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5 posts from February 2012

February 29, 2012

Law firm risk management: How project management can reduce the long-term cost of professional liability insurance

According to a recent post  on the Wall Street Journal online, the cost of legal insurance is going up.

Professional-liability insurance typically has been among the top operating costs for law firms, after compensation and real estate… [These days] law firms are loading up on insurance against expensive liability claims as they increasingly find themselves on the wrong end of lawsuits.

The piece went on to explain that “Insurers are telling us that not only is frequency up, but so is claim severity. It's just costing more to defend and litigate a claim.”  And when the costs paid out by insurers go up, premiums are sure to follow.

When underwriters set the rates for a particular firm, “there is no doubt that insurers are interested in how the firm manages risk,” according to Bob Feagin, former managing partner of Holland & Knight and now Special Counsel at Paragon Risk Management Services Ltd , a company that advises US and UK law firms on risk management, business practice management and loss prevention.  “Some insurers subsidize risk management programs designed to reduce losses from potential claims.”

That is where the link to new developments in legal project management (LPM) comes in.

A few weeks ago, we were contacted by Paragon’s Director Natasha Watson.  Squire Sanders, the law firm that offered the client/firm collaboration workshop we wrote about last week, is a Paragon client. When Squire Sanders purchased its professional liability insurance through Paragon and McGriff Seibels, a risk management budget was included as part of the policy.  The funding for our workshop came from that risk management budget.

LPM can reduce professional liability risk many ways, including helping lawyers to control quality, to meet critical deadlines, to avoid or quickly resolve fee disputes with clients, and to maintain active, open and timely communications with clients on all aspects of every engagement.

For example, a recent article in Risk Management magazine quoted StuartPattison, a vice president at CNA (one of the largest commercial insurers in the US), about the insurance implications of properly defining scope:  “A well-drafted engagement letter can spare future turmoil by spelling out the precise nature of professional services including the attorney handling the matter, specific duties that are not covered, a time-frame and a definition of who the firm will -and will not- be representing.”  The article went on to note that “professional liability insurers now consider a well established risk management program as a pre-requisite for insuring a legal practice.”

When Paragon Risk Management Services Ltd asked LegalBizDev to join their panel of Preferred Service Providers, of course we agreed. The panel includes consulting organizations specializing in such areas as professional responsibility and actuarial and loss prevention services. LegalBizDev is the only company on the list that offers training and support in legal project management.  

In the future, Paragon clients will have the ability to finance our programs by drawing on a predetermined risk management budget which Paragon negotiated with insurers on behalf of these clients.

Programs like this are likely to increase in the future.  As Holland & Knight’s Bob Feagin summed it up:

Project management is the key to improving client service, and client service is the key to managing risk.  When law firms succeed in managing risk and reducing losses, that has an undeniable impact on lower rates.

Our new relationship with Paragon is a win-win-win-win.  Law firms win by improving their risk profile, which should lead to a more favourable claims record and ultimately to lower premiums.  Law firm clients win by getting more value and better service through hands-on project management.  Paragon wins by strengthening relationships with its law firm clients and its insurers and by reducing the risk of future claims.  And LegalBizDev wins by having an opportunity to provide our services to law firms that will fund the program through budgets they have already dedicated to risk management.

We always knew LPM could help law firms reduce risk.  But to be honest, it is only recently that we have come to understand that LPM could also reduce the long-term cost of their liability insurance.

Jim Hassett wrote this post with Mike Egnatchik who is leading a new risk management initiative at LegalBizDev.


February 22, 2012

Client/firm collaboration: The case of Squire Sanders

A few months ago, we announced  that Squire Sanders was the first firm to sign up for our new client/firm collaboration workshops in legal project management (LPM).

Today, the results are in: It was absolutely amazing.  

The program was designed to facilitate collaboration between large law firms and their most important clients, by addressing the most fundamental question in the ACC Value Challenge: “Working together, how do we improve the value of legal services?”  

The key event was a half-day workshop at the client’s office with seven active participants:  the client’s General Counsel and three of his key staff, and three leaders of the Squire Sanders client team that serves them, Dave Grauer, Keith Shumate and Heather Stutz.  (The program was designed for six people to maximize interaction.  But this client felt it was important to add a seventh active participant, and so that is what we did.)  In addition, three other lawyers sat in to observe the discussion.

