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4 posts from July 2012

July 25, 2012

Sustaining progress in legal project management: The case of Gray Plant Mooty (Part 2 of 2)

This post was written by Jim Hassett and Jonathan Groner.

In Part 1 of this post, we discussed how Gray Plant Mooty has trained 18 of its attorneys and senior staff in legal project management (LPM) and followed it up with an LPM Sustainability Initiative to embed the concepts of project management deeply into the firm’s culture.

Of the practice groups that have made the most progress, the labor and employment group is near the top of the chart.  In all honesty, this has been surprising to firm insiders, including Judy Langevin the senior partner who has led the labor and employment effort. 

When Steve Barrett interviewed Judy before the first workshop, she discussed her skepticism about the program and about LPM.  Due to a last minute work conflict, she was forced to drop out of the first program the day before the video workshop.  (As noted in Part 1, Judy’s place was taken by Finance Director Shelbie O’Brien, which turned out to enable some serendipitous success in improving how Aderant was used to plan and track budgets.) 

But Judy signed up for the second workshop, and ended up becoming one of LPM’s strongest supporters.  Her action items involved developing documents based on project management principles that can be used in their daily client work.  Specifically, she created templates to streamline wage and hour compliance audits.  She developed a prototype statement of work, a work breakdown structure and sample budgets for use in planning, staffing and pricing the audits.  This ultimately led to a document that outlines the procedures for conducting an audit of an employer’s classification of employees and compliance with federal wage-hour laws. It lists the types of information that the lawyers normally collect from the client and the factors affecting the fees to be charged.

After our just-in-time program was complete, Judy and her partners continued to create other templates, including one for estimating the costs of a litigation matter from the initial response to a lawsuit through the end of trial, with provisions for high and low estimates depending on the nature of the litigation, and several independent contractor audits and I-9 compliance audits (both ready to use) and labor, social media, and internship audits (all nearly complete and ready to use within the next few weeks).

As a result of this experience, Judy came to believe that the process of LPM is not some deep dark secret to be mastered by a select few, but rather a systematic and disciplined application of best practices from law firm and business management.

“What LPM is really all about is to have the right people doing the right work at the right time, to increase client value,” said Langevin.  “It includes clear communication with clients about what makes up the tasks that a lawyer does.  This became an excellent vehicle to get us to talk with our clients about our work, which is something we should be doing anyway. It’s a great way to tell clients, ‘Here’s what we can predict and control in your matters, and here’s what it will cost.’”

Langevin is now an active participant in the firm’s monthly LPM Sustainability Initiative meetings.  In addition, she has asked each of the 12 members of her practice group to come to this month’s retreat with at least one concrete idea on how to use legal project management in their practice.

“We are introducing these concepts into the fabric of what we do,” Langevin said.  “Perhaps this is somewhat slower than what some aficionados would prefer, but we want all the attorneys to feel good about it. If we try to shove it down people’s throats, it’s not going to work.” 

She does not tell other attorneys at the firm: “Go find a project, then manage it.” Rather, she asks them, “What do you do on a regular basis that can help you be more efficient for a client?” This way, she says, project management “sounds less like a buzzword, and more a matter of simply doing a better job of what we’re already doing.”

None of the activities are rocket science.  The hardest part of LPM is getting lawyers started.

Langevin has changed from a skeptic to a believer, and says that as a result of this experience: “Legal project management has fundamentally changed the way I practice law.”

 

July 18, 2012

The real cause of Dewey’s downfall: Optimism

Dewey-LeBoeuf-logo-large11I’ve been reading a lot lately about why Dewey LeBoeuf went out of business, how quickly they went from over $900 million in revenue to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing on May 28.

The most detailed account I’ve seen is the cover story in the current issue of the American Lawyer. Based on interviews with nearly three dozen former partners and staff, and detailed reviews of documents ranging from audited financial reports to the firm’s bond offering circular, they concluded that “Dewey’s death was the product of years of bad decisions, and of greed on the part of senior partners” (p. 49). 

