Making An Impossible Engagement Possible

26 Jul

Guest Post by John Alber, Strategic Technology Partner at Bryan Cave LLP

At the ILTA Conference in Nashville, at 1 PM on Monday August 22, Ayelette Robinson, Rudy DeFelice and I will be conducting a session called “Making An Impossible Engagement Possible.” It will be unlike most other sessions because it is our intention to crowdsource the content and run the session as a highly interactive Bar Camp.

We are beginning that process with a problem statement posted here. Our hope is to enlist a wide audience in the creative process of solving this problem and to conduct the preliminary brainstorming discussions in this forum, on Twitter and in a number of other social media venues. For Twitter, we’ll use the hash tags #ILTA11 #ORG2, which tie to the session number at conference. We’ll net up all the crowdsourced material during the session. It should be fun and informative.

Now, on to the problem statement. It’s derived from some very real engagements faced by firms around the country:

Your firm has had a long relationship with a major financial institution–Mega Mega Bank. As a consequence of the housing bubble bursting and the ensuing recession, the bank is dealing with a number of defaulted consumer and business loans. It’s facing hundreds or even thousands of lawsuits. Each suit is, on average, not a major matter, ranging from a few thousand to a few hundreds of thousands of dollars at risk. But collectively, they pose a significant expense to Mega Mega Bank.

Rather than asking the law firms that serve it for price estimates to do the lawsuits, the bank has set a not-to-exceed price for each suit. That price is extraordinarily aggressive. It is a fraction of the average your firm has been charging for such suits to date, and you regard your teams working on the suits as already quite lean, leveraged and efficient.

Your firm views the business with Mega Mega Bank as strategic and it has decided to do a portfolio of some hundreds of cases at the price proposed by the bank. The lawyers, project managers and technologists who will assist in handling these matters do not, at present, have any firm ideas how they will do the work to a high quality standard while, at the same time, controlling costs so as to make the engagements economically feasible.

Your job is to work with others on the team to find a way, or many ways, to accomplish high quality work at a much lower cost than has previously been possible. The firm will invest as necessary to preserve the relationship–within reason. But time is of the essence. The longer the team does business the old way, the more money the firm will lose.

What steps can the firm take immediately to meet its goals here? What steps can it take over the medium term? What technologies and process improvements can be brought to bear? What can the firm do to increase the likelihood of success? In thinking about this, don’t limit yourself to your area of expertise. Cross boundaries. And don’t limit yourself to conventional solutions. If a conventional solution worked already, the client wouldn’t be pressuring your firm for radical innovations.

We’re eager to hear your thoughts and suggestions for solving this problem. Provide your input and begin the conversation in the Comments section here, or via Twitter by including #ILTA11 #ORG2 in your tweet.





13 Responses to “Making An Impossible Engagement Possible”

  1. Giuliano Chicco July 27, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

    Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary responses. Since the old method of doing business is not feasible in for this engagement, drastic change is required.

    First, I would relieve them of any non-Mega Mega Bank responsibilities as insures that their attention is focused. I would physically segregate the entire team so there is spatial proximity and require that the lawyers and support folks eat lunch together several times a week (enforcement by subsidy). These moves foster knowledge sharing and constant communication are essential to a successful outcome. Finally recognition and rewards need to go to the team, not individuals, to foster team collegiality and cohesiveness.

    On the technology side, the team should have a dedicated DMS, a project management system with team calendar, and everyone on the team needs to be trained on the tools and required to use them. They also need to rely heavily on available social media to communicate within the team, share best practices and information. Perhaps a Google+ circle, a wiki and even Twitter could be used to vet new information or ideas.
    There could be a triage system to identify the difficult matters from the
    routine but since the work appears to be repetitive, as team expertise increases and routines are established, much of the work could be transferred to lower cost personnel, paralegals or interns. If it turns out that the tasks are truly repetitive, technology could be developed to process and standardize matters. Remember the client is interested primarily in the outcome, not how the work gets done.

  2. Shirley Crow July 27, 2011 at 3:47 pm #

    I would be thinking about how legal secretaries could serve as project managers for each case, being the hub of communication and relieving billable personnel from project management and administrative duties. Secretaries tend to be well-organized and efficient. Since they aren’t so much required to type documents these days. “Attorneys now do all their own work” has always seemed to me to be an odd phrase, but it does mean the secretary’s role has changed. There is real opportunity to invite secretaries to take on a more interesting role in serving clients and improving efficiencies.

  3. John Alber July 27, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    Thanks, Giuliano. I love the attention to human factors–like team proximity. But let me make the problem a little harder based on the scale of representation. More than 200 lawyers are involved in the team and they are geographically dispersed. A number of firms are now engaged in undertakings in the financial sector that are of this scale. The human factors challenges are considerable.

  4. John Alber July 27, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    One of the problems that dispersed teams face is embodying best practices in work product. For example, since most of these kinds of cases settle out at some point prior to trial, a large percentage of the activity is related to pleadings, and especially motions to dismiss. So, how can a team quickly assemble a set of pleadings that embody the best thinking and arguments? Done the traditional way, lawyers may have no idea what other lawyers are putting in their pleadings. They may be doing research independently, crafting language from scratch, etc. That can be hugely inefficient. But how to fix it?

