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7 ways to assimilate new learning in a law firm

Posted by Jack Bostelman on Mar 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

Kendra Masters, head of the Capital Markets practice at an AmLaw 100 firm, is excited. At a recent conference she networked with her counterparts at other firms to learn how they assimilated new developments within their practice groups. She also called a consultant one of the firms had used, who gave her additional ideas.

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When a major development occurs - typically a major change in law or regulation but occasionally a significant judicial decision - the Capital Markets group has historically been slow to spread the knowledge among its lawyers. Typically there are a few partners who adapt quickly, and become extremely busy, but the remaining partners are not ready for some time. Clients sense this and don't bring matters to the group unless they can get the fast-adapting partners to work on them. Many associates flounder, and much time from their inefficiency must be written off. The group's reputation among clients is that the lawyers can handle routine work but are not ready for the more novel assignments, which can command premium fees.

Kendra aims to change this. Back in her office, she's outlining how to implement seven initiatives to improve the efficiency of her group's ability to assimilate new learning.

Further information about the ideas in this blog post can be found in a paper I prepared for a conference panel of the ABA Committee on Federal Regulation of Securities, entitled "Efficiently Assimilating New Practice Developments in a Law Firm to Improve Client Service and Firm Efficiency."

1. Conduct a teach-in

Where warranted by the significance to the group's practice and its clients of a new development, a teach-in is an excellent way to jump-start the spread of learning among the group's lawyers. A teach-in is a learning session for the group's practitioners, including partners and associates, regarding the development. The teach-in forces the instructors to organize the material. They will typically continue as the go-to lawyers for questions that arise going forward.

Normally there will be a small number of lawyers who have been following a development - or who have been asked to follow it. These are the natural ones to lead the teach-in. It is in the firm's interest to give billable hours credit to those who teach and help prepare written reference materials. Structuring the session to qualify for CLE credit for attendees is also desirable.

2. Establish an issues ombudsman

One of the most efficient ways to spread learning within the practice group about a particular development is to appoint one partner as the ombudsman for the subject. It does not really matter whether that partner has prior experience with the development in question, as long as the subject is generally within that partner's competence. The partner should be respected within the group and willing to act collaboratively. The mere fact of having a single person act as the focal point for questions improves efficiency. Questions repeat. The second time it is asked, the ombudsman becomes a hero (or heroine) for the speed with which it can be answered.

The ombudsman can be responsible for one particular development, or all developments generally. The former can be worked into a partner's regular work life. The latter commitment will require giving up some client work. Which approach the practice group takes depends on the extent to which the firm is prepared to take the ombudsman away from being supervising partner on client work and to protect his or her compensation.

The ombudsman is also well situated to perform a central role in many of the other initiatives described below. (For more information, see my prior post "Establish an issues ombudsman to improve practice group efficiency and quality.")

3. Use checklists instead of standard forms

Checklists and good precedents are generally preferable ways to guide lawyers, as compared with standard forms. This is especially true for guidance regarding new developments. Checklists can produce 80% of the value with 20% of the time and effort of standard forms.

The kind of checklist envisioned describes the key provisions of an agreement or other document - in effect, an anatomy of the agreement. It will assist the draftsperson, likely a more junior lawyer, to gain an understanding of the finer points of key provisions. It can be used by the senior reviewer to ensure that nothing has been left out.

Good checklists require real effort, but they can be more nimbly created and revised than standard forms. They can be incrementally improved. They do not require the major delay of partner committee review. Including selected provisions or example agreements from actual transactions can greatly enhance the usefulness of a checklist, especially if accompanied by commentary that explains why the precedent is useful.

The ombudsman is well-situated to suggest the types of checklists to be created and to oversee their creation by partner-associate "volunteers." (For more information, see my prior post "What good is a checklist in a law firm?")

4. Track matter experience

Basic tracking of matters that involve a new development is essential to sharing lawyers' learning effectively. In most firms, doing that through automated systems is easier said than done. There are, however, some straightforward ways to accomplish this at the lawyer level.

