June 24, 2015

How to change law firm culture (Part 4 of 5)

 By Jim Hassett and Tom Clay

 

In addition to the difficulties with change management described earlier in this series, at law firms there is an additional challenge: the lack of strong central authority leads to a lack of accountability. It’s a lot easier to get things done when someone is in charge; someone who can penalize people if they fail to execute. The non-hierarchical structure of most firms makes it very difficult to hold people accountable.

In change efforts for complex situations like the evolving marketplace lawyers now face, Kotter and Cohen found that successful managers relied on the sequence SEE-FEEL-CHANGE. Instead of trying to appeal to the rational mind, they focused on making an emotional connection – which is exactly what Bilzin Sumberg did as it gradually expanded successful LPM initiatives to create a new LPM-based culture.

It would be nice to be able to report that, once a majority of Bilzin’s partners had completed their coaching, their LPM work was done. In fact, it was just beginning.

It is true that the firm’s clients quickly saw significant benefits in reduced costs and greater responsiveness, which in turn led to new business. But when LegalBizDev interviewed firm leaders for follow-up reports over the next few years, they consistently used phrases like “baby steps,” “infancy stage,” and “aspirational rather than obligatory” to describe the firm’s current use of LPM. 

Well, they should see the other guys! We spend our lives looking behind the curtain at a wide variety of law firms as we work with them to increase efficiency. Many firms have individual lawyers or practice groups that are quite advanced in LPM but, in our opinion, there is unfortunately not a single firm on the planet that can say that LPM has truly taken hold among all its lawyers.

There are dozens of firms that have put out more press releases than Bilzin announcing their LPM success. But in our experience, none has achieved behavior change more quickly or more cost effectively than Bilzin. LPM aims to change habits that have been reinforced over decades, and that kind of culture change will always occur one small step at a time. 

According to Paul VanderMeer, Bilzin’s director of knowledge management, “The more successes we have gotten the more converts we obtained, and the more that LPM has permanently changed the way we do business.”

One of the most important steps that Bilzin took to monitor and sustain progress was the formation of an LPM committee chaired by Michelle Weber, the firm’s chief operating officer. Practice group leaders are required to report regularly to the committee and to the managing partner about how they are applying LPM and what works best.

“We’re following this so tightly because it’s an enormous priority,” says Weber. The result is that best practices are spreading. Many changes have been quite simple but still extremely effective. For example, she noted that:

As matters come in, we routinely have a discussion at the outset with all team members, including paralegals, so that everybody understands what the scope is. At the same time, we discuss the task codes that everyone’s going to use so we don’t have major problems with consistency later.

Al Dotson, who was one of the three lawyers in the initial pilot test of LPM coaching, recently said he is now using LPM principles “in just about every matter that I have here. These principles are flexible and important enough to apply to nearly everything that I do.” For example:

I routinely set up non-billable team meetings to ascertain the status of the work at any given stage to avoid duplication of effort, to identify issues sooner rather than later, and to communicate quickly with the client if there are any issues. This is done early and frequently throughout the project.

A number of other proven tactics for changing behavior have also accelerated success at Bilzin Sumberg and other of our clients. When LPM first became popular around 2009, some firms experimented with training every lawyer in the firm in the hope of spreading innovation like jam across the entire firm at once. It is a common approach among firms and is part of the “CLE syndrome” that’s especially pervasive among professional development directors. It allows the firm to check a box and put out a press release proclaiming success.

However, from a broad behavior change point of view, almost all these training programs were failures. Typically a few lawyers changed their approach but the vast majority just finished the class and went back to work the way they always had. As the managing partner of one firm that invested in extensive LPM training put it:

Project management will probably have the longest-term positive impact but it’s been the biggest challenge, because when busy lawyers start scrambling around, the inefficiency creeps right up.

It is much more effective to start by identifying a small group of lawyers who are most likely to be early adopters, by virtue of both the challenges they face (e.g., those who must manage fixed fee matters) and their personal openness to change.

The “tone at the top” is also extremely important. Enthusiastic support for LPM from senior management is very helpful in assuring acceptance. We have seen some firms succeed with a “bottom-up” effort that spreads LPM from the trenches with only lukewarm leadership support. But things go much faster if leaders are enthusiastic enough about LPM to keep pushing the effort past the inevitable speed bumps.

You may want to take a look at the third edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide for additional examples of how proven tactics from the change management literature can be applied to law firms. In terms of what we’re talking about here, the most important point is simply that law firm cultures can be changed relatively quickly if you carefully apply proven principles from other professions.

 

A slightly edited version of this series was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Of Counsel: The Legal and Management Report by Aspen publishers.  A pdf of that complete article “Strategies to Successfully Change Law Firm Culture: The Example of Legal Project Management” can be downloaded from our web page.

 

June 17, 2015

How to change law firm culture (Part 3 of 5)

By Jim Hassett and Tom Clay

 

Change is inherently difficult, especially for lawyers whose mindset is steeped in following precedent and past practices. But there is a large body of research literature on how to change corporate cultures. It has been successfully applied to the legal profession to increase adoption of LPM.