The implication for lawyers at other large firms is “Don’t worry.”  It was just a few bad eggs.  This couldn’t happen to you.

I disagree.  This can and will happen to other large firms.

I have no reason to doubt the facts quoted in the American Lawyer, but I interpret them more simply.  Dewey failed because its leaders were too optimistic.  Their business decisions would not have led to bankruptcy a decade ago.  Bad decisions simply did not lead $900 million dollar firms to fail at a time when larger economic forces were pushing all large law firms up.

Ten years ago, there was a lot of room for error.  Now there isn’t. 

As Warren Buffet famously put it, “It's only when the tide goes out that you learn who's been swimming naked.”

Like Howrey, Thelen and Heller Ehrman before them, Dewey failed to adapt to a changing legal marketplace.  The specific causes were different for each of these large law firm failures, but the underlying reason was the same:  leaders were optimistic that the kinds of strategies that had worked in the past would continue to work in the future. 

When I went to my first legal conference seven years ago, I was stunned at the state of the legal profession.  In the 20 years before that, when my company developed training programs for Fortune 1000 companies, we had seen one industry after another squeezed and transformed by technology and competition.  In 2005, when I started this blog, it seemed that the forces of global change had hardly been felt at law firms.

In 2007, I wrote a post arguing that lawyers had become complacent because they were seduced by their own success.  As Bill Gates put it: "Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose."

You might think that the economic events of the last few years would have convinced most lawyers of the need to change.  Change has indeed begun, but I continue to be amazed by how slow it is.

If optimism was the cause of Dewey’s downfall, many lawyers would like to believe pessimism is the cure.  Lawyers are good at pessimism, and some are hoarding their clients and their revenue as a result.

But no one can succeed in business without optimism.  The cure is not pessimism, but a different type of optimism, adapted to the new normal.  Large corporations will always need lawyers to protect their interests.  But now many long term clients are looking for a different approach, in which firms provide more value.

As Indiana Law School Professor Bill Henderson put it in his thoughtful analysis of the Dewey bankruptcy:

To hold onto market share over the long term, Big Law is going to have to reallocate some of its profits and massive brain power toward the development of… products and services that focus on some combination of better, faster, cheaper, or more predictable.

In this new race, there will be winners and losers.  If you’d like to lose, refuse to spend time or money on changing lawyers’ behavior to meet client needs.  Better yet, form a committee to study how to change, and wait for them to agree on a final report.

But if you plan to win, you’re going to need to act fast, to take risks, to embrace innovation, and most of all to figure out how to meet client needs.  The clock is ticking.

Part 2 of our series on Gray Plant Mooty’s approach to legal project management will appear next week on Wednesday, July 25.

July 11, 2012

Sustaining progress in legal project management: The case of Gray Plant Mooty (Part 1 of 2)

This post was written by Jim Hassett and Jonathan Groner.

One of the major challenges for any law firm that has mastered the basics of legal project management (LPM) is to keep the momentum going.  Attorneys can be trained, CLE credits can be granted, online certificates can be awarded, books and articles can be scrutinized, meetings can be held, and assignments can be made.   But what happens when the phone starts ringing and lawyers return to the fray?  How can a firm assure that the lessons learned are put into practice?

 No firm has found the ultimate answer, but Gray Plant Mooty, a Minneapolis-based firm with over 150 lawyers, has made substantial progress on this over the past year. 

It all started when Mark Williamson, the co-chair of the M&A practice and a member of the firm’s board of directors, attended a two-day Legal Service Management Workshop put on by the Association of Corporate Counsel.  Mark walked out of that session convinced that Gray Plant Mooty and its clients could substantially benefit from LPM, and began to plan how.

Last September, they began with a pilot test of our just-in-time training workshop.  Six participants, including Mark, applied our proprietary process to identify action items.  LegalBizDev principal Steve Barrett then followed up with each of the six for thirty days to assure success.