Soon after a new development, lawyers in the group will be asking:

  • For finding experts, which lawyers have worked on matters involving this development?
  • For preparing pitches, what's our group's overall experience working on matters involving this development?
  • For drafting, what deal documents do we have that reflect this development?
Incoming canstockphoto5442749

The practice group should establish a manual process to query the group's lawyers whether a new matter involves the development. For example, each week the administrative assistant of the practice group head can e-mail and phone the supervising partner and senior associate for matters opened that week in the group to ask whether the new development is involved. The results of these calls can be maintained in a spreadsheet along with basic information about the matter, including opening and closing dates and key lawyers involved. The list should be sent quarterly to the lawyers in the group for confirmation of its accuracy.

The list should be furnished weekly to the ombudsman for the practice group and made available to the entire group via quarterly e-mail or by weekly posting on the group's intranet site.

5. Collect and organize precedents and articles

One of the most important aspects of a practice group's coordination efforts regarding a new development is marshaling precedents. Once the relevant matters have been identified, organizing precedents and making them available should be a high priority.

The effort should be overseen by the group's ombudsman. First, he or she should prepare a subject matter index for precedents and one for articles, and identify the types of documents to be collected. An administrative assistant should contact lawyers for each matter on the master list described in the previous section upon closing of the matter (or periodically if closing cannot readily be determined) to request copies of the designated types of documents. The ombudsman reviews them, tags them for the appropriate subject matter and forwards them for posting on the group's intranet or in the document management system under the designated subject heading. The ombudsman follows a similar tagging approach for articles he or she identifies.

The existence of the precedent collection should be publicized periodically via e-mail and at practice group meetings.

6. Establish document and folder naming conventions

By establishing a convention for naming documents in the document management system, a practice group can facilitate the ability of its lawyers to find precedents relating to a new development, even if a centralized precedent collection is not established. Having a folder naming convention in the DMS can make finding final versions of these precedents easier.

If the practice group establishes a convention for naming documents saved in the DMS, lawyers will be able to search on the title in the document profile to find the type of document relevant to their inquiry. By further confining the search to the matters that involve the new development, using the list previously described under "Track matter experience," lawyers will be able to find precedents even if there is no centralized collection as described in the previous section.

The naming convention should be kept as simple as possible, and should be prepared by a working group of lawyers in the group and presented to the entire practice group for comments until a consensus is achieved. Buy-in is essential to getting widespread adoption. Train administrative assistants and paralegals. Distribute quick reference cards. Conduct spot-checks. Reinforce the importance of the system at regular practice group meetings. Eventually the convention will become part of the group's culture.

7. Establish a channel for practice updates

Because the ombudsman acts as the hub of the practice group's communications regarding the new development, it is important that external sources of information about the development be identified and directed to the ombudsman, and that the ombudsman issue periodic updates to the practice group.

Working with the firm's library, the ombudsman should identify a reasonable, but not excessive, number of external resources likely to discuss updates and emerging practices regarding the development. The ombudsman should arrange to receive these updates via e-mail or RSS feed. Conference agendas should be watched. Lawyers in the group should be asked to attend the important ones and report back to the ombudsman (unless he or she chooses to attend).

The ombudsman should issue periodic e-mails or internal blog updates to the practice group regarding highlights of articles and conferences, attaching copies or links to the full articles. These updates should also be archived by subject matter in the group's articles repository described above under "Collect and organize precedents and articles." The ombudsman should also provide brief updates at regular meetings of the practice group.

Conclusion

Kendra realizes she has her work cut out for her to establish all these changes. It will take time. She has the support of senior management, though, and is very determined. She's already identified a partner who's willing to act as ombudsman. She also realizes that perseverance may be a practice group leader's most important tactic.

[Photo credits: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / ctjo & drizzd]

About the Author

Jack Bostelman

Jack Bostelman is the president and principal consultant of KM/JD Consulting LLC. Before founding KM/JD Consulting, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

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Before founding KM/JD Consulting LLC, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

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