October 07, 2015

Tip of the month: Track hours for work that is out of scope

At the beginning of each matter, everyone on the team should be given a clear explanation of what type of work is included in the engagement, and what is beyond scope.  To meet client needs, it may be necessary to perform some work that is beyond the scope of the agreement without getting client permission first.  But when this occurs, the lawyer who performs the work should track those hours separately (whether with a formal task code or some informal system) so that the responsible attorney can tell the client exactly what was done, why, and how much it cost. 


The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. For background on this tip, see my post “How to track legal work that is out of scope.” 

September 30, 2015

Legal project management: An opportunity for firms to gain a competitive advantage (Part 2 of 4)

Note:  This series is adapted from a chapter I wrote for a new book just published by the Ark Group entitled 2020 Vision: The Future of Legal Services.

Why is LPM so important?

In the current highly competitive environment, many law firms are struggling with two key issues:

  1. Pricing: How do we bid high enough to make an acceptable profit, but low enough to get new work?
  2. Managing: After we win work at a particular price, how do we manage the work to make a profit?

Another chapter in this book discusses how law firms are addressing the first question. While both are important, we would argue that management holds the keys to success. This is an era of dog-eat-dog competition in the legal profession, and firms often have little control over pricing or whether a matter is to be handled on an hourly basis or under an alternative fee. But once the price is set and the fee is structured, they CAN control how the work is done.

When I interviewed managing partners, chairs, and other leaders of 50 AmLaw 200 firms for my book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, several talked about the importance of implementing LPM:

One of the problems that we have, and frankly that most firms have, is just teaching lawyers how to manage a project, getting them out of the habit of just automatically starting out with some rote process. Just because the client says “I think I might have a lawsuit” doesn’t mean you go off and conduct 40 depositions. Lawyers need to sit down and talk about what the client is trying to accomplish. It might turn out that we are able to accomplish the client’s end goal without taking any depositions. Or we might be able to do an M&A transaction, not by going through all the traditional steps, but stopping and thinking critically first. That’s something that we spend a lot of time trying to get across to our younger lawyers.

Project management is the next great horizon we need to reach. Historically, I believe that legal matters have been handled largely by just forging ahead with the project team leader directing various team participants to address this or that task without any formal checklist in sight. That has led to the bills for legal services being larger than one might otherwise expect or desire.

Most of our clients are no better at understanding or applying legal project management than we are. But in the future, the fact that you can actually do something on time and within budget is going to become an important indicator of whether or not you really are a good lawyer.

If you apply all its principles, LPM is not that scary, and it’s not that hard. Just getting people to understand it and do it is the biggest challenge.

According to the ALM Intelligence survey, firms that have begun to apply LPM, even in very limited ways, have already seen benefits. When the survey asked “Which of the following 13 benefits has your firm realized from its project management effort?” every single benefit in their list had been realized by at least 20% of the group. The most common benefit was “More productive relationships with clients” (achieved by 62%).

The ALM survey concluded that:

LPM can help bring increased effectiveness, reduce wasted time, and manage client expectations… Law firms can overcome [the] hurdles by targeting initial efforts in areas that would be most receptive, incrementally rolling out initiatives, and getting experienced help. Those that can successfully implement LPM will find over time that they gain a competitive advantage.

Altman Weil’s 2015 Law Firms in Transition survey has presented the most systematic evidence to date that greater efficiency pays off. They found that firms that had changed their approach to efficiency were more likely to report that revenue per lawyer was up (76% of firms that changed had increased revenue per lawyer vs 62% of firms that had not changed) and that profits per equity partner were also up for a higher percentage of the firms that had changed (76% vs 61%).

September 23, 2015

Legal project management: An opportunity for firms to gain a competitive advantage (Part 1 of 4)

Note:  This series is adapted from a chapter I wrote for a new book just published by the Ark Group entitled 2020 Vision: The Future of Legal Services.

For the previous edition of this book, I wrote an article entitled “Legal project management: A trend that is here to stay.” In the years since, all signs have pointed to its continued growth. But genuine progress in changing lawyers’ behavior has been slowed by controversy about the best way to implement legal project management (LPM), and even how the term is defined.