In his book Leading Change, John Kotter, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, noted that:

Real transformation takes time... Most people won’t go on the long march unless they see compelling evidence within six to eighteen months that the journey is producing expected results. Without short-term wins, too many employees give up or actively join the resistance.

Kotter listed many benefits of short-term wins, including the fact that they:

  • “Provide evidence that sacrifices are worth it
  • Reward change agents with a pat on the back
  • Help fine-tune vision and strategies
  • Undermine cynics and self-serving resisters
  • Build momentum”

Most lawyers will change their behavior if they are provided with convincing evidence that it is in their own self-interest. If partners whom they respect and trust say that an aggressive fixed fee deal became profitable because of the way it was managed, or that a lawyer working on an hourly basis avoided a write-down with a difficult client because he or she used project management tactics, the others will listen.

So, one key tactic to promote change is to focus on short-term wins with clearly measurable objectives. Instead of trying to train everyone in the firm to be more efficient, seek out lawyers who are motivated to change and help them to find their personal “low hanging fruit” that will prove LPM’s benefits to others in the firm.

For example, in 2012 LegalBizDev was asked to introduce an LPM program at Bilzin Sumberg, a Florida-based firm of about 100 lawyers. A few months before speaking at its annual retreat, we began coaching three lawyers on LPM. In weekly telephone sessions of about 30 minutes each, our coach walked the three lawyers through key problems and issues that they were encountering in their practices and how best practices from other firms might apply.

They selected real world matters to analyze and identified the key issues that were most critical in each situation, using the templates, job aids, and checklists in our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide. Then they reviewed the best practices described in the book and discussed exactly how to apply them to increase client value and protect profitability. At the retreat, the three lawyers then discussed their results.

One pilot participant was Al Dotson, a member of the Executive Committee and the practice group leader of its Government Relations and Land Development Practice Group. By the time of the retreat, Dotson’s coaching had already led to new business.

Dotson represents real estate developers and contractors in highly complex matters that involve a series of government regulatory agency approvals, and his developer clients loved the approach because they use project management to run their own businesses. One of them was so impressed by a legal project plan Dotson had produced that he asked Bilzin to take on a significant amount of new work.

As a result of the discussion of this quick win at the firm retreat, a number of other partners became interested in seeing if LPM could help them increase new business and realization. All 51 partners were offered the option to complete the same coaching program that Dotson had received. Over the next 15 months, a total of 26 partners volunteered for and completed the program, representing just over half of the firm’s partnership.

At that point, belief in LPM had reached critical mass and developed enough momentum that no more coaching was needed. The partners themselves and Bilzin’s internal staff took ownership of the effort, moving it forward and sustaining progress. The first quick wins had led to more wins and ultimately changed the firm’s culture.

This example can also be related to a second principle John Kotter described in another book (The Heart of Change, co-authored by Dan Cohen, Chairman and CEO at Stuart Advisory Services Group). Kotter and Cohen interviewed over 400 people who had been involved in change efforts at 130 companies to understand why some change initiatives had succeeded and others had failed.

They concluded that the managers who failed had used an approach that could be described as ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE. They focused on rational arguments, compiled spreadsheets, and developed PowerPoint presentations to show workers all the intellectual reasons why they needed to change. This type of systematic approach can be effective in a stable and controlled situation, they concluded, such as when you need to cut your printing costs or reduce your commute time.

But in most corporate change efforts, it does not work because “the parameters aren’t well understood, and the future is fuzzy.”

 

A slightly edited version of this series was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Of Counsel: The Legal and Management Report by Aspen publishers.  A pdf of that complete article “Strategies to Successfully Change Law Firm Culture: The Example of Legal Project Management” can be downloaded from our web page. 

 

June 10, 2015

How to change law firm culture (Part 2 of 5)

By Jim Hassett and Tom Clay

For anyone who follows the legal marketplace, it will come as no surprise that corporate clients are exerting enormous pressure to receive greater value from their law firms and that law firm profit margins are being squeezed as a result. What remains a surprise to many firms is how urgent the need for change is and how difficult it is to get lawyers to change their behavior.

It’s something wave seen both in our consulting work with law firms and in the results of several research studies. When, in Altman Weil’s “2015 Law Firms in Transition Survey,” 320 managing partners and chairs opined on which of 14 current trends were most likely to be permanent, 93 percent put an increased focus on practice efficiency. That’s right, 93 percent. When have you ever heard of 93 percent of lawyers agreeing about anything?

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, sums it up very simply: “Law firms are being forced to completely change the way they practice law.”

While clients are demanding efficiency, law firm leaders are struggling to figure out how to provide it. But as long as compensation systems reward lawyers for putting in more hours, it will be a tough nut to crack. Firms must stop focusing on simply generating more revenue, whatever it costs, and instead focus on the much harder issue of generating greater profits. As one managing partner put it in our recent research on Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, “I have a $10 million practice. But that could be a disaster for a firm, because it could cost them $11 million to get $10 million. But nobody ever talks about it that way.”

What are firms doing about the demand for greater efficiency? Not nearly enough.

