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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.

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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.

Innovation Is Not a Dirty Word

23 Jun

censoredBy Gordon Vala-Webb, Principal at Building Smarter Organizations

It used to be that law firms simply looked at each other and made sure that they were neither too far ahead nor too far behind their pack of similar firms. In that world, anyone bringing an idea to firm leadership was immediately asked, “Who else is doing it?” Novel ideas were immediately suspect. Innovation was, in short, a dirty word. And, since law departments tend to be made up of law firm refugees and have far fewer resources, they too had little inclination and capacity to consider markedly new approaches (however desperate or overwhelmed they might feel).

However, law firms and in-house legal departments (now that many are keeping the work they once sent to outside counsel) are facing pressure to be faster, better, and cheaper. Sometimes that pressure can be intense – when, for instance, a firm’s revenues drop or a corporation applies restraints; sometimes the pressure is constant – more like boiling a frog. Either way, many managing partners and GCs are now looking for practical innovation that they can implement immediately.

Those leaders should also be looking for novelty, although that word may feel unsettling to them. Competition between firms is increasingly intensifying and competition between companies is already fierce. So, if everyone else is doing something, not much is to be gained by also doing it (unless that thing has become table stakes – in which case, doing that thing becomes necessary to stay in the game, but provides no basis for winning). In a series of posts about legal innovations that are both practical and novel (see my initial list), I will cover a wide range of approaches from practice efficiency to enhanced business development that may or may not require technology.

But what is novel? And what is practical? What test should be applied before bringing an idea forward? I suggest that ideally an idea should:

  • apply equally well to law firms and law departments,
  • not yet widely used (10% or fewer) by law firms or law departments – though possibly (or frequently) used outside of legal,
  • be currently available,
  • have some track record of positive business results (something leading, but not bleeding edge), evidenced by
    • improved efficiency,
    • reduced risk,
    • increased (internal or external) client satisfaction, or
    • attracting new work (or, for law departments, expanding the department’s mandate),
  • be easy for most lawyers to adopt most of the time (the tool or technique must build on or extend what most lawyers already do, rather than require them to do something entirely different),
  • can be started at relatively low cost (say, with a handful of lawyers in the pilot), and
  • be cost-effective when fully launched.

Let me know what you think of this proposed test for ideas and my initial list of novel and practical innovations – click here to review and rate the items on the list using the test. Also, let me know of any other ideas that should be tested and explored in this series. Together we can find identify the top ten innovations for law firms and law departments – and remove innovation from the naughty-words list.

Change, Lawyers and LPM

1 Apr

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

Change is a tricky thing for most. It seems to be particularly difficult for those in the legal industry. My theory is that the profession is so steeped in precedent and tradition (always looking back) that lawyers need to fundamentally rewire to look forward and figure out how to thrive in a new environment where the days of “hours worked equals pay received” are quickly fading.

In an effort to address clients’ rapidly growing demands for certainty and value, there is currently a flurry of activity as lawyers in both firms and organizations rush to adopt project management principles. But, what is project management for lawyers really?

At its most basic, legal project management involves understanding what the client needs, looking at the process of how lawyers create and deliver what is needed, and then identifying ways to improve the process to better support providing certainty and value. Certainty should be relatively easy to establish, at least regarding time and cost, once the need and desired scope/product has been determined. Surprisingly, most firms and organizations have the relevant time and cost information squirreled away in various nooks and crannies, but not centralized or in a readily accessible data format. This makes it tricky to determine time and cost parameters for their legal products or needs.

Gathering this data, even on the most general level, is in and of itself a valuable exercise for lawyers in firms and organizations alike. The tools, principles and technology available to support gathering the data are numerous and varied, from the basic to the highly complex. At the end of the day, though, some work is required on the part of the lawyers to group their product types and, ideally, provide a general outline of their process.

Interestingly, whether they realize it or not, all lawyers have some sort of processes to get from the initial client question to their final legal product. Some of these processes are more efficient than others. Sadly many lawyers are unintentionally inefficient as the billable hour neither promotes nor encourages efficiency (such that many have never thought about their practice from an efficiency perspective).

Unlike certainty, value is more subjective. So, madly creating processes and introducing technologies to establish certainty without understanding and identifying what value means to your clients and what your strategy for achieving certainty is, likely will not be the best use of your resources. For example, determining whether your clients value low-cost certainty, outcome certainty, or fixed-cost certainty and whether the answer is product-dependent will directly affect the approach you take to planning, process mapping and implementing appropriate change, as well as developing and introducing associated technologies in your firm or organization.