One thing is crystal clear: firms that improve LPM will have a competitive advantage because its growth is being driven by clients. In its 2014 Chief Legal Officer Survey, Altman Weil asked, “Of the following service improvements and innovations, please select the three you would most like to see from your outside counsel.”  They listed a number of concepts, including preventative law strategies, non-hourly based pricing structures, improved communication, alternative project staffing, and technology efficiencies. The three that clients picked most often were greater cost reduction (58%), more efficient project management (57%), and improved budget forecasting (57%). Since LPM leads to improved budget forecasting and to cost reductions, you could say that the top three client requests were LPM, LPM, and more LPM. 

And clients are frankly not impressed with what law firms have accomplished to date. The same survey asked participants to rate how serious law firms are “about changing their legal service delivery model to provide greater value to clients” on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 10 (doing everything they can). The median answer was 3, a ringing indictment of clients’ views regarding the inadequacy of the current level of effort.

From the law firm perspective, progress is being made. You know a topic is important when people start selling opinion surveys about it. That happened for this topic in 2012 when ALM Legal Intelligence released Legal Project Management: Much Promise, Many Hurdles, a survey report that included data on software, training, pilot programs, firm culture, influential stakeholders, staff, and much more.   

The first question they asked was, “Does your firm employ legal project management processes in its casework?” 51% said yes, 26% said no, and 22% were not sure. Is the glass half full or half empty? By the glacial standards of law firm change, this is significant progress. Just two or three years before, if you had asked this question, most lawyers would probably have replied “What is ‘legal project management?’” So the fact that a majority of this group was using LPM in casework reflected a significant change in a few short years.

Other surveys have found similar results. In the American Lawyer’s December 2014 report on its “Law Firm Leaders Survey,” Michael Heller, Cozen O’Connor’s CEO, summed it up very simply: “Law firms are being forced to completely change the way they practice law.”

When Altman Weil’s 2015 Law Firms in Transition Survey asked managing partners for their opinions on which of 14 current trends were most likely to be permanent, 93% put an increased focus on practice efficiency at the top of the list. That’s right, 93%. When have you ever heard of 93% of lawyers agreeing about anything?

But when the same survey asked, “Has your firm significantly changed its strategic approach to efficiency of legal service delivery?” only 37% said yes. (36% said no and the remaining 28% said changes are “under consideration.”)

93% of firm leaders think change is needed, and only 37% are doing something about it. What’s wrong with this picture?

As negative as these figures seem, in our day to day experience the reality is much worse. In many cases firms that say they have “changed their strategic approach” have done so only for a small sub-group within the firm or in a strategic plan which has not yet been implemented. In the trenches, the vast majority of lawyers are still practicing the way they always have. This should not be surprising, since LPM requires lawyers to change habits they’ve developed over decades, and no one likes to change.

In 1962, Professor Everett Rogers analyzed the forces involved in changing business behavior, and summarized his conclusions in an influential text entitled Diffusion of Innovations, which is now in its fifth edition. In this context, the most important idea is his argument that the people who adopt a new idea are distributed in a normal curve in several sequential categories which he called innovators (2.5%), early adopters (13.5%), early majority (34%), late majority (34%), and laggards (16%).

While it is impossible to prove exactly where LPM stands on this continuum, based on our experience talking to a wide number of firms, we strongly believe that LPM is at the early adopters’ stage. A small group of innovators has successfully proven its value, but the spread to others remains slow. Many law firms have done an excellent job at putting out press releases announcing that they are leaders in LPM. But when it comes to changing the way an entire practice group or firm does business, they have fallen far short.

The bad news is that clients want faster progress. The good news is that to win new business you just have to be a little better than your competitors, so law firms that have started down the LPM path have an enormous opportunity to get ahead of those who have not.

Glacial progress can produce new business when you are competing with firms that are making no progress at all. We were reminded of this when one client contacted us two years after we offered just-in-time LPM coaching at her firm. She reported that they had just won some new business as a result of using LPM. She went on to say that she had been frustrated by the slow pace of change in her firm, but in this case it did not matter because their competitors were even slower. “If you move like a turtle but you're racing a bunch of snails,” she said, “it all works out in the end.”

