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4 posts from July 2011

July 27, 2011

LPM Case Study: Fasken Martineau’s bottom-up approach

A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation at the Toronto office of Fasken Martineau, a firm with over 675 lawyers in Canada, the United Kingdom, France and South Africa. The topic was Legal Project Management (LPM): What law firms are doing today, and what each individual lawyer should do to get started. 

To me, the most interesting part of the day was not my own talk; I’d heard all that before.  The most interesting part was the follow-up presentation by Ontario Region Managing Partner Martin Denyes, who has recently taken on the task of coordinating LPM efforts within the firm.  Some Fasken Martineau LPM initiatives have been going on for months and others for years, but all of the examples Martin talked about illustrated the kind of bottom-up approach to LPM which we believe is the wave of the future.

This contrasts with a top-down approach, in which senior firm management directs lawyers on tools and techniques.  To date, most of the LPM headlines have gone to firms that have spent years implementing top-down programs, such as Seyfarth, Eversheds, Dechert and McCarthy Tetrault.  That approach can certainly work, especially if you have strong leaders who can afford to spend a few million dollars and wait a few years for proof of the results.

But most law firms are flat organizations, headed by partners who lead by building consensus rather than enforcing their will.  In this environment, a grassroots, bottom-up approach that starts by helping a few influential partners is much more likely to succeed.  As another one of our clients put it: 

Don't hold a series of committee meetings for a year and then do a top-down analysis.  Just do something.  This will spread project management, because when lawyers succeed, others in the firm will imitate their success.

In his review of Fasken Martineau initiatives, Denyes highlighted two workshops we offered at the firm last April – one for litigators, the other for corporate lawyers.  Both used our just-in-time training approach to change behavior.  Each lawyer started by focusing on a specific aspect of an actual matter where project management might make a difference.  Then they used our proprietary approach to identify a concrete action item, which they followed up on for the next 30 days with coaching assistance from one of our legal project management experts.

For example, in the litigator group, Berkley Sells completed a retrospective budget of an actual case to estimate the cost of ten categories of work, from the preliminary fact investigation to the final settlement negotiations.  He also prepared a detailed cost estimate for a client in an ongoing shareholder dispute, showing thirteen separate steps, such as “Preparation for and conduct of cross-examinations.”  For each step, he explained key issues that would affect schedule and cost, and included the estimated range of possible costs. 

When I interviewed Berkley a few months after the workshop to get his perspective, he said:

Sometimes you need to stop and take a look at how you’re managing a project. What are we doing, what is our next step, what is this going to cost, are there options, is all of this essential?  The physical act of having to write it down brings a certain clarity of analysis.  It makes you stop and think rather than simply putting one foot in front of the other.

Sean Morley, a participant in the corporate workshop, had a similar experience.  Sean’s practice focuses primarily on mergers, acquisitions, equity financings, and public-private partnerships.  In our workshop, he developed a work plan and budget for one type of transaction which he handles frequently, and where clients are pressing for lower costs.  Sean broke the transaction down into nine separate activities – what professional project managers would call a work breakdown structure – and then looked for innovative ways to reduce the cost of each activity.  He will be using this plan over the next few months to manage new work. 
As Sean summed it up:

Project management can improve efficiency and productivity.  It provides lawyers with a framework to proceed on a focused, disciplined basis, to examine what we are doing and whether we are using the best people to achieve the desired results.  We all think that we do that already, but taking a consistent and systematic approach will make a real difference.



July 20, 2011

The ACC Value Index

We live in an age when consumers rate everything from restaurants to toaster ovens and movies on Yelp, Trip Advisor, Netflix, and hundreds of other web sites.  In this environment, is inevitable that law firms too would be rated online.  In October 2009, the Association of Corporate Counsel introduced its Value Index, an online forum that ACC members use to share ratings of law firms.

From a project management perspective, the single most important fact about this index is that outside counsel are rated on these six factors:

  • Understands objectives/expectations
  • Responsiveness/communication
  • Legal expertise
  • Efficiency/process management
  • Predictable cost/budgeting skills
  • Results delivered/execution

Law firms that wish to increase client satisfaction would be wise to focus on these same six factors when they deliver services and when they evaluate them.

However, there has been controversy over the actual ratings in ACC’s database.  Many law firms have been less than thrilled with the whole idea.   Around the time this was announced, an article entitled “ACC rating index unnerves firms” quoted Fred Krebs, then president of ACC, as saying “It’s like a Zagat for law firms.”  They also noted that “These words … may well send a chill down the spine of many a private practice lawyer.”

As of the date I wrote this post, the ACC web page summarized 4,787 reviews of 1,251 firms.  On the six factors above, the average rating was 4.4 on a scale from 1=Poor to 5=Excellent.  When asked “Would you use this firm again?” 92.8%  of respondents said yes.