To start the day, we offered a brief overview of the eight key issues described in our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.  Then we began a structured brainstorming process to efficiently identify action items:  How could LPM principles quickly be applied to strengthen this particular relationship?  

The brainstorming produced a list of 19 action items.  The biggest category involved improved communication, including scheduling a “lessons learned” review session for one current matter, scheduling regular meetings for both the Squire Sanders team and for the in-house department, and scheduling a monthly call in which Squire Sanders briefed the client on legal trends in their industry, including ideas for enhancing revenue.

Other communication action items involved technology.  Some were very simple uses of existing systems, including setting up a new folder on the client’s network to simplify internal access to key documents.

A few involved new software solutions.  Squire Sanders has developed a custom-designed extranet database called MyMatter which provides easy access to such documents as case plans, court pleadings, witness lists, expert information, deposition summaries, engagement letters, budgets, invoices, and more. As a result of the workshop discussion, Squire Sanders has now begun implementing MyMatter for this in-house department, to provide them with immediate access to key documents in a single location.

Five of the 19 action items involved alternative fee arrangements (AFAs).  Both Squire Sanders and this client were interested in exploring non-hourly AFAs, and the brainstorming process identified several specific steps toward this goal, including making a list of new work where AFAs made sense to both sides.

Does that sound like marketing?  It should.  The client/firm collaboration workshop is designed to strengthen relationships and increase value.  Which is a pretty good definition of marketing.

During the workshop, specific individuals volunteered to be responsible for each of the 19 items.  Then, for the next 30 days, LegalBizDev principal Mike Egnatchik followed up with participants to provide advice on implementation, along with gentle reminders to assure that the action items were actually performed.  Oh, wait. In this case Mike actually followed up for 45 days instead of the 30 we had planned.  The original followup period started around Thanksgiving and the client wanted more time, so that is what we gave them.  

Mike is uniquely qualified to facilitate collaborative discussions like this because he has worked on both sides of the table: first as a practicing lawyer at Shearman & Sterling, and later as an Associate General Counsel at Xerox, where he was trained in problem-solving techniques and earned a Lean Six Sigma yellow belt.

After the followup was complete, we held a review telecon with the GC and the head of the Squire Sanders team.  Interestingly, the GC chose to attend that meeting in person at Squire Sanders’ office.  He was there to follow up on a variety of joint actions, including several that had grown out of the workshop.

Of course, clients and their law firms have always collaborated.  But this new workshop applies proprietary techniques to increase client satisfaction and collaboration efficiency and to take the relationship to a new level.  It helps law firms integrate services with their clients’ operations, and to deliver greater value to them.  Which is increasingly important in the new normal.  As Legal Onramp founder Paul Lippe noted in The Future of Legal Services (p. 30):

The practice of law has shifted from an individual effort to one emphasizing teamwork and collaboration…  When firms had a monopoly on expertise, delivery of service was a one-way street.  But now most work involves collaboration and coordination between firms and clients.

Were there any problems?  In my opinion, there was one big one:  The participants simply could not find enough time to reap all the benefits of LPM.  That challenge began the day the client agreed to the program and continued to the day it ended.  It took several months to find a date when these extremely busy lawyers could all meet in the same room for the workshop, and in the followup period deadlines sometimes had to be adjusted due to other more pressing matters.   

I was reminded of a series of posts that ran in the Association of Corporate Counsel blog about 18 months ago to “follow the promise and pitfalls of forming a new value-based client-firm relationship.”  In Part 16 of the series  Ken Grady, GC at Wolverine World Wide described the benefits of a program with Seyfarth, but then said:  

What did we not do well?  It took too long...  General counsel of small legal departments often… get pulled in a lot of directions with little real control over their schedule.

The fact that lawyers are busy is not exactly headline news.  But one of the strengths of the client/firm collaboration workshop is the fact that it recognizes this reality, and is designed to work around it.

Squire Sanders has already signed up to repeat this program with another client, and they are talking about adding more.