September 16, 2015

Legal project management software (Part 2 of 2)

By Jim Hassett, Steve Barrett, and Jonathan Groner


In Part 1 of this series, we argued that when it comes to LPM, lawyers should start by using the software they already have.

However, there is a growing sub-group of technically sophisticated firms who would like to learn what other firms have found in using LPM and pricing software (as opposed to what sales people say when they demo them).  In some cases, lawyers may legitimately conclude that new project management software would be helpful, especially in large complex matters, where most of the day-to-day software work can be handled by staff members rather than by lawyers.

Jason Ross, a consultant at PLA put it this way:

In general, software can help a law firm formulate and present a competitive price in an RFP or similar situation.  Software can also be very useful in tracking budgets to stay on target, in creating experiential data that is invaluable in arriving at a fixed fee or similar alternative fee arrangement, in figuring out the best possible staffing for a matter, in tracking dates and milestones, and in many other ways.

As the demand for LPM has grown, new options are constantly being developed and improved by major legal accounting software vendors and others.  There are also a large number of software programs available on the web that could be of use to lawyers, some of them free to anyone who knows how to use Google.

Which of these many programs should your law firm choose?  The answer depends on many factors, and today’s answer may be different from the one you will get six months from now, since the market is changing so rapidly.  That’s one main reason we formed a strategic alliance with PLA.  Their business is technology, and when firms ask us what technology is best, instead of saying “technology is not our specialty,” we now say “call ___ at PLA.”

While we cannot recommend a “one-size-fits all” software solution in a blog post like this, we can offer this general observation:   Proceed with caution.

In his book Smarter Pricing, Smarter Profit (p. 215)Stuart J.T. Dodds, Director of Global Pricing and LPM at Baker & McKenzie noted that:

Many of the initial LPM efforts failed … due [in part] to an initial focus on technology… [LPM software] was frequently difficult to learn and then apply to matters at hand, leading to lawyer frustration and limited adoption.

The kinds of problems that law firms have had with software are not surprising to IT professionals.  In other businesses, large and ambitious systems – such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software – have such a spotty history that a number of publications and bloggers have taken to compiling annual lists of the biggest ERP failures of the year.  (For example, see this list, and this one, and this one.)

An article in Information Week offered this explanation for the frequency of software failures:

No matter how you look at them, ERP and most other big application deployments are risky, difficult, and expensive. But much of the analysis on why these projects go awry misses the point. These are not technology projects; they're business transformation projects.

Similarly, an article focused on the failure of some CRM (Customer Management Relationship) software noted that one of the most common types of failure is that people simply don’t use the system.  Their proposed solution is quite similar to many of the ideas we have proposed for LPM:

Identify champions in each group, advertise success, and constantly reinforce your message in a long term campaign that doesn’t end when [the software] “goes live” in your company.

Still another article suggested that the best way to ensure success is to:  “Get users to focus on the What's In It For Me factor.”

These recommendations sound like common sense, but are often ignored.  Why?  I am reminded of what an editor told me decades ago when I was writing a psychology textbook.  I aimed it at students, but the editor said I needed to aim it at their professors:  “Textbook publishing is like selling dog food,” my editor told me.  “It doesn’t matter what the dog wants.  All that matters is what the dog owner wants.”  According to another article, similar cynicism is common among those who sell large software systems:  

Enterprise software still doesn't care about users. Its focus continues to be serving executives, rather than employees, because executives make buying decisions. 

So our advice to law firms on buying new software systems is simple:  take your time. 

For those who have already made a commitment to a new software system, according to another article, working with pilot groups to build acceptance is key:

Engage users early and often during the system planning and implementation phases, so they understand what's in it for them. When users do not adopt a system as planned, seek their honest feedback on how to make it more usable, helpful, and valuable.

Said another expert:

If you can't make your goal processes work with a test group of a few attorneys, secretaries and billing people, you clearly won't be able to make it work with the whole firm.

And once the pilot test is complete, consider this advice:

User education and training is necessary to overcome fear of change and prepare future users to take advantage of all the new system has to offer. Double your education and training budget (and make sure to spend it all)—it’s the best investment you will make in project success.