When the “2015 Law Firms in Transition Survey” asked, “Has your firm significantly changed its strategic approach to efficiency of legal service delivery?” only 36.9 percent said yes. (35.5 percent said no and the remaining 27.6 percent said changes are “under consideration.”)

As negative as these figures seem, in our day-to-day experience the reality is much worse. In many cases, firms that have “changed their strategic approach” have done so only on a piece of paper. In the trenches, most of their lawyers are still practicing the way they always have.

In 1962, Professor Everett Rogers published his influential text Diffusion of Innovations, which is now in its fifth edition. The book explains the elements that determine how quickly a new idea spreads. 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: innovators (2.5 percent), early adopters (13.5 percent), early majority (34 percent), late majority (34 percent), and laggards (16 percent).

At some point, Rogers argues, successful social change reaches a critical mass in which the number of adopters is large enough so that the speed of adoption becomes self-sustaining and further spreads the idea. This is, of course, very similar to the central idea in Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. According to Gladwell’s definition, a tipping point is “The moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.”

The introduction of legal project management (LPM) is a good indicator of a law firm’s commitment to improved practice efficiency. The field of LPM is so new that there is still some disagreement about exactly how to define it. For this article, we use the very broad definition proposed in our book Legal Project Management, Pricing, and Alternative Fee Arrangements: “Legal project management adapts proven management techniques to the legal profession to help lawyers achieve their business goals, including increasing client value and protecting profitability.”

While there is no systematic data as to exactly where LPM stands on Professor Rogers’ continuum, based on our experience talking to a wide number of firms, we strongly believe that LPM is still at the early adopters’ stage. The bad news is that clients want faster progress. Many law firms have done an excellent job at putting out press releases announcing that they are leaders in LPM, and indeed many individual lawyers have achieved success. But when it comes to changing the way an entire practice group or firm does business, they have fallen far short.

The good news is that innovative law firms still have an enormous opportunity to get ahead of competitors. We believe that the key issue for most firms today is to find the LPM tipping point for each practice group. In our experience, the required percentage varies widely depending on the pressure the group is under as well as on the internal political dynamics of a practice group led by a few strong leaders versus one in which each lawyer acts as an independent agent.

Clients are certainly not impressed by law firms’ efforts to date. In Altman Weil’s “2014 Chief Legal Officer Survey,” 186 in-house general counsel rated 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 the low level of effort.

In this context, LegalBizDev recently published the book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which summarizes in-depth confidential interviews with chairs, managing partners, and other leaders from 50 AmLaw 200 firms. Many of those leaders reported gaps between the firm’s strategy and what actually gets done.

To assure that strategies are executed properly, you’ve got to start with metrics. As consultants are fond of saying, “What gets measured gets done.” When law firms outline strategies without metrics, the follow-up quickly gets fuzzy. You’ve got to have a way to show people they are making progress. Defining effective metrics is not easy. In the case of LPM strategies, where metrics exist, they tend to be subjective measures of increased client satisfaction and new business. As the field matures, more sophisticated measures are likely to emerge.

In most other businesses, implementation is clearly seen as a four-step process that includes goals, actions, scorecards, and accountability. Most law firms never get past the first step of setting the goals. They fail to identify the actions – specific measurable behaviors – that are required to achieve the goal.

Some identify the actions but lack a scorecard or measurement system to track who is taking action and whether it is working. And the few who do have a scorecard often lack accountability. The lack of centralized power at many firms means that it is every partner for him- or herself.

 

A slightly edited version of this series was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Of Counsel: The Legal and Management Report by Aspen publishers.  A pdf of that complete article “Strategies to Successfully Change Law Firm Culture: The Example of Legal Project Management” can be downloaded from our web page. 

 

June 09, 2015

New products for LPM Acceleration and Pricing Visibility

Today, in connection with my speech at LMA’s P3 conference in Chicago, we are announcing the first new products jointly developed in our alliance with Project Leadership Associates.

The LPM Acceleration Program will help firms increase the speed and cost-effectiveness of LPM implementation, whether they have already started significant initiatives, or are just beginning to formalize their LPM efforts.

The Pricing Visibility Program will help firms adopt pricing and budgeting best practices, and select and implement technologies that support their pricing strategy.

For more details, see our product announcement.

June 03, 2015

Tip of the month: Stay within budget by estimating earned value

Project managers use the term earned value to refer to the percent of a budget that has been earned to date.  For example, if it is important to stay within budget, then when you have completed 50% of a project you should have spent no more than 50% of the money.  There are many ways to measure earned value, but for most lawyers a simple intuitive estimate is best.  Every month or so, simply ask yourself what percent of the work you’ve completed, and compare that to the percent of the budget you’ve spent so far.  If you are overspending, negotiate a change of scope with the client and/or come up with a plan to reduce spending in the future.

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. More information about this tip appears in the third edition of my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

May 27, 2015

How to change law firm culture (Part 1 of 5)

By Jim Hassett and Tom Clay

Recently, Altman Weil was consulting with the senior management of a mid-sized law firm about its strategic plan and got into a discussion of the importance of measuring profitability by practice group, client, and matter. The CFO dismissed the idea; they had already tried that, he said, but it simply didn’t work.