February 15, 2012

Legal project management in the real world: The case of Williams Mullen (Part 2 of 2)

Last week, we talked about how legal project management (LPM) has helped Williams Mullen litigators find new work, and perform it more efficiently. 

On the transactional side of the house, M&A Lawyer Steve Burke has also seen LPM marketing benefits, especially in relation to alternative fee arrangements (AFAs). 

Burke participated in Williams Mullen’s second just-in-time workshop in March 2011.  When I interviewed him eight months later, he mentioned that a client had recently called him with a question about possibly using an AFA.  “I was able to answer the question in 15 minutes,” Burke said.  “Before our LPM training, that would have taken me much longer.”

This is not to say that the workshop introduced Burke to LPM for the first time.  One of the reasons he had been selected to participate in the class was that he had a reputation as a highly organized proponent of careful matter management.  But before taking the class, Burke said, he always started project management later in the deal. Our just-in-time program enabled him to see that the sooner you start, the better off you are. Talking to the client more at the beginning and thinking clearly at the start about scope, fees, and expectations, and how things will play out, makes an enormous difference in the way a matter is handled instead of “hitting the ball back and forth like a tennis match.”

These skills are especially useful for fixed fee matters.  Does that mean that fixed fees are a way to higher profits?  Some legal experts certainly think so.  We wish they were right, but think that in today’s highly competitive legal marketplace at most firms a “win some, lose some” portfolio approach is more realistic.

As one AmLaw senior partner put it in the LegalBizDev Survey of Alternative Fees:

Some fixed fee matters will be profitable, some will be loss leaders.  In general for similar repetitive engagements, you win some and you lose some, in that sometimes the law firm covers its costs and gets a margin, and sometimes it does not.  To make this work as a business proposition, ultimately the law firm needs to have the profitable cases offset the losses and provide a margin.

That’s why some AFA leaders prefer to bid on portfolios of cases rather than single matters.  Writing in ACC’s blog, Nicole Nehema Auerbach of Valorem put it this way:

Pricing a portfolio of matters…is easier for us and better for the client because it allows us to spread the risk inherent with one case across more. This allows us to provide a lower overall fee since the risk of an outlier, a deviation from the norm, is diminished. It also allows us to customize the bonus on either a case-by-case basis or some achievement for the portfolio overall. For example, our bonus can be tied to the overall savings in litigation spend, or simply the amount of savings we achieved across the portfolio in connection with settlement or judgment payouts.

Or, as Williams Mullen’s Burke summed it up: “When you commit to billing on a fixed fee basis, you need to take the bad with the good and with a smile on your face.”

When I asked Camden Webb to predict the future, he said that the greatest challenge will be figuring out how closely they can they adhere to the eight issues in my LPM book when they are deep in the throes of a particular case. “It is a lot easier to define the initial scope than it is to stick to it. The discipline of project management is difficult, especially dealing with issues like, ‘Yes, I do have to track my time, and yes, I do need to know how much has been spent at key milestones.’”

According to litigator Billy Mauck of Williams Mullen, “We are starting to get better at project management, but we need to keep improving.”

Transactional attorney Allison Domson spoke for the entire profession when she said, “Legal project management is a new mentality.  It needs to be accepted, but it is going to take time.”



February 08, 2012

Legal project management in the real world: The case of Williams Mullen (Part 1 of 2)

These days, many firms are experimenting with legal project management (LPM) to deliver greater value to their clients, protect profits, and reduce risk.  Some are having more success than others. 

The good news is that if you do it right, legal project management produces measurable benefits and develops its own momentum.  The bad news is that change takes time, especially the kind of fundamental change that LPM ultimately involves. But the slow pace of the entire profession leads to more good news.  Last week, an LPM client we worked with over two years ago, who would prefer to remain nameless, emailed me about some recent success they’ve had and noted that: “If you move like a turtle but you're racing a bunch of snails, it all works out in the end.”

How do you do it right?  In the 26 years that we have been developing and delivering training programs for a variety of professions, we’ve found that the most important factors in success are selecting the right people and designing a program that measures progress toward their individual goals. 