So if you are thinking about purchasing a new LPM software system but have not yet made a decision, first make sure that you are fully using the power of all the software the firm already owns, from advanced features of your accounting system to simple tools like Outlook.  Then proceed cautiously and spend time determining what your lawyers want and need. 

A law firm that invests in new software before partners ask for it is like a college that spends millions on a radical new type of gym equipment before learning what types of exercises students are most interested in, or even whether their students are likely to use the gym at all. 

Many software vendors are currently focused on developing new and better software for LPM and profitability analysis.  Every day that you delay the decision, your options will improve.

As PLA’s Jason Ross summed it up: 

You must put your needs before the software. You must first figure out what you need to do, and then ask, ‘What software fits this need?’ You will make a mistake if you go ahead and buy software and then try to force it into what you’re doing.

This post will be adapted for the fourth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, which will be published next year.


September 15, 2015

My Ark webinar on the need for radical changes in legal marketing

Last June, when I published a Bloomberg BNA article entitled "Why Law Firms Must Change Their Marketing Priorities", I heard from more people than I had from anything I had written in years.  Some agreed completely, and some thought my argument was completely off-base.  So I decided to continue the discussion in an Ark webinar on Thursday, October 29.

I will moderate a panel discussion with three of the people I interviewed for the article:   Andréa Danziger (Director, Business Development and Practice Management at Loeb & Loeb), Geoff Goldberg (Chief Advancement Officer at McCarter & English) and Jennifer Manton (Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at Kramer Levin Naftalis and Frankel). 

We will dig deeper into the issues raised in the article regarding how law firms have traditionally approached the "Four Ps of marketing" - price, product, promotion, and place - by focusing almost exclusively on promotion, and why that can be a mistake in today's economic environment.  Panelists will make the case that law firm marketing departments should increase their emphasis on improving the legal product through project management and pricing, and discuss how to balance that need against the resources required for traditional promotional activities such as events, advertising, websites, and brochures.

For more details, or to register for the workshop, contact Ark's Peter Franken at pfranken@ark-group.com or (312) 212-1301 or visit Ark’s web page.

September 09, 2015

Legal project management software (Part 1 of 2)

By Jim Hassett, Steve Barrett, and Jonathan Groner


In our experience, when lawyers get serious about legal project management (LPM), the first question many ask is, what software should I use?

For most lawyers, that is the wrong question. You should start by looking for low-hanging fruit, and instead ask, “What can I do today to provide clients with greater value and to protect profitability?” You can’t know what software would help until you first figure out exactly what you need to do.

In our recent survey of AmLaw 200 managing partners and other leaders, we asked “which of these LPM issues do you consider most critical for client value and/or profitability in the short term?”:

  1. Set objectives and define scope
  2. Identify and schedule activities
  3. Assign tasks and manage the team
  4. Plan and manage the budget
  5. Assess risks
  6. Manage quality
  7. Manage client communication
  8. Negotiate changes of scope

As one managing partner summed it up:

There are two that I would rank the most critical: the setting of objectives and scope, and managing client communication and expectations. Those, to me, are linked at the hip. You really have to understand what the client’s expectation is, and you also have to have a good relationship to be able to tell them whether or not their expectation is real and achievable. A lot of things can happen in litigation that can change the scope of an engagement. You can run into difficult parties and unforeseen problems, and that’s where an understanding between you and the client has to be solid enough that you can have those kinds of conversations and work your way through it.

Most respondents agreed with him.  50% said defining scope was most critical and 38% named communication, making these the top two issues named in our survey.  Note that these two critical issues involve changing lawyers’ behavior, and buying new software will not help.

Scott Rosenberg is Corporate Counsel and Solution Group Leader at Project Leadership Associates (PLA), the largest US business and technology consulting provider focused on the legal market.  (Full disclosure:  PLA and LegalBizDev are strategic partners.)  One service they provide is helping law firms select and install software, but Scott does not recommend starting there with LPM:

The legal industry is undergoing change, and clients want law firms to have more formalized processes such as LPM. But law firms are just groups of individuals, and it’s much more important to start by changing individual behavior. That has proved very hard to do if the firm jumps right into new technology. You definitely need to learn to walk before you can run.

For any management problem, the solution will involve people, process and technology.  For LPM, process is the most critical element, not technology. Our approach is to view software as merely a tool to support best practices and behavioral changes by attorneys.