A few years earlier, the firm had spent several hundred thousand dollars on software to measure profitability. Mathematically, the software was indeed a good way to calculate profitability by matter or by client. But when management tried to roll out the new system, there was an enormous amount of negative pushback from partners. The software was too complicated, partners said, and the assumptions too controversial.

More importantly, almost every lawyer who was told that a matter was unprofitable said there must be some mistake and questioned the way profitability was calculated. After months of acrimony and debate, the firm decided to simply stop using the software and put it on the shelf as a costly experiment that had failed. They wrote off all the time that had gone into choosing the software, installing it, and training lawyers to use it. Not to mention the initial investment of several hundred thousand dollars.

Mind you, management still felt that measuring profitability was an important and valuable strategy. Presumably, it just couldn’t be made to work in that firm’s culture. In any other business, the CEO might have required that the software be used whether people liked it or not. But many law firms are fragile partnerships where firm leadership simply does not have the power to enforce change.

In several decades of working with hundreds of law firms, we have seen many such examples where well-designed strategies have failed because partners refuse to embrace them.

Customer relationship management (CRM) software is another great example. Many firms have recognized the value of tracking client relationships more closely and invested six figures or more in technology to do that. But based on our unscientific count, CRM systems have failed at the vast majority of the law firms that have installed them, due to lawyers’ resistance to sharing information about their clients and their unwillingness to put in the hard work of tracking details in the system. Enormous effort was put into the initial stages of selecting software and implementing it, lawyers pushed back, and in the end management gave up and the money was thrown out the window.

The problem of failure to execute is not limited to software. “Key client programs” to improve service to top clients sound like a great strategy when they are committed to paper, but, when the time comes to act, many lawyers just keep doing what they’ve always done. Practice group planning is another problem area. When 81 managing partners responded to the Altman Weil Practice Group Performance Survey a few years ago, we concluded that “Law firm practice group performance… is mediocre at best across a series of measures.” For example:

Sixty-three percent of law firms say they have a formal Practice Group planning process, but planning quality is inconsistent and many firms fall short on plan execution. On average, on a scale of 0 to 10, firms rate the effectiveness of Practice Group planning at 6.0 and the effectiveness of plan implementation at a meager 5.6.

For every firm that has successfully implemented a strategic plan, several others have failed to execute.

We could go on, but there is really no need. You could probably add several recent examples from your own firm. As management consultants often say:  “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”  (The original quote has often been attributed to Peter Drucker, and a few years ago Curt Coffman wrote a book with that title.) 

Several decades of consistent financial success have led many law firms to develop cultures that are frustratingly resistant to change. As Richard Susskind noted in his widely quoted book, The End of Lawyers?, “It is not easy to convince a group of millionaires... that their business model is wrong.”

In a series of web articles entitled “Leadership and Culture,” Sean Culey noted that:

Every organization has its own unique culture, defined as the set of deeply embedded, self-reinforcing behaviors, beliefs, and mindset that determine “the way we do things around here…” It controls the way their people act and behave, how they talk and inter-relate, how long it takes to make decisions, how trusting they are and, most importantly, how effective they are at delivering results… Studies have shown again and again that there may be no more critical source of business success or failure than a company’s culture – it trumps strategy and leadership every time.

For example, consider the attitude toward perfectionism at many law firms.  As consultant Ron Friedmann wrote in his blog several years ago:

Clients often want to know if there are any major risks: “Let me know if there are any boulders in this playing field.” Lawyers often hear that and think they need to find not just the boulders, but also the pebbles. The fear of being wrong – and of malpractice – runs deep. ‘Perfection thinking’ makes it hard to approximate, to apply the 80-20 rule, to guide in the right direction but with some imprecision.

When lawyers were getting paid by the hour and most clients didn’t seem to care how many hours it took to reach perfection, the mindset was reinforced by the compensation systems that are still found at most law firms: the more hours you bill, the more you are paid.

But clients are increasingly questioning hourly bills and/or asking for fixed fee alternatives. When realization goes down far enough, firms will gradually be forced to change compensation, as Jackson Lewis did when it announced that associates will no longer be compensated for billing more hours.  Instead, they will be rewarded based on factors tied to results such as efficiency and client service.

A slightly edited version of this series was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Of Counsel: The Legal and Management Report by Aspen publishers.  A pdf of that complete article “Strategies to Successfully Change Law Firm Culture: The Example of Legal Project Management” can be downloaded from our web page. 

 

May 20, 2015

New national survey links legal project management to financial benefits

Altman Weil has done it again.  Every spring they publish the most important survey of the year, and the 2015 Law Firms in Transition Survey they released last week is more thought provoking than ever.  (Full disclosure:  LegalBizDev is a strategic partner of Altman Weil, but I’d write this blog post even if we weren’t.)

Their 124 page report can be downloaded for free and summarizes the opinions of 320 managing partners and chairs on topics ranging from leadership to market forces.  I turned right to the section entitled “Efficiency of legal service delivery” and found data unlike anything I’d seen before.

