By Jim Hassett and Jonathan Groner
This post summarizes the long-term experience of Judith Droz Keyes, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine in San Francisco who completed the program in 2014. Judith specializes in labor and employment law. Her practice includes extensive counseling as well as experience in the courtroom and before mediators.
Judith first signed up for the program when a number of clients asked her about LPM, especially in connection with RFPs. At the time, she frankly wasn’t sure exactly how LPM worked, so she asked her practice group leader whether it made sense for her to get certified. The program was approved and the firm paid for it.
This program is offered via distance learning, conducted by phone and email, and organized into two modules. In Module One, participants review over 300 pages of readings from 10 project management textbooks and answer 18 essay questions about how these concepts apply to their practice. One of Judith’s Module One answers was so interesting that we ended up including it in the recently published fourth edition of our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide. (See page 90 for the section entitled “Process improvement to improve associate and paralegal time entries.”)
In Module 2, participants apply the concepts in their practice. Judith developed an “Employment law task list for a pre-complaint demand” (which is also reproduced in the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide on page 63). Her short-term goal – to take a more systematic approach to a case she was working on – was met. Her long-term goal – to simplify these task codes and get them adopted firmwide to improve client satisfaction, budget predictions, and profitability – has proven to be more elusive than she originally hoped.
One of the challenges Judith faced in getting other lawyers to accept her approach was the elephant in the room for all attempts to increase efficiency: compensation. As long as lawyers are paid more for billing more hours, efficiency is a two-edged sword. While reducing hours is often essential to make work profitable for the firm, it is almost impossible to motivate lawyers to spend fewer hours if they will be paid less as a result.
A few years ago, Jackson Lewis made headlines by announcing that associate pay would be tied to measures of client satisfaction and efficiency rather than the number of hours billed. In our view, this is the wave of the future for successful firms. But until firms make this transition, some aspects of the quest for efficiency will face resistance.
Another barrier to widespread adoption is that many lawyers believe that they are already LPM experts. After all, they’ve been planning budgets, scheduling tasks, managing teams, and communicating with clients for their entire careers. While it is certainly true that they have been doing these things well enough to succeed in the past, it does not mean that the same techniques will lead to success in the future.
Almost everyone agrees that the legal profession is changing. Clients are becoming more demanding, and competitors are improving LPM to meet client needs. These days, to retain current clients and win new ones, law firms must apply a new and more systematic approach to LPM. Those who fail to do so will be left behind.
Judith says that in the two years since her program concluded, she has continued to apply many of the lessons she learned in both in her litigation and non-litigation matters. For example, she now develops comprehensive project plans in advance of starting work on any major matter. This change has helped increase client satisfaction and profitability, especially on her fixed fee matters. She’s also learned not to worry about all the possible ups and downs and the unexpected events that can happen during a matter, such as colleagues taking leave or new people joining the firm.
These days, Judith also devotes more energy to communication issues: “Who needs to communicate what to whom and when?” When something as drastic as a final deadline for a court filing changed in the past, there was not always consistent communication about that deadline and how to work toward it. One thing she has done as a result of her LPM training is to plan ahead more consistently regarding all deadlines, communicating very clearly about who is responsible for the completion of each task, whether it’s a partner, associate, paralegal, or in-house lawyer for the client.
Nobody ever said LPM would be easy, and it would be a gross exaggeration to say that certifying a single lawyer will ever change the culture of an entire firm. But it has made a significant difference in the way Judith and some of her colleagues practice law at Davis Wright Tremaine.