Indeed, focusing on software too soon can be a distraction.  Any law firm COO or head of IT will tell you that busy partners have a very limited bandwidth for learning new software or technology, as seen in past conversions of accounting systems, WordPerfect to Microsoft Word, GroupWise to Outlook, new voicemail systems, CRM, knowledge management, and other roll-outs. Most senior law firm administrators will also agree that partner appetites for the training and behavioral changes necessary with new technology fall somewhere between limited and non-existent.

The good news is that if you work at a large firm, you probably already have accounting software such as Elite, Aderant (formerly CMSOpen), or another system that has under-utilized capabilities to provide cost estimating aids, load matter budgets, task assignments and responsible parties, and provide periodic or ad hoc reporting on time/dollars worked/ billed/remaining/collected.  It may also have the ability to calendar and track matter sub-tasks and to generate budgetary or deadline alerts.

And let’s not forget the powerful calendaring, meeting scheduling, and individual or shared task and “To Do” tracking capabilities available even in the oldest versions of Outlook.

Once you master all the existing features, if your software is an older version, the firm may ultimately be required to upgrade or update the software at an additional cost or purchase add-ons to provide the scoping, budgeting, calendaring, tracking, and reporting you’ll need. But at least you won’t have to double-clutch when you want to integrate your project management approach with the firm’s existing accounting time and billing data.

These programs may not have the sophisticated critical path and dependency analysis capabilities that come with powerful project management packages, but they can output data and reports in formats usable in Excel or PowerPoint. In most cases, once the overall scope, detailed tasks, timeline, and responsibilities are delineated for a new matter, an experienced partner can quite easily see which tasks depend upon the completion of prior tasks and which do not.

Paula Uscian, director of quality assurance at PLA, offered this example:

One important step in LPM is simply to develop a checklist for all associates to do discovery in the same way, a way that ensures predictable results and saves considerable time, effort and money. But you can create this checklist in a Word document.  Similarly, Excel can do budgets and spreadsheets, and law firms already have those programs. In fact, some lawyers are becoming more aware of these capabilities, and using  Excel’s presentation and workflow tools.

When law firms were adopting knowledge management systems, we told them that the solution was not the technology. The technology was only a tool.  Precisely the same thing is true with LPM. There are very useful software programs available, but we advise clients to first look at the tools that they already have and to leverage the investments that they have already made in software, without buying anything new.

This series will be adapted for the fourth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, which will be published next year.


September 02, 2015

Tip of the month: Develop a formal communications plan

To improve the flow of communications within your legal team, develop a simple chart showing who should talk to whom, about what, and when.  For example, the firm’s responsible partner could provide a weekly status email to the client’s lead lawyer on each important matter, and associates could have a daily five minute meeting or call with the lawyer supervising their work. 


The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. Several sample communication plans appear in the third edition of my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

August 26, 2015

Business development best practices: Don’t stop

Selling is a numbers game.

New life insurance agents are sometimes taught the “100/10/3 formula:” You must approach one hundred people to get 10 appointments and three customers. The exact numbers will be different for lawyers, but in any kind of selling you must approach a large number of prospects in order to get a small number of sales.

In his book 101 Marketing Strategies for Accounting, Law, Consulting, and Professional Services Firms, Troy Waugh (p. 227) talks about the need to “succeed by failing more:”

All advertising, public relations and direct mail programs have failure rates (non-response) that exceed 95%. But the one to five percent success can create excellent leads and pay for all your efforts.

Fortunately, the numbers are not quite this high for most professional service firms. At McKinsey & Company, one of the most successful consulting firms in the world, every director in the firm is responsible for marketing, using the “2/4/8 rule:” constantly work on two assignments, four proposals, and eight new prospects. McKinsey does not have an internal marketing department, because they recognize that all senior staff are responsible for marketing.

It can take significant time to build relationships with all these people, and the best way to build relationships is with face-to-face meetings. When Don Schrello analyzed data from McGraw-Hill, Cahners, and other sources regarding face-to-face selling for both goods and services, he found that over eighty percent of the time, sales professionals require at least five face-to-face meetings to close a sale.