For the last seven years, Altman Weil has found that the vast majority of law firm leaders say that there has been a permanent change in the legal profession increasing the focus on practice efficiency (this year 93%).  On the other hand, their surveys have consistently found that only a minority of firms are doing anything about it (37% of firms said that they had “significantly changed their strategic approach to the efficiency of legal service delivery”). 

What’s new this year is data correlating this strategic change to financial results to suggest that firms benefit financially by becoming more efficient. This can best be seen in profits per equity partner (up for 76% of firms that changed their approach to efficiency vs 61% of those that didn’t) and revenue per lawyer (up for 76% of firms that changed vs 62% of firms that didn’t).

While there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that legal project management (LPM) improves financial results, this is the first national survey data verifying the link.

Similar results were found in this year’s data on AFAs.  Altman Weil reported that 68% of the firms that used non-hourly billing described it as “primarily reactive (in response to client requests),” while only 32% said it was “primarily proactive (arising from your belief in the competitive advantage of alternative fees).”  Interestingly, when the profitability of AFAs was compared to hourly work, the proactive firms were far more likely to say they were more profitable (29% vs 10%) and less likely to say they were less profitable (12% vs 41%).  Proactive firms have also been getting better at it.  When this question was first asked in 2010 only 17% of proactive firms said AFAs were more profitable than hourly work, compared to 29% this year.

While the survey did not directly ask why profitability was improving, there are only two possible answers:  either matters are being priced better at the outset, or the work is being performed more efficiently within budget.  We have no doubt that both are true for proactive firms.  And given the intense competition that is often driving prices below desired levels, our guess is that LPM was the more important of the two.  

As a reformed academic, I feel it is necessary to add two caveats to our claims about LPM and profitability.  The first is that there is still some controversy about exactly how to define LPM, and our statements above apply to the broad definition we use, as described in my book LPM, Pricing, and AFAs.  When Altman Weil asked firms how they were increasing efficiency, seven of the eight factors they mentioned come up routinely in our LPM coaching:  technology, knowledge management, training, contract lawyers, paraprofessionals, using non-law firm vendors, and re-engineering work processes.  (The eighth efficiency factor is usually not involved in our coaching, but is extremely interesting:  an amazing 49% of firms now say that they are “rewarding efficiency and profitability in compensation decisions.”)

The second caveat could come from my brother the mathemetician, who likes to remind me that a correlation does not prove causality.  Of course, technically he’s right.  But if I were a managing partner in this highly competitive profession, I would not wait for a long term double blind experiment to prove that the link was cause and effect.  I would just start promoting greater efficiency through LPM, and see for myself if it seemed to improve my bottom line.

Another thing managing partners will want to do is to improve efforts to understand client needs.  I found it quite interesting that of the ten tactics to improve client understanding in this survey, post-matter reviews came in dead last at 24%.  In our LPM coaching, this is often one of the first things we recommend, since it is so revealing of how clients feel about your work, and can be as simple as asking “what did we do well” and “what could we do better.”  (For a review of more sophisticated techniques, see the third edition of my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.)  But in this survey, post-matter reviews finished far behind other tactics that are extremely useful, but far more difficult and expensive to implement such as participating in client industry groups (75%) and formal client interview programs (49%).

I was also interested to note that 61% of firms said that overcapacity is diluting their profitability.  Equity partners in 47% of the firms, and non-equity partners in 41%, simply need more work.  That’s one of the most common reasons behind what Bruce MacEwen has described as “suicide pricing” in his book Growth is Dead:  “Bids from name-brand firms… that are so breathtakingly low one wonders how they could possibly make any money. The short answer is they can’t.”  As the chair of one AmLaw 200 firm put it in my book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability (p. 80) “Lawyers will look at a case and say ‘I know you don’t want to get 70% realization on a $200,000 matter. But 70% of $200,000 is a whole lot better than 100% of nothing.”

There’s a whole lot more to be learned from this survey beyond the core topics of this blog.  So if you have any interest in how the legal profession is changing, I would strongly recommend that you download your own copy today.

If you don’t find it useful I’ll send you double your money back.  Oh wait.  It’s free.

 

May 13, 2015

How to solve delegation problems

A guest post by Gary Richards

 

Talented lawyers are sometimes bypassed for future assignments because they slipped a little on work that was delegated to them in the past. Partners may sometimes solve the problem by deciding to not put them on future assignments rather than giving them corrective feedback from which they could benefit.

For example, consider the following scenario: You have a competent set of lawyers and paralegals working with you on an important matter. However, one of the more legally talented members of the team has recently been coming in late with assigned tasks, or has not done it exactly as assigned, or both.

He always seems to understand exactly what you want when he accepts the task. After handing off a task, you always seek confirmation that he understands by asking questions like, “Do you have any questions?” or “Do you understand exactly what I want and when?” He always assures you that he has “got it.” Yet there is a recent pattern of incompleteness and lateness you would like to avoid in the future.

You are reluctant to complain to him because you know that he is quite busy working on other matters for other partners. By and large, his work quality is good and clients like him. You also don’t want to seem dictatorial when you hand off work for fear of insulting him or demotivating him, because you could really use his help if only he were accurate and timely.

