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2 posts from April 2018

April 18, 2018

A model for LPM success:  The case of Bilzin Sumberg (Part 4 of 5)

By Tim Batdorf and Jim Hassett

Improved communication 

According to managing partners and other law firm leaders in our research on Client Value and Law Firm Profitability (p. 97), the second most critical short-term LPM issue (after defining scope) was “Manage client communications and expectations” (38%).

Managing partner elect Al Dotson explained how this applies at Bilzin Sumberg:

Early communication with the client is absolutely essential for us to mutually understand what the expectations are.  In addition, I routinely set up non-billable team meetings to ascertain the status of the work at any given stage, to avoid duplication of effort, to identify issues sooner rather than later, and to communicate quickly with the client if there are any issues.

According to partner Carter McDowell:

The primary benefit of this communication for clients is that it helps them understand the process in an organized fashion, as opposed to just a ten minute discussion of how do we go through this process and what the requirements are.  Clear agreement on project plans has also enabled us on more than one occasion to go back to the client and say, “Here’s a hearing that we hadn’t anticipated, so we updated the budget to include that process.” 

Similarly, Suzanne Amaducci-Adams reported that:

Communication serves as a tool to educate clients.  Some clients underestimate cost because they think you are “just closing a loan,” and they don’t realize you have to draft corporate resolutions, write three or four different opinion letters, and more. But once they see it broken down, then many are more willing to pay a fair fee.

In the Spring of 2013, COO Michelle Weber reviewed the final reports from 26 partners who had completed their first round of LPM coaching with LegalBizDev.  She 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.”  

Bilzin Sumberg’s approach to LPM

A full account of Bilzin Sumberg’s LPM initiatives could be the topic for an entire book.  This table provides a high level overview of the firm’s approach.

2011

  • Managing partner John Sumberg and COO Michelle Weber attend several conferences, and become convinced that Bilzin Sumberg would benefit by becoming a national leader in LPM.  
  • In November 2011, LegalBizDev is hired to coach three key lawyers to begin to create the firm’s first LPM champions.

2012-2014

  • At the firm’s annual retreat in March 2012, these three LPM champions described their “quick wins” from coaching and encouraged lawyers who were interested to take the same LPM coaching program.
  • In May 2013, 26 lawyers completed coaching (representing more than half of the firm’s 51 partners).
  • Bilzin Sumberg’s LPM committee is formed.
  • Internal LPM staffing is strengthened when Paul VanderMeer is promoted to the new position of Chief Knowledge Officer.

2014-2017

  • Bilzin Sumberg’s LPM committee meets regularly with practice group leaders to monitor and encourage the use of LPM.
  • Practice group leaders build regular discussions of LPM successes and best practices into their meetings.
  • To simplify and improve reporting on project finances and progress, Bilzin Sumberg purchases Prosperoware’s Umbria software.
  • To improve LPM just-in-time training, the firm purchases LegalBizDev’s digital fifth edition of Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.
  • In October 2017, a panel discussion is held for the entire firm, in which eight partners who have become LPM champions describe its benefits.
  • Nine more lawyers begin LegalBizDev coaching.

2018 and beyond

  • Bilzin Sumberg commits to continue to support and enhance its leadership position through additional LPM initiatives.

 

Throughout this process, the firm has built its approach around the five recommendations explained in our white paper “The Keys to LPM Success”