In the SPIN® Selling Fieldbook (p. 42), Neil Rackham’s data on major account sales are even more daunting: “Fewer than 10% of calls actually result in a [decision of] an Order or No Sale.”

Add all these facts together, and it becomes clear that finding new clients takes an enormous amount of persistence, and the ability to shrug off rejection, week after week. As Mike Bosworth put it in Solution Selling (p. 83), “Sales always has been and always will be a numbers game—no matter how good you become, not everyone will buy from you.”

The fact that you will be dealing with large numbers means that you will need to be organized and systematic in managing your interactions with all these prospects.

According to Jim Cathcart in the book Relationship Selling (p. 100), “The way to recognize a true sales professional is to look at what he or she does after the sale.”

In every industry, it is far more expensive to win business from a new client than from an old one. Even if there’s no more money for you in this year’s budget, next year’s budget is just 12 months away or less.

Think about what you might do to stay top of mind with each client, from newsletters to personal updates.

Cathcart suggests keeping in touch with everything from clipped magazine articles to handwritten notes, and a regular account review to uncover both satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Publicize the positive, and fix the negative.

And when you lose a sale, keep in touch with those people too. If you find ways to help people, they will remember you, they will come back to you, they will tell their friends, and sooner or later some of them will buy.

The key to long-term selling is “don’t stop.” Look past today’s victories and losses, and focus on building relationships that will be the foundation of your long-term success.

And on the inevitable days when progress feels slow, give yourself a pep talk about the fact that sales is a numbers game. If you knock on enough doors saying the right thing, your share will open.

As Calvin Coolidge famously summed it up:

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination are omnipotent.
The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

This post was adapted from my book the Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide.

August 19, 2015

The heart of LPM: Communication, Part 2 of 2

A guest post by Ed Burke


5.  Communications is a process not an art.

Unlike what many people think, communications is more of a process than an art. (The real art in communications is in forming the right questions and in the “active listening” discussed in Part 1). Like most things not directly related to the legal matter, communications is likely to get lost in the chaos. That’s why our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide includes so many process aids.

It may seem mechanistic, but mechanization is the soul of project management; what makes it successful. It’s not unlike those checklists that hospitals have imposed, which physicians thought were dopey and demeaning until they saw how many deaths, diseases, and injuries they eliminated. If someone who’s qualified to open your skull and root around in your brain for a few hours can benefit from a checklist, perhaps you can too.

One aid is a “RACI matrix,” a simple chart that will increase efficiency and communications by clarifying the roles of team members in completing tasks and deliverables. It establishes the level of communications they should receive. RACI is an acronym for who’s Responsible, who’s Accountable, who should be Consulted, and who should simply be Informed. It’s a simple chart with the names of members of your team listed across the top, and the tasks listed vertically on the side. An R, A, C, or I is assigned wherever the task and a name intersect.

Another aid is a communication plan. It’s another simple chart, with the following listed across the top: the task; who’s responsible for communications concerning it; to whom the communications concerning that task be directed as well as how often or when; and how (in person, by email, etc.).


6.  The critical points of communications

To some lawyers, the perfect communications plan consists of taking the order and reporting back with a good result. But it’s not that simple. For one thing, just “taking the order” requires communications back and forth, perhaps a number of times, if you’re going to understand what the client wants and if you’re going to give him or her an accurate idea of how long it will take and of the cost.

The best communications plan unfurls throughout the life of the matter. But it’s particularly critical to communicate at three key points. The first, as indicated above, is when there’s bad news. The other two points ironically don’t occur during the matter, but before it starts and after it ends.

The seeds of many, if not most, problems that occur over the life of a matter are sown before it even begins, when the scope is being discussed. The client may have already been living with this problem for months and wants to offload it as quickly as possible and move on to the next problem. S/he may not be happy spending a lot of time answering the dozens of questions you’ll have – some of them, perhaps, uncomfortable for the client – after just parachuting in. 

For your part, you’re loath to risk a bad start, or even a loss of this windfall, by quoting a time frame or cost that, whether or not it’s realistic and informed, is likely to jar the client. So the tough questions are swept under the rug on the theory that, when you bring in a good result, all will be righted.  

