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October 10, 2012

Maximizing legal project management results: The case of Bilzin Sumberg (Part 1 of 3)

 “Legal project management demands a new way of thinking about providing legal services,” according to Al Dotson, a member of the Executive Committee at Bilzin Sumberg and the practice group leader of its Government Relations and Land Development Practice Group.

Before I started on our firm’s LPM initiative, I approached new client engagements with a simple thought: ‘You, the client, have engaged me. My hourly rate is X,’ and that was the end of the discussion.  Now, I approach new engagements more in terms of developing a mutual understanding with the client about the services we will provide, the time it will take, the team required, the budget, and the relevant reporting milestones.

Al explained these ideas when I conducted a panel discussion with him, Jon Chassen and Mitch Widom at Bilzin’s annual partner retreat last March.  All three partners had just finished a pilot test of LPM coaching with LegalBizDev’s Steve Barrett.  For about three months, each lawyer had selected real world matters to analyze and identified the key issues from our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide that were most critical in each situation.  Then they reviewed the best practices described in the book, and discussed exactly how to apply them to increase client value and protect profitability.

At the retreat, all three reported benefits, but Al’s remarks got the most attention because his LPM activities had already led to new business in just a few short months.  Dotson represents real estate developers and contractors in highly complex matters that involve a series of government regulatory agency approvals, and his developer clients loved the approach because they use project management to run their own businesses.   One of them was so impressed by the legal project plan Al had produced that he asked Bilzin to take on a significant amount of new work.

I give a lot of LPM speeches at retreats, and I must say that whenever it is possible to conduct a panel like this after my speech, it always gets a better reaction.  After all, who would be more credible: an outside consultant, or a respected colleague they’ve worked with for decades?

The reason Dotson first volunteered for the program was that

I was looking for better ways to organize my work, and to respond to clients’ and prospective clients’ desires for budgets.  Clients are looking for a way in which I can describe the work in advance, both in terms of what the cost of the whole engagement will be, and in terms of manageable segments of work.

Dotson described the LPM coaching he received as “spot-on” in that it helped him organize his complex matters in terms of their component parts, and to plan better for possible contingencies that may occur.  “This coaching was far from a theoretical exercise,” he said. “This was a discussion of specific matters that were before me, and how to approach them.”

In weekly telephone sessions of about 30 minutes each, Barrett walked Dotson through key problems and issues that he was encountering in his practice, and how best practices from other firms might apply.  Dotson then followed up by completing written assignments based on LegalBizDev’s materials and the existing project management literature.

As Dotson summed it up: “This coaching has been very beneficial to me in client management and in client development.  I believe that it applies to all areas of law.”

Bilzin Sumberg is a Florida-based firm with about 100 lawyers, with, according to its web page, “a local footprint, a national presence and a global perspective.”  As a result of the discussion at the retreat, a number of other partners became interested in discussing how LPM could help them.  

All 51 partners were offered the option to complete the same three-month coaching program that Al, Jon, and Mitch had received.  Eight people signed up right after the retreat.  Based on their results, another 14 signed up a few months later, for a total of 25 partners in the program so far. This represents almost half of the firm’s partners.

We have coached lawyers from many firms on LPM using a variety of approaches and we believe Bilzin has made more LPM progress, more quickly, than any other law firm.  The reason is that they had the highest percentage of partners who made a commitment to our intensive three month coaching program.  (We work with one AmLaw 100 firm that has put more total lawyers through this program, but because they are so much larger, their percentage is lower.)

Many firms have offered one-time training classes to a large number of lawyers, and a few have spent years in intensive re-engineering of business processes.  But as far as we have been able to determine, no other firm on the planet has gotten such a large percentage of the partnership actively involved so quickly in making immediate changes that benefit their clients and their business. 

If you believe everything you read on the web, you might think that some law firms have completely mastered LPM.  Those of us who work in the trenches have a more realistic view.  If I had to rate the legal profession’s overall LPM progress on a scale of 1 to 10 over the last few years, I’d give it only a 2 or a 3.  Some individual lawyers and practice groups deserve a much higher rating, but when it comes to entire law firms there is a huge gap between perception and reality.  Perhaps marketing departments have done too good a job of publicizing the successes of lawyers who are using LPM, while overlooking those in the same firm who are disinterested or actively opposed to it. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a recent LPM survey from ALM Legal Intelligence which reported a slow pace of LPM progress.  This finding was not a surprise to anyone who has ever worked at a law firm.  Insiders know how independent lawyers can be, and how hard it is to get everyone moving in the same direction.  When Patrick McKenna and Gerry Riskin wrote one of the most influential books about managing law firms, there is a reason the book was titled Herding Cats.  

The intensive LPM coaching approach works because each lawyer focuses on immediate ways to directly benefit their individual practice.  And when it works, they tell their colleagues.

Next week, we will discuss some of the changes that have occurred in other practice groups after Bilzin’s retreat.

This series was written by Jim Hassett and Jonathan Groner.

[1] http://www.patrickmckenna.com/PatrickJMcKennaBrainmatterCreationsHeardingCats40029.aspx


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