However, unless this situation improves, you are considering not assigning him to any future work that is deadline-sensitive or has nuanced issues requiring significant attention to detail. That way you would save time dealing with his performance problem and wouldn’t have to waste your time coaching him on how to improve. You believe that any intelligent and experienced matter team members should do what he says he will do, on time. After all, you don’t recall anyone ever having to pressure you to correct your lack of detail or timeliness.

This is a fairly common situation. Unfortunately, deciding to save time by not assigning him to future matters is also fairly common. But it is a costly and shortsighted solution to deprive the offending lawyer of needed coaching. Furthermore, taking that approach would mean failing your responsibility as a partner to provide professional development of those working on your team.

The tension in this situation stems from your natural preference to avoid conflict, compounded by not knowing how to ensure clarity at the moment of handoff.

A better solution is grounded in two simple concepts: tactfully require people to repeat your instructions, and schedule a mid-point review.

 

Tactfully require people to repeat your instructions

When you encounter a performance problem like the one above, the best first step is not to ask “What is wrong with him?” Instead, ask “What can I do differently?” The truth is that getting work done on time, as expected, is usually much more dependent on how the work is handed off and monitored than it is affected by a flaw in the recipient.

The usual solution to this situation is to do a better job finding out exactly what he actually understands to be required and by when, no matter how well you think you have presented it. Simply asking a question like these will not uncover true understanding:

  • “Do you have any questions?”(Not really.)
  • “Is it clear what I need?”(I think so.)
  • “Do you understand exactly what I want and when?”(Sure, I’ll get right on it.)

Even if they are less than certain of the details, most people are not comfortable admitting that they are unclear or confused, especially if you outrank them. So those kinds of questions usually do not learn what it is they actually understand.

He may even demonstrate rapt listening and industrious note taking as you describe what you want, all creating the illusion of clear understanding even though some details may be missed. It is likely that the listener believes that he does understand it, because he is clear on what he thinks that he heard.

There is only one way to know for sure what he understand: Have him immediately repeat his understanding of your instructions so that you can compare what he says to your intended instructions. Such a request to repeat instructions received is rarely made because it could be taken as an insult to his ability or a veiled accusation of inattention. But there is a skillful way to request that instructions be repeated without being insulting or accusatory: Format the question as an “I” message, not as a “you” message.

Faulty way to request feedback of instructions (insulting and accusatory “you” message):

­Please repeat what I said so I can tell whether you got it all correctly.”

Effective way to request feedback of instructions (non-insulting and non-accusatory “I”):

“That was a lot of detail, Bob, and I described what I need pretty quickly. Would you mind repeating for me your understanding of those instructions and timing so that I can see if I said it clearly?”

As you listen to his repetition of your instructions, you can compare it with what you intended. In effect, this way you are comparing what is in his brain to what is in your brain. If you hear an omission or misunderstanding, you can immediately say, “What I meant to say was…” and provide the correction, possibly rephrasing it more clearly or in a different way to highlight its importance. It doesn't matter whether you did say it correctly the first time or not. What does matter instead is to correct the misunderstanding immediately, not to assign blame for the misunderstanding by saying something like, “No, you have it wrong.”

 

Schedule a mid-point review

Once it is established that the instructions are understood, the next thing to help ensure performance is to schedule a follow-up midway through the duration of the task. You have a right, even an obligation, to follow up to ensure that the work is on schedule, especially if there have been past problems with timely performance. Get agreement at the time of hand-off as to when you will follow up midway, and why. Unscheduled follow-ups like, “How are you doing on….” will appear that you don’t trust him. Also, he may have work appropriately scheduled on the task at a time closer to the deadline than when your surprise follow-up occurs, causing your question to be an unfair irritation that results in no information.

Instead, it is much better at the time the task is handed off to schedule a time-certain mid-point follow up. For example, if you hand-off a task on Wednesday and the deadline for completion is the following Tuesday by noon, say something like this: “How about I touch base around 10:30 A.M. Friday to be sure that you have everything you need and see if there are any questions?”

When a mid-point follow-up time like that is agreed upon, several things are put into play:

  • It becomes more likely that the doer will be further along in their work on the task by the follow-up time of Friday at 10:30 than if no follow-up had been scheduled
  • With that stated reason for the follow-up, the doer understands that it is to be a helpful event, not a sign of mistrust
  • You avoid having to interrupt the doer with “How are you coming?” whenever your anxiety compels you. Instead, you can relax until Friday at 10:30, knowing that you have plenty of time afterward to get things back on track if needed.

These two simple tactics can solve delegation problems, save you time by avoiding performance problems, and fulfill your obligation to constructively develop the skills of those working on your teams.

May 06, 2015

Tip of the month: Improve the way you manage your team

To provide clients with the value they are demanding, you may need to devote more time to actively managing the members of your team.  Start with these questions:

  • Who will have primary responsibility for completing each task on time, within budget?
  • Do they agree with your estimated schedule and budget for the task?  If not, discuss any differences of opinion before they begin the work.
  • Will they need any special help or support to successfully complete their assignment?
  • Should the team set up a regular schedule of very short meetings to assess progress and overcome any obstacles?

