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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.


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Having a litigation plan for each significant litigation matter is of critical importance. With that said, however, I was amazed when a major insurance carrier selected me and the law firm I was with to take over the handling of some significant litigation matters with the attorney heading the transition team for the company telling me that he was shocked to find that ,almost without exception, no litigation plans had be crafted by the handling attorneys. The number of files involved was in the hundreds !

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