faced with some crisis as the deadline approaches.

Using software – with people and teams across multiple matters or projects – allows a team, firm, or law department to review work on a matter (or set of matters) for opportunities to improve the sequence and kinds of tasks, reuse a board for the next similar matter, balance workloads across a team or firm, and easily keep clients (whether internal or external) up-to-date on the status of work. You can also apply kanban to legal processes (for example, foreclosures) by setting each step in the process up as a column on a kanban board.

Applying our “practical and novel” test (from part one of this series), lean matter management rates as follows:

Test Answer Comment
Usable by both law firms and law departments Yes
Not widely in use Yes In use by only a small number of law firms (though widely used in other industries, such as software development)
Available now Yes
Track record to show the business results Yes Seyfarth Shaw LLP, known for LPM excellence, notes in the 2013 ILTA White Paper article, “Agile: A Non-traditional Approach to LPM” that “Kanban boards are an effective tool to track item backlog, work in progress and completed tasks. They are beneficial in visualizing and optimizing workflow in real time, and whether electronic or whiteboard with sticky notes, they often act as a centralized hub for team collaboration.”
Easy to adopt by most lawyers most of the time Yes Because it starts with what lawyers are already doing (and allows them to change what they like), it is easy to adopt
Can be started at a relatively small cost Yes Free and low-cost tools are available
Cost-effective Yes It is inexpensive per user and scalable (if using SaaS) and provides significant productivity improvement

LMM is a practical and novel innovation for law firms and departments.

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