  5. Ayelette Robinson July 27, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    Shirley, great suggestion. Re-thinking roles and responsibilities seems like a necessary part of the solution.

    So to follow John’s lead and push further: What do you envision a full team would look like? What would/should be the roles involved? Should existing resources be given new responsibilities, or should new roles with new job descriptions be created?

    • Shirley Crow July 28, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

      I’m not sure that the cost efficiencies required would be realized if new roles with new job descriptions were created–that seems to imply adding staff, and the constraints of this scenario imply that the additional staff cost couldn’t be absorbed. So even though it sounds stale by now, “doing more with less” seems a necessity. I can see asking existing staff to take on new roles; I mentioned secretaries, but I think Practice Support personnel would be key team members as well–our Practice Support Manager defines the discipline as “the matter-specific billable application of technology.” While traditionally that has involved handling the discovery phase of litigation, the folks in that discipline are probably well-positioned to apply technology to aid in the efficiencies required here. To answer your key question directly, I don’t yet have a vision of the full team, but I’m pretty sure it will include some lawyers. 😉

  6. Tim Hyman July 29, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    I dont have any knowledge of the transactional detail of lawsuits involving defaulted consumer and business loans so I apologise in advance for any underestimated assumptions. On the face of it I would assume a large part of the work is repetitive, template like in format and time sensitive, all of which are easily automated with a good case management system. I’m not sure why there are 200 geographically dispursed lawyers involved but I would be tempted to sit down with the client and discuss developing a new joint venture business unit together. The new commercially run unit would be jointly funded (your costs based on a trade in for legal time spent) and profits shared. As the business is refined it will require less lawyers (originally seconded in) and more paralegals/case workers. the key role is going to be more akin to project mangement. Once the major clients work dries up the joint venture will be setup as a completely seperate entity part owned by both parties but now marketing its services to the wider industry. You wanted unconventional!!

    • Ayelette Robinson August 2, 2011 at 11:53 pm #

      Unconventional indeed! What do you see as the key benefits of structuring as a joint venture with a client – given the potential extra risks and responsibilities – rather than the law firm owning the entire business?

  7. Eric Hunter August 1, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    JA – What steps can the firm take immediately to meet its goals here?

    The firm
    Shift the behavior of the management, attorneys and staff involved to turn the tables and take the initiative of the negotiation with the client. The client will respect the firm that leads this dance, not the other way around. Message the ‘impossible scenario’ will only position the firm to achieve new standards in client transparency and competitiveness and provide the firm the opportunity to apply success in this venture to profit margins/models across the board. Establish/and or refine existing competitive intelligence committees with these goals in mind.

    The client
    Immediately respond to the client with an initiative that will beat the client’s cost goals, and provide a structure that will protect costs with the client over the next few years. Deploy your top Marketing resources to engage face to face with client to assure the seriousness the firm is taking the engagement, and assign an account manager from your team to lead the engagement from the front lines.

    JA – What steps can it take over the medium term?

    Message client quality control to the team of attorneys working their files. All client interaction messaged by the front line’s account manager must be adhered to the letter by all 200 attorneys + staff involved with this venture. Establish teams within these 200 attorneys that will work with the account manager over them, while organizing, training and establishing best practices with the attorneys on their team. Not one bit of communication is to take place outside the parameters set by the account manger on this client. This protects the firm from wasted hours by the attorneys while ensuring client quality liason.

    JA – What technologies and process improvements can be brought to bear keeping in mind more than 200 lawyers are involved in the team and they are geographically dispersed? How can a team quickly assemble a set of pleadings that embody the best thinking and arguments? Done the traditional way, lawyers may have no idea what other lawyers are putting in their pleadings. They may be doing research independently, crafting language from scratch, etc. That can be hugely inefficient. But how to fix it?

    Immediately invest in Google Apps for a pilot team of attorneys working the files. For 200 attorneys, licenses at $50 per year, let’s say 150 additional staff involved including strategic technology… so 350 licenses for $17,500.00

    The key in these investments are in the Docs/Sites/Groups/language translation/voice to docs and video interface. This will bridge the 200 attorneys together regardless of where they are, and the collaborative social media features will make the geographical disbursement of the attorneys as immaterial as it is to consumers using Facebook.

    Beginning with senior members of the formed CI and Strategic Technology committee; work with the assigned account manager, project manager and lead trainer on the collaborative features within the platform – in messaging, research, pleadings, settlement negotiation, trial preparation and team brainstorming.

    Rollout this model to the 200 attorneys involved by training/assigning leads over the involved geographical areas. Apply the six sigma model of train-the-trainers/belt rankings/what have you from the top layer down and employ project management best practices with the new software interface as a motivator and reason for behavioral change.

    Apply and maintain weekly trainings organized through the team leads and project managers involved to ensure quality assurance, understanding, and tighten process and workflow as feedback generates. All knowledge is collaborated on and shared through the platform.