 

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. More information about this tip appears in the third edition of my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

April 29, 2015

Six challenges in defining law firm profitability (Part 4 of 4)

Law firms’ problems measuring profitability cannot be attributed to lack of trying. A growing number of software programs are available to handle the calculations. The two long-time leaders in the field—Intellistat Analytics from Data Fusion and Redwood Analytics from Aderant—have been providing sophisticated tools to quantify law firm profitability for several decades. But to use these tools, one must make a series of assumptions, and that’s where the trouble starts.

At the 2014 LMA P3 conference, Jeff Suhr, vice president of products at Data Fusion, noted that his company had 91 clients actively using their tools, including 10 of the top 35 AmLaw firms (Jeff Suhr, “Best Practices in Leveraging Profitability Analysis to Better Price, Staff and Manage New Engagements,” presentation at the LMA P3 conference, Chicago, May 13, 2014).  Exactly how did these 91 clients calculate profitability? Ninety-one different ways. The fundamentals are the same, but there are important differences in the details, which can have significant implications for the way profitability is interpreted and used to motivate changes in behavior.

Suhr distinguished between the relatively straightforward science of calculating profitability and the art of determining the exact methods that best fit the needs of each firm. He also discussed the different challenges of “macro strategies” for analyzing profits for a firm, an office, or a practice group, vs. “micro strategies” for analyzing a book of business or a particular matter. These sometimes require different assumptions and different approaches.

For starters, you would think it would be easy to measure the revenue associated with a matter, but it’s not. John Iezzi’s Results-Oriented Financial Management: A Step-by-Step Guide to Law Firm Profitability (p. 132) noted that:

There are three different revenue numbers you can use. One is the accrual basis revenue number, which is hours worked multiplied by hourly rate. The second is the bills rendered number. And third is the cash receipts number.

The first two numbers reflect theoretical revenue. After client write-offs and write-downs, a significant amount of this may never be received. So a profitability system based on either accrual or bills rendered rewards lawyers for putting in more hours even if they produce no revenue. This is particularly troublesome with fixed fees and other AFAs, where lawyers with too little to do may pile on the hours “since it costs nothing and could help the client relationship.” Not to mention that in many firms attorneys get paid more if they bill more hours, whether the client ever writes a check for the hours or not.

In my LegalBizDev Survey of Alternative Fees (p. 118), one AmLaw 100 decision maker told us that:

It often happens that alternative fee matters, particularly large ones, end up being a dumping ground for individuals who may not be fully employed because you are reportable to the client for the result, not the cost. When lawyers work unnecessarily on a project your profitability looks bad, so in order to really determine the profitability, we need to deal with that issue.

As one chair in this research put it:

What you’re trying to do internally is change the mindset of the attorney who is used to billing hours. In the past, if you billed 2,000 hours, you were better than somebody who billed 1,200 hours. But with an AFA, you have to be more efficient and more concerned with delivering the value to the client in a way that makes this a productive relationship.

That’s why the best measures of profitability must ultimately be tied to cash received. But there’s no way of knowing that figure until a matter is completed and the bills are paid. In a large firm with tens of thousands of simultaneous matters, each on their own schedule, comparisons between matters must be based on a long list of assumptions about what will happen in the future, or postponed until the end of a case, which could take years to resolve. And this can lead to arguments and gamesmanship.

One senior executive at a firm that bases compensation partly on accrual-based profitability highlighted one such problem:

We use dashboard tools including Redwood Analytics and Intellistat to track key metrics and responsibilities for each attorney as a working, billing, and originating attorney. This information is directly used in each person’s annual review and compensation setting, along with qualitative and subjective elements. They have visibility to this key information every day, and it begets a whole different sense of responsibility and accountability.

Determining cost is even harder. In order to truly determine the cost of delivering services for a particular matter, one must answer two basic questions: what was the cost of the direct labor of performing the work, and what overhead indirect costs (such as rent, clerical staff, etc.) should be allocated to that particular matter?

The problems start with how to estimate the cost of each hour of a partner’s time. If a rainmaker partner was paid $1 million last year, how much of that was her direct cost for working on legal matters vs. origination fees, payment for time spent on management, profit distribution, and other factors? A number of different systems of “notional compensation” are used to split compensation between the amount allocated to billable activity and the amount allocated to everything else. The details of how to do this could easily go on for many pages, but in this context the most important fact is that every single system includes arguable assumptions. And if there is one thing that lawyers do well, it is argue, especially if a calculation affects the way their financial results are perceived. And if matter profitability is tied to compensation and perhaps even to job stability, the debates on how to calculate these figures will rapidly get louder and more passionate.

If you think that since associates are on salary, it would be easier to calculate their direct costs, you’d be right. But even there, important decisions must be made. For example, suppose two mid-level associates earn the same $300,000 salary, but Associate A billed 2,000 hours last year and Associate B billed 1,500 hours. To keep this example relatively simple, we will ignore the cost of their health insurance and other benefits and focus strictly on salary. Some firms say that the direct cost of Associate A is $150 per hour ($300,000 divided by the 2,000 hours she billed) while Associate B is more expensive at $200 per hour ($300,000 divided by her 1,500 billable hours).

