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October 16, 2013

What lawyers can delegate in project management, and what they cannot (Part 2 of 2)

Many firms seem to believe that the first and most important step in LPM is to invest in technology and infrastructure. At the P3 conference, a great deal of energy went into comparing the features of the leading LPM software programs on the market. But several speakers who had installed software reported that most lawyers failed to use it.

One firm in our research that invested substantially in technology put it this way:

I think we have significant additional work to be done in budgeting, in really monitoring the budgets. We’ve built systems. We’ve got resources available to let us know where things are. Say we’ve got a piece of litigation with a $4.9 million fee cap. I can look at that and say that we’re a million dollars into it and I’m not going to lose sleep over it tonight. But what I don’t always have is a broader sense of where we are. Did we really budget this out? Are we tracking it to that budget? Where are we today versus where we thought we were going to be? As a result we discover surprises too late. We may miss an early opportunity to have an important discussion with the client about the scope of work and why we are off budget, and to reexamine whether we are staffing this in the right way or doing work inefficiently.

According to a research participant from another firm:

We spent an incredible amount of time and resources coming up with a very sophisticated reporting system that would allow people, with a couple of clicks through our intranet, to go into any particular matter that had a budget, and see down to the timekeeper and task level, exactly how they were doing. Nobody uses them, as far as we can tell. Literally nobody. All they care about is the high level. Lawyers want an email once a week saying, Where am I with my budget? They don’t care about the more detailed information.

This is not to say that budgeting and management software has no place in LPM over the long term. No one can manage to a budget unless they know what their team has spent so far, and some research participants have reported being extremely pleased with the technology they’ve installed.

The issue is exactly when to invest in new software. We think the answer is only AFTER key lawyers have seen the benefits of LPM for themselves, made a commitment to manage differently, made some decisions about exactly what they personally will manage and what will  be delegated, and determined how many of these tasks can be accomplished with the software they already own, including accounting programs and Outlook. 

Once commitments have been made, staff members can be enormously helpful in performing tasks that lawyers do not want to do for themselves. The Chairman of one AmLaw 100 firm in our study that is just starting down this path noted:

We’re going to start hiring different people to manage the non-legal aspects of the practice, not the relationships. Lawyers are notoriously bad managers. You could be a fabulous trial lawyer, but you might not be able to get your hours in on time, or bill on time. You might not be able to collect on the bill. You’re always in an awkward situation if there’s an account receivable outstanding. With all these different components, it’s better to look to a project manager on accounts receivable, on AFAs, on collections, rather than the lawyer.

The managing partner of another AmLaw 100 firm started that kind of hiring years ago, and has been extremely pleased with the results:

What’s had the greatest effect is our business managers. They can impartially sit down and analyze profitability. They build up a database of what it costs us to do things, and they’re just invaluable. The business managers are able to focus on it, and their minds work differently, and I think we’ve been very effective at actually developing a tool to help people price things. It’s a pretty basic tool. But then lawyers say: “Wow, was that sophisticated, this is really helpful.” So what’s had the greatest effect for us is the non-lawyers who really are focusing on the business side of the equation and what it costs to do things; pushing back, and helping people have a little bit of backbone. They can now show them a model and say, “No, that’s too low, you’re going to lose your shirt.”

A senior litigator from another firm that participated in our research said:

We now have a pricing director, and he and I really split the work. He’s incredibly effective with my partners, and incredibly good. It’s an interesting job that he has, that we both have, of trying to facilitate partners’ entrepreneurial instincts and helping them to get business, and guiding them in the transition into this new world of pricing. But we’re also the police for bad deals.

Summing it all up, the good news, from both our research and the P3 conference speakers, is that there are many different approaches that have worked at different firms to improve legal cost-effectiveness and efficiency. The bad news is that some take much more time and money than others, and there is considerable controversy as to which is which.

We believe that as the legal marketplace continues to evolve, both staff and technology have extremely important roles to play, especially in the area of budget and schedule planning at large firms. But success must start with lawyers buying in to the process, and overseeing the central issues of client and team management.

Many of the grizzled veterans who spoke at the P3 conference agreed with the position we’ve been arguing for years: conversion to LPM must begin the hard way, one influential lawyer at a time.  The first step in any realistic long-term LPM plan must be creating a core group of partner champions who will guide the approach so that it meets the true needs of each practice group and firm.

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