    Marketing account mangers involved apply weekly followups with the client on quality control and tighten process and workflow as feedback generates. All knowledge is collaborated on and shared through the platform.

    Ensure each layer of leads applies quality control using a combination of shared docs, revision collaboration, automation, assembly and groups postings. Encourage comment sharing on messaging forums through shared sites. Ensure document assembly/automation is in place through all steps of the settlement/trial process and that the layers of transparency are shared directly with the client where strategic, and fully with the top layers of involved management.

    Use Google Analytics to track attorney and client behavior through the shared sites as part of the platform(no additional cost). Trend and project the profit margins and adjust workflow where necessary. Further trending the alternative fee arrangement with this client downward could very well be possible at the close of 6 months.

    JA- What can the firm do to increase the likelihood of success?

    Engage the client with the same level of behavioral change initiatives the firm is taking on. Establish an agenda within the strategic technology and competitive intelligence committees to apply this investment in collaboration/knowledge sharing to long term growth models and industry potential. Will this investment and business/thinking in this scenario continue to evolve and trend ahead of the movements in our industry? Weigh the cost/benefit analysis in how the knowledge sharing and level of transparency efficiencies may improve over time if competitive demand (both consumer and enterprise) brings (in this example) Google to interface initiatives like Google+ with their business solutions platform. Establish awareness of the competitors in this arena, where they’re trending and invest accordingly.

    Use this entire model for the firm as an initiative to re-think alternative fees, alternative staffing, six sigma style organizational training and rollout, and a team(project management) cross departmental approach. The level of transparency and improved knowledge sharing can be applied to other clients to improve profit margins, behavioral change and quality assurance for the firm and clients while best positioning the firm strategically for the years to come. Continual innovation, rollouts and staffing through the platform can be re-evulated, and outsourced in portions where strategic. Bridging the gap between the concept of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ so they are virtually(pun intended) non existent for the teams involved and the clients involved can potentially bring about the most strategic elements of transparency to the firm’s advantage.

    Above all, behavioral change is key to immediate and future success, as is working with a platform that is adaptable to an organization in driving continual behavioral change.

    • Ayelette Robinson August 2, 2011 at 11:57 pm #

      I’m not sure you’ve thought about this enough. 🙂

      One follow-up question I have is: given the many layers and aspects of this approach, how would you structure the oversight of the entire project to ensure that all the parts keep moving forward, that the right hand knows what the left hand is doing, that things don’t fall through the cracks, etc.? In other words, who’s monitoring the forest, and what process should they use to monitor it?

  8. Tim Hyman August 3, 2011 at 6:16 am #

    Ayelette – you raise an excellent point/question as to why doesn’t the law firm set this up on their own rather than a joint venture. Well, I did think about that but one of the objectives is to stay strategically engaged with Mega Mega Bank whilst agreeing to a very aggressive pricing structure where it would appear from the scenario we are guessing as to profitability. Therefore rather than take the whole risk of this being a loss leading exercise (albeit for strategic reasons), on balance I would share the commercial risk with the client but at the same time engage them in a way that is forward thinking, likely to result in a long term relationship (more sticky as our BD colleagues like to say) and potentially profitable for both parties.

  9. David Hobbie August 3, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    Rather than posting a comprehensive solution as Eric has done, I’d like to focus on two aspects of the challenge.

    First, for this large a set of litigation, the scenario appears to justify a substantial investment in substantive KM, up to and including a document assembly litigation package. Such a system would enable more junior attorneys to repeatedly take advantage of the skill and expertise of the more senior attorneys who provided the briefs’ “roadmap” and much of the substance of the resulting documents. The ability to fully leverage such a package would depend, however, on the degree of recurrence of claims and arguments made. It would also depend on extensive training & awareness efforts.

    In addition, and in parallel, a system that would make legal research done for these matters trackable and accessible. At my firm we have found that topical wikis with a clear structure, combined with a simple business process for updating (i.e., copy X junior associate on all research memos), can be very effective, in combination with other effective work product retrieval such as West KM or enterprise search. The most effective use of such wikis to date has been on large, geographically dispersed teams that are addressing related matters. Sound familiar?

    Second, there’s a hint of a serious cost discussion in Eric’s response that I think deserves to be teased out for this scenario. The scenario states that working on these matters profitably at the rates or fees initially being offered by the client is impossible (with normal business and knowledge processes and IT). I wonder to what extent a conversation about the total cost of the matters from the client’s perspective–including such factors as cost variability, local counsel expenses, e-discovery costs, and the cost of settlements/litigation–might create space for an arrangement of some kind where the firm’s profitability is tied to the client’s success, however that ends up being defined.


  1. Knowledge Management and the ACC Value Challenge: ILTA Conference Discussion « ILTA KM - August 10, 2011

    […] There’s been some great conversation on this blog following John Albers’ guest post on Making An Impossible Engagement Possible, about a crowdsourced session on Monday August 22, and a lot already happening on Twitter and, now […]

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