Now suppose that relationship partners are rewarded for managing matters more profitably. Of course they will try to assign more work to the busy $150 per hour associate than to the $200 per hour associate who has more time available. In this case, the attempt to measure profitability to develop a more efficient system rewards behavior that is actually likely to reduce efficiency by overworking the busiest associates.

Discussions of other aspects of overhead can also get into heated debates about such details as:

  • If one practice group heavily uses the services of the marketing department and another doesn’t, should the first group pay more marketing expenses through higher overhead?
  • If one lawyer has office space in a high-cost city like New York, and another has an office in a lower-cost city like Cincinnati, do they have different overhead rates?
  • If one lawyer in New York has a 600-square-foot office and another has a 300-square-foot office, should that be reflected in different overhead rates?
  • If one lawyer’s assistant makes more than another’s, should that be reflected in their personal overhead?

The questions go on and on, and they raise the kind of awkward issues that sow resentments and dissension. As one partner interviewed for Michael Roster’s article noted:

Many of us have long believed that the non-attorney costs of the various practice groups are wildly different. At most firms, no one wants to hear that, probably because it might open Pandora’s Box.

Some experts believe that this box should be opened, and when it is it will reveal that different practice groups can afford to charge different rates. One expert we consulted, who preferred to remain anonymous, put it this way:

Cost accounting should be kept very simple lest the lawyers argue about it forever more. That said, it should not be the same for the higher cost of production groups that need a lot of work rooms, support services, etc. (such as litigation) versus the very low cost of production groups that can work in a cubicle and only occasionally might need a conference room (such as trusts and estates). GM charges a lot less for a Chevrolet than for a Cadillac, and yet the overall Chevrolet division may be far more profitable that the overall Cadillac division.

Others disagree and feel that analyses that compare relative costs will become divisive by focusing lawyers on their short-term individual interests rather than the long-term benefits of working together. The labor and employment group may come to question the wisdom of belonging to the same firm as the M&A group that needs more expensive space. Lawyers from the Cincinnati office may begin to ask whether it is really worth having a New York office with much higher overhead.

To explore the real-world solutions that law firms are using most often, Jonathan Groner  contributed to my research by interviewing two of the leading consultants in the field: Russ Haskin, director of consulting services at Aderant Redwood Analytics and Jeff Suhr, vice president of products at Data Fusion Technologies/Intellistat.

According to Haskin:

If a firm has hired a pricing director but does not look carefully at profitability in a sophisticated way, it is doomed to fail.

Haskin said that very few large firms do more than pay lip service to the concept of profit margin—and those that do are far ahead of the game. Among other things, they are ready to respond to AFA proposals in a way that will be profitable for them. A firm that looks at profitability in the “old” way by examining gross revenue rather than profit margin as seen at the client or engagement level is simply not equipped to respond intelligently to an AFA request.

Both consultants agreed that the key to success is to simplify assumptions, and one way to do that is to look at gross margin (revenue minus direct costs). Suhr argued that at the matter level, gross margin is a better measure than any that includes overhead because issues like office space can’t be controlled at the matter level.

Haskin suggested that to simplify the cost analysis, the firm should allocate a standard cost rate to each lawyer or group of lawyers, for all clients, like the senior partner we interviewed who said:

We have a model that takes into account cost not based upon actual draws or salary, but it takes into account junior associate, mid-level associate, senior associate, junior partner, partner, and senior partner typical costs.

At the end of the day, there is a reason why Data Fusion’s 91 clients use 91 somewhat different methods to measure profitability. Companies like Data Fusion and Aderant Redwood work with each client to come up with a consistent approach that has grass-roots support within each firm.

As John Iezzi summed it up in Results-Oriented Financial Management: A Step-by-Step Guide to Law Firm Profitability (p. 145):

The subject of profitability at [the matter] level is one that is very difficult to grasp for those not fully versed in cost-accounting concepts. Whatever methodology is used, it should be agreed to by a consensus of the partners so that the results are accepted once the methodology is applied.… Make certain that everyone buys into how the process is going to be done, and more importantly, why it is being done and what decisions will be made from the information once the analysis is completed.

Jeff Suhr made a similar point more succinctly:

The right way to measure profitability is one that is accepted in your firm. The art is to measure it in a way that keeps everybody happy.

And as one managing partner in this study summed it up:

You can argue all day about what the right profitability metrics are or what you’d include. We argue about it a lot.

Many participants, like this senior executive, think that the cure is worse than the disease and that firms should stick to more traditional measures:

We’ve used realization as a surrogate for profitability to this point. True profitability has been reserved for senior management analysis. We haven’t wanted lawyers arguing about indirect allocations and whether they only use 10% of a legal administrative assistant’s time versus 33%.

The profession may never find the perfect solution that some lawyers seem to want.  But it is absolutely clear that firms which want to survive and prosper in the current environment must find an answer that fits their culture and allows them to clearly distinguish between the matters that make money and the matters that lose it. 

This series is an excerpt from my book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability.  An edited and abridged version of this series appeared in the March 2015 issue of MP magazineThe MP article can bedownloaded from our web page