  1. Focus on changing behavior and solving problems – As seen in the examples throughout our previous posts, right from the start Bilzin Sumberg’s coaching and internal support programs have focused not on abstract principles but on how to help each lawyer solve the problems that they want to solve.  COO Michelle Weber summed up the advantage of this approach: “This is one of the parts of the 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.”
  2. Aim for quick wins to create internal champions – The first quick wins were reported by the three senior partners who spoke at the March 2012 retreat (Al Dotson, Jon Chassen and Mitch Widom).  Twenty-three additional partners gradually signed up for coaching based on what they heard, and most of them became champions as well. 
  3. Publicize successes within the firm – Practice group leaders have been encouraged to include LPM in their regular meetings to publicize successes.  On a firm-wide basis, LPM has been discussed at most major firm events in this period (including the 2012 retreat and the 2017 panel described in this series).  Bilzin Sumberg is constantly looking for new ways to get the word out, and they recently began circulating “LPM Tips of the Month” memos, which call attention to key LPM issues and the online tools and templates that can help partners address these issues.
  4. Use just-in-time training materials – This is the “secret sauce” for the program, and it is described in detail below.
  5. Take action now and follow up relentlessly – When clients are asking for change, delay is the enemy.  Senior managers and champions must never lose sight of the fact that LPM will continue to evolve as the legal marketplace changes.

Just-in-time training materials

Just-in-time training provides learners with exactly the information they need, precisely when  they need it.  In most professions, this has become the standard way to teach new skills. For example, when lawyers need to use an unfamiliar feature of Microsoft Word, very few would consider taking a class or looking it up in a book.  Instead, they simply look up the information they need in online help files.

Since the start of the LPM initiatives described in this series of posts, LegalBizDev coaching has been structured around the tools and templates which appear in the fourth edition of our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.   For the past several years, Bilzin Sumberg has provided a copy of this book to each new lawyer who joined the firm.  

In 2017, the fifth edition of these LPM tools became available in digital form.  This edition allows lawyers to access these tools from anywhere, whenever they need to, and the tools are immediately available to every lawyer in the firm.  Moreover, new tools can be easily added as they become available, and firms can customize key tools to their unique needs and procedures.  

Bilzin Sumberg was one of the first firms to purchase a license to these materials.   The online version of the tools was formally introduced at Bilzin Sumberg during the October 2017 panel discussion described above.  Going forward, LPM staff, practice group leaders and others will use these new digital tools to efficiently provide lawyers with more help more quickly.  

For more details about these digital tools, you can attend a panel discussion entitled, “How LPM Directors Can Increase Their Impact with Just-In-Time Tools and Templates,” at the Legal Marketing Associations’s P3 practice innovation conference in Chicago in May, 2018.  LegalBizDev CEO Tim Batdorf will facilitate this discussion with Scott Wagner of Bilzin Sumberg and Dave Clark, the LPM partner described in our case study of Lathrop Gage.   Audience members will also be encouraged to discuss any custom tools or templates their firms have developed, and how best to implement an online LPM tool library to ensure lawyer usage.

 

A pdf of the complete case study can be downloaded from our web page. 

April 04, 2018

A model for LPM success: The case of Bilzin Sumberg (Part 3 of 5)

By Tim Batdorf and Jim Hassett

This post in our series examines Bilzin Sumberg’s success meeting two top client needs as revealed in surveys conducted by Altman Weil and LegalBizDev: The need for improved non-hourly based pricing structures (i.e., alternative fee arrangements) and improved definitions of scope.

Improved AFAs

In an era when some clients are increasingly asking for non-hourly alternative fee arrangements (AFAs), firms that are able to accurately predict budgets and stick to them will be in a much stronger position than their competitors.

Litigation partner Jose Ferrer offered an example from one long-term client that was concerned with runaway litigation costs. When a new case was opened, Ferrer asked the client very directly “How much do you think the value of this litigation is?” The client gave a number, and Ferrer went to Bilzin Sumberg’s financial analyst to review past tasks and spending for the client to see if they could develop a high-value solution that fit within that budget. They dug deep into the details of what was required and what wasn’t. Then they created a task plan and budget for each phase, based on the billing rates of the lawyers who would work on the case, and the number of hours expected. Then Ferrer went back to the client and proposed a detailed task plan that fit within their requested budget:

We’re going to handle the case in three phases. In the pleadings phase, we’re going to address motions to dismiss. Then we’re going to have a discovery phase, and a trial phase. Our budget specifically excludes certain steps which we feel are not required in this case. We’re not going to include motions to strike pleadings or motions for sanctions. And we’re not going to do motions for summary judgement because they’re rarely granted in the county where this case is pending.

