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April 22, 2020

Case Study: The benefits of practice innovation (Part 1 of 2)

By Tim Batdorf and Jim Hassett

This post is based on a recent interview with Paul Saunders, Practice Innovation Partner at Stewart McKelvey, which is Atlantic Canada’s largest regional law firm with over 200 attorneys in six offices throughout Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.  His role includes planning, developing and implementing innovative technologies and systems that increase efficiency, profitability and client value.

Q: Let’s start with the big picture of your role and your team.

A:  I spent my first seven years at Stewart McKelvey practicing corporate law.  In 2015, I accepted the newly formed position of Practice Innovation Partner.  I report directly to our CEO and oversee our Legal Project Management and Pricing functions as well as our Practice Re-engineering Program.  I also support our Compensation and Profitability Alignment Strategy. 

Five full-time employees report to me:  two practice innovation lawyers, two IT developers, and a document automation specialist.  One of the practice innovation lawyers just joined our team a few months ago to focus on our RFP process, and we’ve already seen an increase in the number of RFPs that we're winning.   I also oversee dozens of process improvement and LPM projects involving approximately 60 of our practicing lawyers.

Q:  Have your initiatives had any measurable successes beyond RFPs?

A:  Yes, quite a few.  Easiest to see is our increase in realization.  When I look at a graph of realization at our firm over the last 8 years it looks like a “V.”  At a macro level, the firm-wide increases in realization began right around the time we started pushing LPM and increasing awareness of the impact that realization has on firm profitability.  I can also point to examples of specific client service teams that have seen improvements in their numbers as a result of our working together.

Q:  What other kinds of benefits have you seen from your approach?

A:  Overall, we’ve become far more creative in customizing our pricing to the needs of each client. We've recently developed a new profitability calculator tool that works hand-in-hand with our budget template. So, for example, we might estimate the amount of time Partner A is required to spend under simple, moderate, and complex scenarios.  But then we go on to ask, “What's our margin?  How much can we negotiate this fee given the history of volatility and variability with similar work? How can we use effective delegation, LPM and process improvement to increase profit?”  This enables us to realistically offer clients the fixed fees and cost certainty that many are looking for. And this, in turn, has led to more success in business development.

We've also developed automated documents and streamlined processes to reduce our costs.  In some cases, we proactively approach a client and say, “We’ve developed some efficiencies in this particular work area.  Are you interested in having us perform this work for a fixed fee of X?” Of course, in order to make sure that we make money on those fixed fees, we need to include the project management side of things. We track expenses and watch for situations where we are spending more than we bid.  When that happens, we diagnose what's happening and why, and then streamline our process.

While we have been offering ad hoc support to lawyers in Project Management for a number of years, we're now beginning to create more structure around LPM support in conjunction with some changes to our partner compensation system that have just taken effect this year. 

As a firm, we felt a need to put our money where our mouth is and say, “If you're embracing LPM, then you're effectively managing client relationships.  So, you will get paid for that, and here's how.” I think that’s going to be significant for many firm partners, and that’s why I think they’ll be reaching out to our LPM team for support.

Q:  Can you give me some current examples of a group you worked with recently and the kind of benefits they’ve seen as a result?

A:  Of course.  We do a lot of work with insurance clients who are particularly sensitive about fees.  They often require fixed fees and matter budgets, and in the past, this has sometimes led to high write-downs.  This is the area where we’ve gotten the most LPM traction to date.

Team leader Colin Piercey was an early adopter of our approach, and we put in place a standard budget with a prebuilt scope of work.  Colin and I worked together to create budget forms that his team could use, for example, for a relatively straightforward motor vehicle accident, a moderately complex one, and a more complex one.  It was a real success story in the sense that Colin was able to help billing lawyers in other offices change their behavior.

This is a great example, too, of where our firm has seen improvements in realization as a result of LPM.   I think that’s directly attributable to the fact that we're better at scoping.  We're not writing our fees off at the time of billing because we’re clear about the scope of the work, and whenever change happens, as it often does, we're reaching out to the client proactively.

Q:  It sounds like the group was developing budgets before, but the key to success was carefully setting the scope, tracking time, flagging changes, and then proactively talking to clients.  

A:  That’s right, LPM is not all that complicated.  It’s just a matter of paying more attention to details like scoping, which lawyers have traditionally ignored as they jumped right into the details of legal work. 

It’s also an example of how much I've bought into LegalBizDev’s approach.  As you know, I recently completed your Master Certified LPM Coach program, and I agree that it’s important for lawyers to use LPM to solve real-world problems.  Start small, get some wins, and always focus on addressing specific issues with specific clients.  Once key lawyers work with some simple new LPM tools and see the benefits, they become LPM champions who share their stories and lay the foundation for firm-wide benefits.  Don't expect that a day-long CLE-type LPM seminar will change behavior.  Don’t expect that lawyers will automatically become more efficient because they attended a seminar.  Work with them directly.  That’s the key.

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