For firms in particular, making the effort to adjust to really serve your client’s needs often means being willing to take a short term hit in the pocket book (this does not mean the hit will actually materialize; but, you do need to acknowledge and be prepared for the possibility) as you identify and implement meaningful change that will delight your clients in the medium and long term. Surprising as it may sound to those in firm settings, clients want the lawyers they work with to be around for the long term as switching lawyers generally is a pain.

And there is the rub, financially. Firms in particular are not particularly well set up for implementing change that takes longer than a year to absorb financially because, among other reasons:

  • most lawyers include expected bonuses as part of their personal annual budgeting;
  • most firms annually disperse the bulk of the firm’s earnings;
  • most lawyers operate as individual profit centres with little incentive to take actions that benefit their group, department or firm as a whole, in the short or long term; and
  • most successful lawyers have highly portable books of business (surprisingly few clients were adversely affected by recent firm failures).

Yet the change involved with retooling to deliver certainty and value generally takes a number of years to master. In this context, it is no wonder the needed change is so slow and difficult in firm settings. I do not envy managing partners’ roles during these interesting times.

That being said, change is inevitable and client demand is growing exponentially. So lawyers, if you are in a firm setting, support your managing partners and your firms and get thinking about what you personally can do about your process for delivering advice to your clients and what specifically your clients value. Do not be fooled into thinking you can rely on past success – financial pressures are everywhere and jumping ship during these interesting times only delays the inevitable.

If you are a lawyer working in an organization, think not about the immediate budget pressures but about what your organization truly needs and values so that you can work productively with your firms to get legal services that support both you and your organization’s success.

Working together to address the new realities, firms and organizations have everything to gain.

Two Events – Two Views of Innovation

17 Dec

Picture1By Scott Rechtschaffen, Chief Knowledge Officer, Littler Mendelson PC

 Lately, I have been thinking a lot about innovation – I suspect most readers of this blog have too. But what is “innovation” in the legal industry?

I think of innovation as being dramatic and disruptive – processes that significantly change the way we deliver legal services. I then think in terms of technology: increased efficiency through legal process improvement, automation and online services. Perhaps my perspective is formed from being in San Francisco, surrounded by start-ups looking for the next industry to disrupt. If Uber can destabilize the public transportation industry (apparently, the market for taxi medallions is at historic lows across the country) and AirBnB can threaten to upend the hospitality industry (the CEO of AirBnB has boasted his company will add more rooms in two weeks than Marriott will add in an entire year), then surely the emerging legal technology start-ups will have the same impact on the legal industry. As Basha Rubin, CEO of Priori Legal, wrote recently in a post on TechCrunch:

Legal technology is booming, with companies attempting to disrupt the legal space at every level and from every angle. And with good reason. Some estimates value the market size at as much as $400 billion. While legal still hasn’t caught up with other industries — either in terms of funding or widespread adoption, the future is bright and coming at us fast.

Naturally, many legal industry knowledge management professionals, me included, see these developments, believe in the inevitability of disruption in the industry, and conclude that law firms must respond by increasing efficiency, implementing process improvement, and becoming more innovative through the use of technology.

But maybe there is more to being “innovative” than enterprise search, document automation, process maps, and client dashboards. Perhaps the real future stars of our profession, those that will boldly lead us into the future, have already been innovating in the trenches for years. Maybe there is more than one definition of innovation.

I thought about this question when I recently attended two events. Both events were dedicated to innovation in the legal industry. But the approaches to innovation they highlighted could not have been more different.

The first event was the semiannual Iron Tech Lawyer competition at Georgetown Law School.

I have previously posted about this remarkable event, the culmination of Professor Tanina Rostain’s Technology, Innovation and Law Practice Practicum. During this course, teams of students are paired with outside organizations and, using Neota Logic’s expert system software, spend the semester developing online legal applications. This semester’s course, billed as the Administrative Agency Edition, featured student teams paired with diverse agencies such as the New York Department of Consumer Affairs, the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, and South Brooklyn Legal Services.

As I previously reported, hearing law students talk about user experience, design elements, and graphic interfaces was remarkable in itself. But, hearing law students discuss using technology to make legal solutions more accessible to middle and lower class clients desperately needing quality legal advice was truly – if I may use the word – innovative. Given the enormous need to provide access to justice, here in Professor Rostain’s class was a veritable Y Combinator of law students/budding legal entrepreneurs looking to develop online solutions for targeted users needing help. One student-developed app was designed to help users determine the availability of anti-SLAPP protections; another was designed to help parents navigate the complexities of determining whether their children qualify under educational programs for children with disabilities; yet another helped small businesses navigate the byzantine licensing requirements for operating under New York City law.

