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December 18, 2013

How to sustain LPM progress: The case of Bilzin Sumberg (Part 2 of 2)

A key step in Bilzin’s LPM progress was the purchase of Thompson Reuters’ ENGAGE software to improve both initial budgeting and tracking spending. In our opinion, most of the firms who install ENGAGE or one of its competitors buy the software too soon, at a time when management recognizes the need for LPM but rank and file lawyers do not   Bilzin is one of the very few firms that bought LPM software at the right time:  after their lawyers asked for it.  The initial impetus came not from visionaries on the executive committee, but rather from a broad range of partners who had begun tracking budgets carefully, and who wanted better tools.    

ENGAGE has built-in a set of templates which break complex legal matters down into a series of smaller steps to improve planning and tracking.  Marlon Thompson, a financial analyst and member of the LPM committee, has been assigned the task of talking to every lawyer who went through the LegalBizDev coaching process to ask each of them about the templates they are already using in their day-to-day work.  He then adapts the ENGAGE templates to match the lawyers’ experience and needs.

Executive director Michelle Weber summed up the advantage of this approach:  “By the time lawyers are on ENGAGE what they’re looking at is familiar and something they liked.  This builds on one of the parts of the LegalBizDev program that I appreciated the most:  lawyers don’t have to change their world. They just have to change what they do a little bit.”

Thompson described his responsibility as support – to “help the attorneys create and adhere to their project plan, and to convert it into dollars and cents.  It’s one thing for us to say we have a budget and a plan, and it’s another thing when clients want to hold us to that.  The software tools that we have can help us do exactly that, and to minimize the costs to the client and the firm.”

Thompson said that he is the key point person for the firm in terms of training attorneys to use ENGAGE and that the firm is now going through a beta testing process.  “There is so much more to be done,” he said. “One of the key aspects is the use of phase and task codes.  This enables us to analyze our work down to the smallest possible unit. It is impossible to budget without them.”

Thompson said the firm started with the American Bar Association’s phase and task codes but added carefully tailored task codes for the firm’s practice groups, codes that are unique to the firm yet fit within the ENGAGE software.  “I am now beginning the training of the testing team of attorneys – at least one from each practice group – to develop the task codes and apply them to their work,” Thompson said.

Paul Vandermeer is also an active member of the LPM committee, and reported:  “As soon as the committee got started, I developed a document for each practice group to keep track of their use of LPM. We are now working with the groups to keep it up to date.”

KM is a very important part of that process.  “For example, the land use group has certain documents that they want created – including some saved searches that they use all the time,” Vandermeer recalled. “So I made sure to save these key searches on the intranet of our document management software.”

“Even in the library, we receive daily reports of Lexis and Westlaw usage by attorney, and we can help each attorney reduce his or her costs to the firm if he or she is not searching as efficiently as possible,” Vandermeer said. “These days, one needs to search for as much efficiency as possible in every area.”

Some examples of how all this works in the trenches came from Jay Sakalo, head of the firm’s bankruptcy and restructuring practice, and also a member of the LPM committee.

 “Let’s say we want to do a motion to lift the automatic stay in bankruptcy court,” Sakalo says. “We want to create forms to show what such a motion looks like. It’s important for us to start with a bank of such documents so that our clients don’t overpay us.”

Sakalo says his group is constantly deciding which documents – created by Bilzin attorneys or by others – should go into the firm’s document bank. These can include litigation documents or bankruptcy documents like plans of reorganization or asset sales.

“The way we work in our department,” said Sakalo, “is that everyone in the group has access to each document in the index.  But we will have a conversation before the lawyer just takes it. Before we use a document, there is a human process.”

Sakalo said that since bankruptcy lawyers usually file petitions in court to be paid for their time, they have been using task- and category-based codes for decades to substantiate the time they are claiming.  “As we move toward the use of task codes as a firm wide requirement because of the need to implement LPM, my department is looked to as a guiding light…  At the firm level, all practice group leaders now try to ensure that they maximize the use of LPM in their practice – each group in its own way because one size does not fit all,” he concluded.

What does Bilzin have planned for the future?  Partner commitment has reached critical mass, and no further coaching is required.  However they are currently considering how to train associates to continue to push the firm through the uncharted wilderness of a complete transformation to new levels of efficiency.

In terms of what they have accomplished so far, Steve Barrett, the LegalBizDev principal who coached all 26 partners at Bilzin, ended most of the coaching programs by asking for written summaries of lessons learned in key areas.   After reading all these reports, Executive Director Michelle Weber said “if I were to distill the entire program into one highlight, one thing that everyone learned and changed, it was improved communication. It sounds so simple, but improving communication with clients and within the firm is very hard, and we still have a lot of work to do.”   

This post was written by Jim Hassett and Jonathan Groner.

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