If you’re in the business of building relationships rather than just taking orders and billing time, Square One is where a relationship of mutual trust is established or strengthened.  You’ve got to take the time up front to find out what the client wants by asking a raft of questions. Some are obvious and others might not naturally occur to you. 

For example, just in setting the scope of the matter, questions abound, such as:

  • What business issue does the client want to address in the legal matter?
  • Are any of several outcomes acceptable?
  • What are the crucial deadlines along the way?
  • Are there strict budget limits?
  • Who is the ultimate decision-maker?
  • What would a successful result look like to the client?

There are many other questions to ask along the way that will enable you to apply the best principles of project management. They involve:

  • Identifying and scheduling specific activities
  • Assigning tasks and managing the team
  • Planning and managing the budget
  • Assessing and preparing for likely risks to the budget and schedule
  • Managing quality
  • Negotiating changes in fees and expectations when the scope of the matter changes unpredictably

You have to go to the drawing board and divide the matter into its component parts so that you have an informed idea of whom you’ll need to do each component task, how many hours and at what rate, how long each task will take, and all those other uninteresting details that get in the way of having fun doing legal work. But such knowledge enables you to push back constructively when the client complains, with informed explanations for the cost, time, number of staff, etc. 


7.  The Post Mortem: turning the end into a new beginning

This practice has so many benefits that it’s hard to understand why it so often gets neglected. Undoubtedly, it has something to do with getting on to the next substantive legal issue and avoiding “administrative” matters that may bring up uncomfortable issues.

To put it simply, after virtually every matter – particularly with clients who could send you more work – ask the client to do a post-mortem with you so you can provide even better service in the future. These sessions are both learning and marketing opportunities. 

In a large matter, you should suggest a “lessons learned” review after each significant milestone. If they regard it as an imposition on their time, they’ll tell you, and the only thing you’ll have lost is a little bit of perceived arrogance.

There are countless useful questions you can ask – questions about the client’s perceptions of value, bigger-picture business questions, active listening questions, and the like. The ACC even gives you questions in the section of its website, “How to talk with outside counsel (or clients).” 

The process is simple enough, and can be accomplished with two questions. First, “What did you like about the way we handled this matter?” That’s an easy one for clients and, when they list a few favorable things, they feel less awkward about answering the more important question: “What could we do better?”

Don’t argue with the client. Resist the temptation to defend criticized practices or to explain why you did what you did, even if there’s a good reason why. It is not about understanding reality but understanding the client’s perception of reality. If an explanation is really necessary, it can wait for another time. Just listen and let them do most of the talking.

There are countless other good questions to choose from, depending on the specifics of the matter and the experience. Pick only about three key ones and see if they lead elsewhere as well. But let the clients go wherever they want to go. Whatever they say at this point is useful. 

If you think your client will not be able to respond to open-ended questions (which are the most useful), you’ll need to list some areas and ask them to rate you 0-10 in each one. That makes it much easier for many people.

Lawyers pride themselves on their specialized knowledge. But a plumber is a specialist, too, and always subject to questions about how much time something took and whether someone else could have done it quicker, better, cheaper. Effective communications is your first step from fungible specialist to trusted advisor.

And trusted advisors seldom have fee disputes – or need to write proposals.


A slightly adapted version of this series was originally published in the July 2015 issue of Of Counsel: The Legal and Management Report by Aspen publishers.  A pdf of that complete article can be downloaded from our web page.


August 12, 2015

The heart of LPM: Communication, Part 1 of 2

A guest post by Ed Burke


Legal project management (LPM) – which law firms are adopting in droves for greater efficiency and profits – is widely thought to be a green-eyeshades exercise focusing on budgets, deadlines, and the like. So it came as a surprise to some when a recent study found that the leaders of more than 50 of the largest law firms believe that the most important elements of LPM are client communications and, its close cousin, defining the scope of a matter.

As one managing partner summarized:

There are two [issues] that I would rank the most critical: the setting of objectives and scope, and managing client communications and expectations. Those, to me, are linked at the hip. . . .You can run into difficult parties and unforeseen problems, and that’s where an understanding between you and the client has to be solid enough that you can have those kinds of conversations. And work your way through it.