What is so remarkable about Professor Rostain’s class is seeing law students apply software solutions to routine legal issues, in effect enabling access to the law for those otherwise unable to afford legal assistance. This is the future of law: technology enabling access to the legal system for those previously unable to afford lawyers.

The second event was a dinner in New York hosted by the Financial Times recognizing the most innovative law firms and lawyers in North America in 2014. Our firm was one of dozens honored by the Financial Times for being innovative. But, something about the event made me wonder again about the meaning of the word “innovative.”

Most of the firms and lawyers recognized by the Financial Times as being the most innovative were not being recognized for adopting cutting-edge technology or implementing dramatic changes in their service delivery processes. Instead, they were being recognized for innovating how they litigated cases, managed matters, and served their clients. There was no triumphant technology or dramatic legal process improvement; these were just examples of really terrific and, yes, innovative lawyering. Take Roberta Kaplan of Paul Weiss who was recognized for her pro bono representation of Edith Windsor in the Supreme Court challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act. She did not disrupt the delivery of legal services or deploy cutting edge technology. Instead, she deployed clever legal strategies to achieve success that will affect the lives of millions of Americans. (Ms. Kaplan has successfully represented Airbnb so she is no stranger to disruptive technology.) Consider Tara Lee, global chair of DLA Piper’s cross border litigation practice, who has traveled through war zones to defend African countries struggling against global vulture funds.

So, what is the difference between these two views of innovation? We in knowledge management too often reach for the shiny toy on the shelf and, just as often, try to grab as many toys as we can. In our zeal and passion for technology and our belief that change must be significant, we fail to realize that many of the attorneys we work with are innovative in their own way. They have been trained to look at litigation and transactions in innovative ways to get the best results for their clients. By looking at new ways to apply the law or defend their clients, lawyers are innovators at their core.

Too often we define “innovation” as applying cutting-edge technology to the delivery of legal services. But, we fail to recognize that the attorneys with whom we work – the stalwarts of our profession – have been innovating for years. They have been developing creative and unique approaches to win cases and advance their clients’ interests. Just the other day, I learned about one of my colleagues who tried a case before a jury. The other side thought its case was a slam dunk and made significant settlement demands. My colleague developed a unique approach to the case, tried it, and the jury came back with a complete defense verdict after only three hours of deliberation. My colleague’s approach to litigating this case was nothing less than innovative.

What is the take-away? I believe that legal industry knowledge management professionals must stop insisting that attorneys make the leap to online services and technology solutions or face obsolescence (although we should certainly continue to advocate the advantages of these). Instead, we should recognize the innovative solutions to legal issues that they are developing as part of their regular practice. Recently, one of our attorneys identified a significant change in federal regulation that would dramatically affect a particular industry. He put together a comprehensive package of materials to help companies in this industry comply with these new regulations. We quickly helped him create an online portal to distribute these materials and generate some revenue from the online “product.” In this example, where exactly was the innovation? Was it in the comprehensive package of legal materials the attorney put together or the online portal we developed? The real innovation was in the work the attorney developed – identifying both a new challenge and a novel solution for his clients; the portal was mere technology. Without the attorney’s creative approach to this legal quandary, the portal would have been a hollow piece of technology.

As knowledge management professionals, we must always remember the source of true innovation: the creative endeavors of our attorney colleagues. The technology solutions we advocate and implement are mere conduits to bring their creative legal genius to market. While they benefit from our work, we would be nowhere without their expertise and knowledge.

Process Innovation in Legal: What It Is and How It’s Done

2 Jun

Picture1Guest post by Scott Rosenberg, Esq., CPA, Solution Group Leader – Corporate Legal Services, and Dan Safran, Executive Vice President – Management Consulting and Legal Solutions, Project Leadership Associates

As consultants to law firms and corporate law departments, our clients frequently ask us two questions: “What can we do to innovate our processes?” and “What process innovation ideas are other people in the legal market implementing?” This post provides a good start for answering those questions.

First, one needs to decide what is meant by “innovation.” Like legal knowledge management, different law firms and departments interpret innovation differently. For this post, we settled on Wikipedia’s definition of innovation as, “the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs… accomplished through more effective processes that are readily available to markets.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innovation).