When we begin working with a new LPM client, we often recommend starting just-in-time training with a small group of influential partners.  The ideal group will vary from firm to firm.  They could be people who are responsible for new alternative fee arrangements.  They could be relationship partners who are worried about protecting business with key clients who are seeking greater efficiency on hourly arrangements.  They could be practice group leaders who are designing new checklists, templates and processes to improve their competitive position.  But in every case, the best lawyers to start with will be those who are open-minded about change, in a position to benefit when it works, and influential enough to quickly spread the word of their success.

“Doing it right” also means focusing on changing behavior to produce tangible results.  Last year, the Association of Corporate Counsel and the ABA conducted a meeting “at which leaders of corporate and law firm litigation departments rolled up their sleeves and tackled the complex issues surrounding present day concepts of value in litigation.”  In a May 2011 ACC Docket article summarizing that event, Susan Hackett and her co-authors emphasized that progress will not be based on improved understanding or increased knowledge.  Instead, “The challenge is change/behavior management.”  It’s not a question of knowing what to do; it’s a question of helping lawyers to do it. 

Williams Mullen, a 300-lawyer firm in North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington DC, provides a great case study of how this approach works.  We started working with them in October 2010, when we held a kickoff meeting for a just-in-time training workshop with three of their top litigators, and three of their top transactional lawyers.  In the workshop, each lawyer identified an LPM action item that could benefit their practice, and then LegalBizDev principal Mike Egnatchik followed up with them for 30 days to maximize results.

Williams Mullen was so pleased with the results that they decided to schedule another session “right away,” but it took some time to find a date that worked well for another six lawyers.  That second group achieved even more last March.  Then Williams Mullen got enthusiastic about rolling out a larger program.

Given law firm dynamics, programs like this inevitably take time to roll out.  At Williams Mullen, a few key partners kept pushing forward, led by John Paris, chair of the firm’s Innovation Committee.  On several occasions when committees met, next steps were debated, and dates slipped, John apologized to me for the delays.  My answer was always the same: “We should be thrilled with this rate of progress.  You should see how long other firms are taking.”

Next week, LegalBizDev principals Steve Barrett and Tom Kane will be offering our half-day “Introduction to Legal Project Management” workshop to about 25 lawyers in Williams Mullen’s Richmond, Virginia office.

When we began working on next week’s workshop, I had a rare opportunity to go back and interview people who had participated in our just-in-time training eight to twelve months before.  (We always try to collect followup information, but to be honest it’s difficult to get feedback once a program ends and busy lawyers are “on to the next thing.”)

Litigator Camden Webb stressed the marketing benefits of LPM.  “The environment is tough out there,” Webb said, “and it’s a lot harder to get cases than it used to be.  But the one thing that clients perk up about is when we describe a managed fee approach: ‘We’re going to predict what it will cost you before we start, and then keep you informed as things develop.’”

In litigation, LPM often requires a phased approach. “I can tell you what it will cost to respond to the specific complaint, and then we can scope out the rest…We can see what the next 30 days will look like and then go from there.”

Webb then cited several confidential examples of work Williams Mullen has gotten as a result of their emphasis on increased planning before cases begin, and aggressive management once they are underway.

He has also been developing standard tools and forms to “Take high-minded lawyer work and make it much more efficient.”  For example, research guides for particular types of cases can serve as training tools for associates and refreshers for partners. 

When we present our LPM workshop at Williams Mullen next week, the handouts will include a five-page sample from Webb’s toolkit (Checklist for Analyzing an Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Claim under N.C. Gen. Stat § 75-1.1, et seq).  The handouts will also include sample case plans that were developed from a checklist of questions to ask clients at the beginning of a case in order to define the scope and objectives and help determine what the most efficient team should look like.

Webb and his partners are creating a triage process for litigation.  Templates, standard operating procedures, and forms are helping to make routine, repeatable work more efficient, and free up time to work on novel high-end cases. 

A similar approach is being used by transactional attorneys at Williams Mullen, as we will describe next week in Part 2.

February 01, 2012

Tip of the month: Work with others

Business development can take a very long time, so it helps to work with other people who provide support through the losses, and help you celebrate the wins.  Whether you create an informal group with your colleagues, set up a monthly meeting with your marketing staff, or hire an external coach, working with others provides social support, increases accountability, and leads to steady progress. 

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