Mark’s action items revolved around creating action plans for a regulatory filing he was working on at that time, including a master schedule, task assignments, and budgets.  Among other things, he used simple tools already available in Outlook to share calendars, schedule meetings, set reminders and more. 

The results convinced Mark and key partners that both clients and the firm could benefit if he expanded the approach to a variety of types of deals.  Since then, M&A has become one of the most active practice groups in applying LPM in the firm.  In the eight months since the initial program was completed, he has been developing and refining systematic processes to improve initial fee estimates and cost structures by breaking down complex matters into smaller tasks, planning and tracking the time spent on each task, and communicating better internally.  They have become particularly interested in using task codes to budget, plan, track and manage the work, and are increasingly using this new knowledge to offer clients innovative fee structures as alternatives to traditional hourly billing.  “It’s being talked about more and more,” Williamson said. “We are increasingly using these techniques on deals, and even lawyers who were skeptical initially are starting to use them.”

 According to the firm’s executive director, Karen Reynolds, one of the reasons the first pilot test was so successful was that finance director Shelbie O’Brien was one of the six participants in the initial training.  Like many great ideas, this happened by accident.  The day before the first video workshop, one of the six lawyers who was scheduled to participate dropped out due to a last minute demand on her time, and Shelbie took her place.  Shelbie decided to focus on improving the use of the tools and reports already available in the firm’s financial software (Aderant) to help lawyers plan and manage budgets.

“Having Shelbie as part of the project management team means that she is actively involved on a daily basis in supporting the initiatives that developed as a result of the training,” said Reynolds.  “To cite just one example, Shelbie and her finance staff are now working in a partnership with two attorneys in our Business Advisory Group and our IT staff to develop templates to gather information for alternative fee arrangements (AFAs) and make it quicker and easier to create engagement letters for a variety of AFAs.”

Based on the success of the first just-in-time training workshop, the firm began a second program with six more lawyers in February (again with Steve Barrett), and then a third with six more in May (with Tom Kane).

The expansion of the program highlighted the need to plan an LPM Sustainability Initiative to produce follow-up plans targeted to each of the firm’s practice areas, to ensure the specific, actionable, and efficient use of attorney time, to bring about the continued sharing of best practices among attorneys, and to provide accountability to keep the LPM momentum moving.  “We didn’t want legal project management to be something that we trained, and then put on the shelf,” Reynolds explained.  “We wanted a way to continue the momentum, to drive this into firm culture without having to pay consultants on a continuing basis.”

When the first just-in-time program was finished, Reynolds and Williamson began by holding monthly meetings in which the six participants talked about how to “spread our knowledge base.”  When they added six more from the second workshop group, the meetings became harder to schedule and to run.  Jim Hassett and Karen then brainstormed alternatives and decided to break the large group down into several smaller monthly meetings of just two or three key people who shared common interests and goals. 

Reynolds now meets once a month with each small group to talk about their projects, discuss the outcomes of their LPM work, and review the resources that they need. The core members of each group bring selected other attorneys, including associates, into the project management work, in order to spread the knowledge base. Reynolds “connects the dots” between the groups, and avoids overburdening the attorneys with long discussions that don’t relate to their practice areas.  She also plans to hold occasional meetings of all LPM participants so that everyone can be informed in a broad sense about what’s going on.

Gradually, LPM is being woven into the fabric of the way that the firm serves its clients.  When LegalBizDev trained the second and third groups, we were excited to note that each group seemed more motivated than the one before, and that the action items they identified were increasingly sophisticated.  Very simply, best practices are spreading, because Gray Plant Mooty lawyers and their clients are rapidly seeing the benefits.

 

July 04, 2012

Business development tip of the month: Don’t stop

When lawyers first make a serious commitment to business development, many get discouraged if they don’t see results right away.  But it takes time to build relationships and new business.  According to Jeffrey Gitomer’s Sales Bible (p. 197):  “Most sales are made after the seventh no…It takes five to ten exposures  (follow ups) to a prospect to make the first sale…[so] you’d better have what it takes to persevere through the follow-up process and not quit.”

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.