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October 17, 2012

Maximizing legal project management results: The case of Bilzin Sumberg (Part 2 of 3)

Litigation partner Scott Wagner was one of the first lawyers to volunteer for LPM coaching with LegalBizDev’s Steve Barrett after the retreat presentation described in Part 1 of this series.

Although Wagner usually represents defendants in antitrust cases and other types of complex litigation, he is now spending a good deal of his time representing plaintiffs in a huge civil antitrust case pending in the Northern District of California.

Wagner’s clients are distributors and purchasers of products containing LCD screens.  The background is that manufacturers of LCD screens were criminally charged with price-fixing and some were ultimately convicted.  In cases like these, purchasers and others who suffered financial injury from the price-fixing conspiracy often sue the alleged conspirators for damages.

“When I signed up for the LPM coaching, I wanted to think about what I could do to get better in budgeting time and money for each case,” Wagner said. “To some extent, this sounds like simple math, but figuring out the whole universe of tasks isn’t easy.”

One good example was accounting for the time that he and his team spent in daily monitoring of the criminal antitrust trial.  “This is time that we had to budget, but it is also time that we wouldn’t normally think about,” Wagner said. “What Steve helped me to do was to think through, in advance, all the phases of a case, all the possible twists and turns and the directions it can take.”

The result, Wagner said, was that he became much better at “giving the internal team and clients a more realistic estimate of what a case will cost.” He is now able to estimate how much time – and money – a case will require, under various assumptions.

In addition, he said, the legal project management process can help plan the staffing of a case. “Perhaps instead of two associates assigned, you may find that you need just one, or maybe three or four.”

Wagner’s coaching included three months of weekly calls with Barrett, with unlimited support available between calls.  Like many others at Bilzin Sumberg, Wagner found that his other commitments required him to miss some weeks here and there, so his weekly calls were extended over more than three months. Assignments were taken from the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide and were specifically tailored to the facts and the needs of the LCD case that Wagner was pursuing.

“The biggest take-away,” Wagner said, “is that budgeting is possible. The conventional wisdom is that it is not possible in litigation. But actually, you can come up with a budget that is useful to your client and can lay out all the contingencies to know what the litigation will likely cost.”

For Alan D. Axelrod, chair of the firm’s Corporate & Securities Group, LPM training is all about looking at the law firm as a business, which is the way its clients see themselves. “I think that in the 80s and 90s people didn’t look at law firms as businesses – but everyone got a rude awakening in the last few years.”

“From a project management viewpoint, you must develop skills to make sure that work is not duplicated. You always needed to get the deal done as quickly and effectively as possible. But now you also have to think about getting the deal done efficiently,” Alan said. “There is often a balancing required between the goal of completing it as soon as possible and still being as efficient as possible.”

More and more clients are requesting caps, estimates, and similar fee arrangements for M&A and other transactional work, Alan said.  “One client whom I had worked with many years ago is now back growing its business.  We just did an M&A deal for them, where we carved out the due diligence aspect on an hourly basis, and came up with a flat number for all the rest of it, in the form of a cap. If it comes in lower, we told them, ‘we’ll bill you for whatever it is.’”

Another transaction he’s been working on with Steve was just cleared by the SEC and it will come in within budget.  “In this one, we were aggressive in terms of the fixed fee number that we bid.”   Although Bilzin already had committed to the price before the coaching started, the coaching was still useful and “it was very important to develop the template to help monitor the actual versus projected cost.”

 “The program with Steve was helpful, and as we get more and more experienced with LPM, it will become even more helpful,” Alan said.

“The bottom line is the legal business has become so much more competitive – clients are looking for value and recognizing that the required work  needs to be correlated with cost. If you don’t move with the times, you’ll be in trouble. LPM is one of the key tools for keeping up.”

This series was written by Jim Hassett and Jonathan Groner.

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