Next, one needs to choose where to start…but, how do you identify which areas to focus on and what criteria do you use to set priorities? We recommend the following criteria for selecting areas ripe for process change:

  • Must be highly relevant to issues the General Counsel or Managing Partner is facing
  • Results in the form of cost savings or practice efficiencies must be readily apparent
  • Solutions must be readily obtainable
  • Solutions should be transformative

The next thing to keep in mind is that innovation serves a business purpose only when it yields value. When we think of process innovation as creating value, we think in terms of the following four strategies:

  • increasing revenues and profits by, for instance, creating new or revitalizing existing services or driving new and improved profits,
  • decreasing operating costs by, for instance, modifying the business model or process architecture,
  • reducing net investment by, for instance, modifying the business model or service composition, and
  • improving value by, for instance, creating new or extending existing advantages or disrupting rivals.

Of these, we find decreasing costs of highest value to law departments, while both cost reduction and revenue enhancement generally are equally compelling for most law firms.

Innovation is a relatively new concept for the legal industry, coming when the market experienced a fundamental shift in purchasing behavior a few years ago as corporate law departments usurped the driver’s seat in their relationships with law firms. Forcing outside counsel to compete through rigorous RFP processes, in-house counsel now call the shots in setting fees for legal services. Law departments have huge pressure to minimize and more accurately predict costs; in turn, law firms are getting squeezed on rates, margins, hiring, and lawyer retention.

The following true story illustrates just how much the market has changed. In a meeting with the Managing Partner of a 500-lawyer firm several years ago, we were introducing the concept of business process automation to the firm at the request of the firm’s COO, CIO, and CKO. In the middle of the discussion, the Managing Partner interrupted to ask, “Excuse me. Are you serious? You want our firm to spend money to innovate and apply efficiencies to our internal processes? Why in the world would we do that…we will only reduce the number of billable hours to our clients! What are you thinking?!” Wow, have things changed! Gone are the 7&7 years (seven straight years of law firm rates increasing an average of seven percent).

So now we have a definition of innovation, the value proposition, and characteristics for selecting potential areas for innovation. With this in mind, one might be wondering how to tell if something is truly innovative. And, if everyone is looking at the same things, how does anything innovative arise? For that matter, how can one ever quantify the impact of innovation?

To better understand the impact of innovation, we have tried to articulate real life examples of process changes that are truly innovative, particularly in terms of revenue and cost-related process improvements.
Starting with the cost-side of process innovation, we have defined three categories of change relevant to corporate law departments and law firms. We will discuss each one of these innovation categories and provide an example of each.

One cost-focused area of process innovation is how corporate law departments are beginning to reduce the number of law firms to achieve economies of scale.

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The diagram above outlines the process innovation opportunity, its relevance and application, followed by some ideas on how and when to move forward.

While the corporate law department practice of reducing the number of legal service providers they engage may not seem particularly innovative, the processes that some law departments have implemented and adopted, are. Mapping requirements around the relationships the law department actually needs (and modifying them as the needs change), as well as monitoring and giving feedback to the firms are examples of two simple but innovative processes that some law departments have adopted.

We recently delivered an engagement for a large financial institution with a very large corporate legal department. That institution was focused on reducing its provider list. It had been through the process of reducing the number of firms on its law firm panel list. Though the convergence itself led to some minor cost reductions, the corporation was not really achieving the value it had imagined. The law department had also defined and implemented a process for analyzing its satisfaction with outside counsel. However, when we reviewed the law firm evaluations, it was striking that almost all on the panel list received only an average rating. Issues included poor service, internal firm miscommunication, imperfect lawyer assignments, duplication of effort, and multiple internal law firm reviews cycles. What became clear was that culling the list of firms and grading their performance did little to truly affect results.

So, we shared some ideas for communication and collaboration that could be viewed as innovative. Not complicated or bleeding edge, but definitely effective. The department now works with a short list of law firms and sits with each to review its scores and discuss where delivery has fallen short. Expectations are set and confirmed. Both sides come to the table with concrete ideas for how to better communicate and collaborate. Matter budgeting, early case assessment, and post-closing review are included in the workflow. This process is resulting in huge improvements in delivery, satisfaction, and efficiency.

Innovation need not be complex or costly. This corporation took what might seem to be an obvious route, but one few law departments have historically had the structure, process orientation, direction, stamina, or desire to take on to forge closer relationships with their providers. This is a true win-win.

We hope this initial example offers a taste of innovation in the legal setting. While we offer an example above, please watch for our follow-on blog posting that offers other examples of innovation in both law firms and corporate legal departments.