By Jim Hassett and Jonathan Groner
Stinson Leonard Street has nearly 500 attorneys in 14 offices, with major operations centered in Minneapolis and Kansas City. It was formed in January 2014 by the merger of two firms that had previously made independent commitments to legal project management (LPM), including educational presentations by several leading consultants, hiring LPM staff, developing a task code system to track the cost of work, and more.
When he became one of two co-managing partners of the newly combined firm, one of Lowell Stortz’s top priorities was to accelerate this progress:
LPM is a great tool to provide more value and predictability to clients. From the time I started practicing law over 30 years ago there have always been lawyers who were good at this. But we are now devoted to spreading these practices throughout the firm. For example, thinking through how you are going to break a matter into phases, how you are going to charge the client for each phase, and whether an alternative fee arrangement is in order really helps clients to see more clearly the value you can deliver. LPM also encourages us to strategically participate in a little risk sharing now and then, which only makes sense to the client and to us if we’re really transparent about what’s going on.
For example, we had one client that looked at multiple transaction opportunities every year, although not all of them proceeded to a closing. So we agreed to perform due diligence, up to the “go/no go” phase, on a fixed fee basis. We know that we did not recover our rates on the transactions that did not go forward, so there was a clearly identified value to the client when a transaction didn’t proceed. They spent less and had a lawyer’s help in figuring out whether to proceed. From our side, however, we had the opportunity to get a look at every new deal. We feel like we had more deal flow because we were willing to help them on the front end. What does that have to do with project management? We could not have set a reasonable fixed fee unless we properly analyzed our internal data and accurately defined the scope for the project.
The firm’s other co-managing partner, Mark Hinderks, explained the importance of this new area in a similar way:
Project management is just a term for some things that are pretty basic on the wish lists of clients. Clients want to know what something’s likely to cost and how long it will take. Assuming we continue to do good legal work, the better we are at those things, the happier clients will be. Lawyers have notoriously avoided being pinned down on cost and time, due to the potential existence of factors beyond their control. But in other businesses, such as construction, there can be delays or disruptions from matters beyond a contractor’s control, such as material shortages, unanticipated site conditions, poor weather, and more. Yet, professionals in that arena have learned to project time and cost in a reliable way while accounting for risk. Increasingly, we as lawyers need to do the same whenever possible.
A few months ago, when LegalBizDev announced a new half-day workshop entitled “How to Define Legal Scope and Negotiate Changes,” Stinson Leonard Street became the first firm to sign up.
The reason we developed this course was that in interviewing chairs, managing partners, and other leaders of AmLaw 200 firms for the book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, we had heard over and over that defining scope was the single most important factor in LPM success. As one chair put it:
The critical issue is sitting down with the client at the beginning and deciding what their goals are with the matter. Is it getting it done quickly? Is it getting it done so that nobody ever brings a matter like this again? Is it getting it done in advance of the big merger on the books a year from now? There are all different considerations as to what will lead a client to think this was a successful representation. And the more you push your client to think through what they care most about, the better off both of you are.
And when scope changes as a matter proceeds, as it so often does, lawyers need to know when and how to talk with the client about the best way to proceed, rather than just jumping ahead now and sending a bill later. As a senior executive at another firm we interviewed put it:
We have people who recognize that the scope of a project has changed, but you would think they were 15 years old again and asking a girl to a dance. They never get around to making the phone call.
Defining scope and negotiating changes had always been important parts of our introductory workshop, “How to Increase Client Satisfaction and Profitability with Legal Project Management,” but after analyzing our research results, we decided it also needed a course of its own.
LegalBizDev Principal Gary Richards took on the task of developing a highly interactive workshop built around six hands-on exercises, leading up to an action plan designed to immediately change behavior in each lawyer’s practice.
At the time of the merger that formed Stinson Leonard Street, Matt Wahlquist, the director of practice management at the firm, had been charged with accelerating LPM progress and building LPM principles into lawyers’ day-to-day practice. When he heard about LegalBizDev’s new scope course, Wahlquist thought it was a great example of the “very practical approach” he had been looking for, and he helped arrange the first session, which was held last fall in Kansas City.
Fourteen attorneys actively participated in the workshop and 10 firm leaders sat in as observers. Their presence was living proof of the importance the firm places on LPM.
Both co-managing partners were among the observers because, as Mark Hinderks noted, the concept of “defining expectations clearly right from the start of each matter is critical. Very often, when there is friction between law firms and their clients, it is based on a disconnect between expectations and what actually happens.” This course was designed to minimize that friction by helping to clarify expectations upfront.
The post-workshop evaluations were extremely positive, with one participant calling it the “best presentation by a consultant that I can remember.”
Next week’s post will describe the specific benefits several participants achieved from the course.