One concern raised by law firms is their lack of access to the ratings.  According to a set of FAQs on the ACC web page, “Law firms cannot view complete evaluations without express permission from the members who submitted them.”  There are, however, ways for firms to view “aggregated scores,” which are explained in the FAQs.

By their nature, online ratings are based on biased samples from people who care enough to take the time to respond.  According to a recent Scientific American article, online reviewers:

evangelize what they love and trash things they hate. These feelings lead to a lot of one- and five-star reviews of the same product. 

The result, according to research from the Wharton School, is that for online ratings:

the wisdom of crowds may neither be wise nor necessarily made by a crowd.  Its judgments are inaccurate at best, fraudulent at worst.

Others argue that online reviews provide valuable information.  The appeal of such systems is obvious to anyone who has ever bought a book on Amazon.

Personally, I am skeptical of the value of online ratings, but I use Amazon ratings and others all the time to decide what to buy, simply because they are so convenient.  I try to remember to take the extreme ratings – pro or con – with a large grain of salt.  Law firms can only hope that their clients will take this same cautious approach.

This post was adapted from the second edition of my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.


July 13, 2011

Book review: Project management for lawyers

Buy this book. (Right after you buy mine.)

Project Management for Lawyers was written by two experts in this emerging field: Barbara Boake, a senior partner at McCarthy Tetrault, and Rick Kathuria, a certified Project Management Professional at the same firm. The book draws on their experience developing and implementing McCarthy’s Dialogue Project Management system, so it is heavy on the kinds of “lessons from the trenches” that lawyers will find invaluable.


And if that’s not enough, Part Two of the book includes additional case studies written by experts from Dechert, Eversheds, and Seyfarth Shaw, and one from the client perspective at the Royal Bank of Canada. And if that’s still not enough, it comes with a CD filled with forms, templates and checklists, including a generic work plan, a client satisfaction review questionnaire, a project risk log, a sample staffing plan, and a sample change request form.

Chapter 1 makes the business case for project management, starting with the fact that “clients want to see a clearer link between the cost of legal services and the value of those services to their business.” The authors also note that “The market has placed a premium on predictability, efficiency and cost control” and “Alternative fee arrangements pose a threat to firm profitability unless they can be priced and managed using some kind of project management framework” (p. 6-7).

But the real value of the book lies not in the why of project management, but in the hard won wisdom of how to make it work.

Consider, for example, what Ben Barnett and Colleen Nihill, authors of the Dechert case study in this volume, have to say about letters of engagement (p. 79):
In the after glow and rush of a new client matter, scant attention is normally paid to defining specifically what the client has retained you to do. This oversight can haunt and even derail the entire project. Most of the problems in project management have their genesis in the failure to define.
Or consider Boake and Kathuria’s step by step guidance on defining new work, including this advice (p. 35):
Review the assumptions with your client to ensure that they are fully understood. If you discover that an assumption is incorrect at the beginning of a matter, it is easily addressed with a revised plan and estimate. The same cannot be said for assumptions that are found to be incorrect at the end of a matter.
Or read the expanded version of these four “rules to live by” (p. 14):
  • “Project management is a tool box – choose only what you need to most effectively manage the project.
  • "Plan now or pay late.
  • "The simplest process is often the best.
  • "There should be no surprises – regular and effective communication is the key to successful project management.”
That is not to say that I agree with 100% of the advice in the book. For example, when it comes to estimating time and costs, they include two formulas and an extended discussion of how to use “a numerical measure of confidence known as a ‘certainty factor’” (p. 29). Their sample asset purchase transaction plan (p. 32) shows how they have used certainty factors to improve time estimates for such subtasks as term sheets and due diligence. In my experience, few lawyers would be interested in, or benefit from, this type of statistical refinement. I think these particular spreadsheets and forms violate their own advice that “the simplest process is often the best.”

But my objections are just minor points.

Lawyers will love the specificity of the book’s case studies. And the step by step examples will go a long way to helping them answer the most important question in legal project management: what should I do?

There’s just one more thing you need to know about this 118-page book/CD package: it costs about $470 (£295). The Ark Group, in association with Managing Partner magazine has published a series of reports at this price point, including Alternative Fee Arrangements: Value Fees and the Changing Legal Market by Pat Lamb, which I reviewed last year

If you don't have the budget to buy these two books for yourself, have your firm order them for the library.  Then make sure to read them as soon as they arrive.

July 06, 2011

Legal project management tip of the month: Delegate up

Sometimes the best way to decrease cost is to “delegate up”: assign the task to a senior lawyer who needs little guidance or feedback.

The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a very short and simple tip like this to help lawyers increase efficiency and provide greater value to their clients.