They then offered a capped fee for each phase, with a total cost that matched the client’s original assessment of the value of the case. Bilzin Sumberg got the business, and then:

We limited the task phases in our budgeting software to just three. If you go in to put in your time, there’s pleadings, discovery, and trial. You can’t pick anything else, because that’s how we’re tracking it.

The case is still in progress. To date, the client is happy and Bilzin Sumberg has completed the work within budget.

In another example, Jay Sakalo, the Business Finance & Restructuring and Corporate Practice Group Leader, described a fixed price bid to review 30 to 50 potential deals a year for another long-term client.

We recognized that on some of these flat fees we would win, and on some of them we would lose.

This was a new type of work for this client, so it was difficult to come up with a solid number for the first few deals, but the total revenue potential justified taking some risk, so the firm came up with a fee per deal.

We agreed with the client that after the first eight reviews, we would revisit the fee, because we didn’t know if the requirements would turn out to be wildly different from what we expected.

The first eight cases were reasonably close to the budget, so Bilzin Sumberg stuck by its original bid. The work on this substantial AFA project is now in its fourth year, and it has created both a highly satisfied client and substantial revenue for the firm. Due to the constant tracking of estimated vs actual costs, the client recently approved an increase in the fixed fee per review without any hesitation.


Improved definitions of scope

The next LPM benefit was rated #1 in one of our studies. When we asked managing partners and other leaders from 50 of the AmLaw 200 to identify the most critical short-term LPM issues at their firm, the top answer given (by 50% of respondents) was “Set objectives and define scope.”

In the last few years, Bilzin Sumberg has made substantial progress in this area. As Al Dotson said:

Before I started on our firm’s LPM initiative, I approached new client engagements with a simple thought: “You, the client, have engaged me. My hourly rate is X.” That was the end of the discussion. Now I approach new engagements more in terms of developing a mutual understanding with the client about the services we will provide, the time it will take, the team required, the budget, and the relevant reporting milestones.

Detailed planning is the key to accurate estimates, and such planning also has many other benefits. Carter McDowell, who works with Dotson, noted that:

Defining scope is particularly important in dealing with new clients who haven’t been through the process, because I can hand them a document that they can walk through for themselves. And, as a result, clients will sometimes say, “Now I understand why it’s going to cost that much, or what the range is and what the effort is.”

The real estate practice group has developed a similar process. According to Suzanne Amaducci-Adams, before they applied LPM, the group typically wasted a lot of time developing time consuming “back of the envelope” estimates, which were not always accurate. These days, they have developed checklists of the key issues for their most common types of deals, and a cost range for each. When a new deal comes in, they print out a one-page list of issues that affect scope, and the responsible attorney crosses out the issues that don’t apply. A surprisingly accurate bid can be created from this simple list. As Amaducci-Adams notes:

We now have a list of all the components that go into a loan deal. And then, when we go to quote a fee for the loan, we put a range for each element. For example, the term sheet should cost A, the loan agreement should cost B, and the ancillary document should cost C. Does the client have a cash management system? Then there is an additional cost. Are we doing the org docs? That, too, will lead to requiring additional time... The system is not perfect. But you get a much better idea of all the things that go into the transaction up front when you’re quoting a fee.

Some Bilzin Sumberg lawyers have gone a step further and require team members to use a special task code for any work that falls outside the scope as defined in the engagement letter. Having a system that requires lawyers to classify some hours as “out of scope” creates an enormous benefit, simply by requiring lawyers to be clear about what tasks are in scope, and what tasks are not. This also serves as a flag if a change process is in place to negotiate changes in scope.


A pdf of the complete case study can be downloaded from our web page.