Clients agree, if the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) can be believed. The ACC has listed responsiveness/communications among the most important factors in client satisfaction.

The new study is Client Value and Law Firm Profitability by Jim Hassett, founder of LegalBizDev. It includes comments from leaders of many of the most successful firms in the world. Even they are frustrated by the difficulty of improving their firms’ client communications. These challenges require significant personal interplay directly with the client as well as behavior change from partners. They cannot be addressed by software, as some other LPM issues can.

But the comments of these leaders do suggest a number of ways to improve things. The following points are drawn from their comments and from our years of experience training lawyers in LPM. If you’ve heard some of these points before, that’s OK. Keep hearing them until you get inspired to do something.


1.  Clients really do want better communications.

The first thing to understand is that, despite their busy schedules, clients want you to communicate with them. Consider this comment from a senior partner at an AmLaw 200 firm:

Client communication is far and away the single most important factor in the relationship. Clients don’t want surprises. They want to know if you’re a proactive communicator. Do you know how they want you to communicate? Are you consistent and timely, and communicate to them information they need to know?

Clients want you to be able to figure out what they want communicated and what they don’t want to be bothered with. They want you to know how they want you to communicate. What do you do to find that out? Try asking. They’ll tell you.

Make sure clients know they can contact you at any time for any reason. Keep them regularly informed. Consider sending them brief weekly or monthly status reports. Ask them if your communication methods work for them.


2.  Make your communications direct.

Clients want to hear from you and not your marketing department through mass-mailed client advisories and the like. As one survey respondent put it:

When I was a GC, I would trash all the client alerts I got. I had 27 of them on the same case. But the ones I kept were the ones where an actual lawyer said to me: ‘I saw this article about X, and it made me think of you. If there’s anything you want to talk about, or if there’s anything I can do, here’s what I was thinking...’ It was really creative, value-added communication.

That’s right, you don’t even have to labor over an exhaustive client advisory. An article that touches on something critical to the client demonstrates you know and care about his or her issues. 

Most lawyers consider themselves better written communicators than oral. But the more direct, the better. A phone call trumps an email, and an in-person meeting trumps a phone call. In any event, avoid communicating exclusively by email.

As one chair put it: 

The greatest thing that provides value to the client, in my view, is constant communication and responsiveness. And I’m not talking about emails. It is so much better to be in constant telephone communication or breakfast meetings or lunch meetings, or just visiting. What we’re trying to do is not just deal with litigation. We’re trying to prevent litigation.


3.  Listening: the soul of communications

The most important element of communications is not self-expression but listening.  Showing how smart you are is an unfortunate carryover from law school and your associate days. It’s more important to ask diagnostic questions and to listen until you find out what the client really wants (sometimes, instead of what they say they want). Instead of talking, ask open-ended questions that tend to prompt them to do most of the talking (e.g., “Tell me more about . . .” or “What makes this urgent?”)

When I was a Chief Marketing Officer, I once suggested to a diffident partner that he ask the prospect in an upcoming meeting, “What keeps you up at night?” He shrunk away in horror at such a personal question. “Well, use it if you get stuck,” I said, which he did and later reported back in wonderment: “Well, I asked him what kept him up at night. And he told me!!”


4.  Bad news can’t wait.

One of life’s enduring mysteries is why we tend to avoid confronting difficult issues and conversations, even when we know that doing so will only make them worse. Lawyers are no exception. Are they hoping that the brilliance of their work will neutralize an unexpectedly large bill on the horizon? Or maybe they’re just hoping to die before they have to bring it up.

This senior executive’s response was typical of many:

It drives me crazy when a lawyer says that the client’s going to be really stricken by this month’s bill. I then ask the lawyer “When did you know the bill was going to be really high?” And they say they knew it a while ago.

Contrast that with this comment:

We had a fixed fee a couple of years ago on a $300,000 matter. The partner managed it very well and had continuous dialogues with the client. The $300,000 turned out to be closer to a million, and he got pretty much every penny of it.  There were things that happened that were out of control, but there was constant communications about what was going on, which is so important.


A slightly adapted version of this series was originally published in the July 2015 issue of Of Counsel: The Legal and Management Report by Aspen publishers.  A pdf of that complete article can be downloaded from our web page.