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May 11, 2016

Task codes and budgeting: What works and what doesn’t (Part 1 of 7)

By Jim Hassett, Jonathan Groner, and Steve Barrett

This is one of the longest series of posts in the eleven year history of this blog, because there is currently so much controversy about the best uses of task codes.  A much shorter summary of this research was published recently by the Bloomberg BNA Corporate Counsel Weekly and reprinted in the Bloomberg BNA Corporate Law & Accountability Report. 

In 2012, we published an article in Of Counsel entitled “Tracking Legal Costs with Task Codes: Different Firms Take Different Approaches.” Since then, the number of firms using task codes has grown dramatically and a consensus has started to emerge about what works best.

This series of posts summarizes new conclusions and recommendations based on our experience working with lawyers in numerous firms, on published reports by a number of experts, and on interviews we recently conducted with 12 experts who have had significant experience using task codes to plan and track legal budgets:

Nicole Beck, Senior Client Value Pricing Lead, Reed Smith

Diane Bertrand, Partner, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP

Toby Brown, Chief Practice Management Officer, Perkins Coie

David Cohen, Lawyer, Project Management, McCarthy Tétrault

Stephanie Flitcroft, Director of Pricing, Loeb & Loeb

Bill Garcia, Chief Practice Innovation Officer, Thompson Hine

Sam Goldblatt, Partner, Nixon Peabody

Jon Hulak, Director of Pricing and Client Service, Mintz Levin

Keith Maziarek, Head of Strategic Pricing, DLA Piper

Megan Panchella, Legal Project Manager, Reed Smith

Robert Parker, Practice Group/Client Matter Management Administrator, Quarles & Brady

Scott Wagner, Partner, Bilzin Sumberg

To maximize the frankness of participant responses, we promised that while their names would be listed in our research summary, no quote would be attributed to a particular person or firm. In addition, all of them reviewed a pre-publication version of this section of this summary and had an opportunity to remove or edit any of their quotes before publication.

The main reason that these and many other experts have increased efforts to implement task codes over the last few years is easy to understand: To remain competitive in an ever more challenging marketplace, firms are being forced to predict and control legal costs better than ever before.

Several of the people we interviewed reported that their use of task codes had already produced a payoff:

We have seen immediate benefits in tracking our alternative pricing arrangements and working to budget. The use of task codes takes the guesswork out of the budget.

Some partners have actually landed new work because the firm has a task code system in place. A number of potential clients won’t even deal with a law firm that doesn’t have such a system.

Task codes have been useful in helping track matters against budget, so they are already paying dividends.

We use task codes to price better, to help attorneys manage better, to determine what our profitability drivers are, and to make the business case for alternative staffing models.

Task codes make it easy to have a conversation with the client who wants to know where things stand in terms of the matter and its budget. For us, task codes have also been an integral part of the AFA process. We can offer a flat fee for, say, a motion to dismiss because we can see how much a motion to dismiss has cost us historically. Also, task codes help attorneys see the budget vs. actual reports for any matter and see what, if anything, has changed from the original budget. Was there a change in scope?

Even at firms where there has been resistance to using task codes, the lawyers that have used them have reported benefits:

In my personal practice, the use of phase codes has been very helpful in improving estimating and budgeting.

One expert we talked to has developed about 10 different templates so far for various transactions:

If an attorney is starting one of those types, he or she just goes to the template and builds a budget. These templates can compare actual versus budgeted time on any phase of the matter. You simply look at a picture of what the transaction will probably be in advance and compare it to what actually happens. In addition, there is another advantage: You never forget anything. The template prompts you to remember each needed step, and each task within the step, so you budget better as a result.

Originally we included a brief history of the most widely used system – UTBMS, the Uniform Task-Based Management System – starting from the fact that the system was designed in the 1990s primarily by clients who wanted to standardize e-billing and understand and control costs rather than by law firms who wanted to predict costs.

Many clients, especially in insurance defense, require law firms to use task codes in e-billing as a condition to getting paid.

Unfortunately, what started out as an effort to create a universal language for analyzing legal work later evolved into a system in which many clients tweaked the system to fit their unique demands. For example, in 2007 the UTBMS Insurance Update Initiative issued a slightly revised set of codes to better meet the needs of insurance companies.

As one expert put it:

Sometimes it seems every client wants to use a different set of task codes. For example, one Fortune 50 firm doesn’t use L-codes [for litigation], it uses what they call K-codes. If the clients think the codes don’t tell them what they want to know, they just make up some new codes.

Another summed up the situation like this:

The problem with standards is that so many people have different ones.

In some cases, a single lawyer may have to use two different codes for exactly the same type of work performed on the same day for two different clients. If one wanted to maximize human error, it would be hard to come up with a better system.

This problem is so common that some legal financial software vendors have added automatic translation features so that all the lawyers in a firm can use one standard codeset and have it automatically translated into different codes for different clients. However, these algorithms require painstaking mapping and assume that there is a one-to-one correspondence. If a code in one system overlaps with two or more codes in another system, no algorithm in the world can do an automatic translation.

Despite these barriers, in the last few years many law firms have invested significant effort in using task codes to better track time and cost and ultimately to respond to client demands for more predictable costs. The remainder of this series will explain six key lessons they have learned to date:

  • Use standard UTBMS codes whenever possible
  • Avoid excessive detail; focus on phases not tasks
  • Train lawyers and staff to use the codes
  • Use task codes selectively rather than on every matter
  • Limit retrospective analysis of past matters
  • Create an internal code for work that is out of scope

This series was adapted from the Fourth Edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide which will be published this fall.

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