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June 29, 2016

Task codes and budgeting: What works and what doesn’t (Part 6 of 7)

Before concluding our review of task codes, it is important to emphasize that while this series of posts summarizes an emerging consensus, the area is still evolving and our conclusions are by no means universally accepted. As the use of task codes for budgeting has spread, a small number of critics have even begun to question the very idea of task coding. In our confidential interviews, the most extreme view was held by the expert who said:

I have looked at task codes for all of the possible reasons, including looking at past performance and planning future budgets for nearly a decade. I have looked for patterns in types of cases and I have tried to use task codes to create pricing components for templates that can be used in the future. My general conclusion, having looked at hundreds of legal matters, is that I have found task codes, as presently constituted, to be worthless.

In 2014, Toby Brown (who also participated in the confidential interviews for these posts) posted a piece in his “Three Geeks and a Law Blog” entitled The Value of Task Codes? which began:

Billing task codes are not magic pixie dust. There seems to be a broad perception that task codes will solve pricing and legal project management problems for all practices. “If we only had task codes for [insert type of work], we would know how to price this.” My general feeling is that A) the task codes were not designed to address this need. B) The use of task codes is highly inconsistent, so the data is poorly structured. And C) Even if the data was in good shape, it won’t provide magic pricing and budgets.

In our opinion, the most serious of these objections is the quality of the data. Several people we talked to mentioned that even if you use the ABA code for depositions, let’s say, the system does not enable you to easily code the type of depositions for a particular case or even their number. One interviewee put it this way:

You really can’t figure out in any meaningful way what a deposition costs, even though that’s something you’d like to know. But even if you could say that a deposition costs $50,000, the question would be: For what kind of case? Single-plaintiff employment? Toxic tort? Patent litigation? Simply saying it costs $50,000 says nothing.

Ken Grady has taken this argument a step further in his blog post, “The Days of UTBMS Codes Are Over, Let’s Focus on Value,” which includes the following example:

Assume we have two single-plaintiff lawsuits where the issues and facts are relatively similar, and both are in the same jurisdiction so the law applying in each case is the same. Lawyer 1 is handling the first case and Lawyer 2 is handling the second case.

One of the premises of the UTBMS code system is that we can use the data to compare performance by lawyers. We assume we can look at the time spent by Lawyer 1, compare it to Lawyer 2, and draw a conclusion about which lawyer is more efficient.

But there are far too many variables with values we don’t know to make such a judgment. The following list contains just a few examples of those variables as they could apply to one piece of the case – the plaintiff’s deposition:

  • Was the plaintiff in one lawsuit very experienced with depositions and the plaintiff in the other inexperienced?
  • hat impact did the plaintiff’s attorney have in each case (preparing the plaintiff, at the deposition, otherwise in the case)?
  • What other factors affected the deposition (e.g. mood of each participant, logistical issues)?

These types of variations are behind the problem that Toby Brown wrote about in his article “The State of Legal Pricing”:

What most clients ultimately want is to know that a patent litigation will cost $X through the Markman hearing or that an acquisition will cost $Y for Due Diligence, and $Z to close the deal. But an acquisition service may have a price range of $10,000 to $10,000,000 – from experience, that type of fee range is not an exaggeration – and what drives the range is a combination of scope, size and client goals related to the deal.

Some of the strongest proponents of task codes whom we interviewed are well aware of this variation, but argue that this just requires a higher level of sophistication when analyzing task code data:

If you have 100,000 depositions in your database and the average cost is $10,000, that’s just a “so what” factoid. But if you categorize matters based on the type of case, size of the company, whether it was public or private, and other relevant factors, you can get very useful information for predicting future costs.

Despite these counter-arguments, Grady’s overall conclusion is that:

Continuing to spend a lot of time and effort on UTBMS codes, in my opinion, does not add value to improving the efficiency, productivity, or quality of legal services. I don’t want the least effort low value service. I want a high value service delivered efficiently. To accomplish that goal, I want to focus on what adds value, measure the value, and ruthlessly eliminate things that don’t add value or detract from the value. 

Many critics take a less radical view that offers more hope for the future. In the comments that were posted to Toby Brown’s 2014 blog post quoted above, Michael Byrd, currently the director of financial operations (North America) at Baker & McKenzie, wrote:

I have struggled with this topic for several years now and agree that there is little utility within the current construct [of task codes]. That said, my gut tells me that there is an opportunity here. If firms can find a way to leverage their use when required by clients with internal budget tracking by major components of an engagement AND provide transparency into that budget for their working timekeepers, then maybe, just maybe, the quality of the data will improve generally and outside counsel can legitimately claim progress in project management while meeting their clients’ e-billing requirements.

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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