My Blog - Connecting the Dots

How to improve law firm efficiency? Pt. 1 – Ask the lawyers what’s needed

Posted by Jack Bostelman on Sep 02, 2012 | 0 Comments

An uncertain law firm leader

Efficient businessman canstockphoto10151185 300x281

“How can I get my lawyers to practice more efficiently?” muses Keith Mayfield, Chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm. Keith realizes that greater efficiency would not reduce revenues, even with the billable hour model that his firm has still largely been able to maintain. Doing the same work for a lower fee will make the firm more competitive, attracting more work. As discussed in my previous post (The Economics of Practice Management, Pt. 2), revenues will likely increase, as will profits per equity partner – if the firm can be more efficient.

Having decided that most of his lawyers aren't ready for a full dose of legal project management, Keith is thinking of other ways his firm can do the work in less time, hopefully surpassing client expectations.

Ask an outsider

Sparked by a comment from one of his lateral partners about lawyer feedback meetings at his prior firm, Keith speaks to a consultant. The consultant advocates asking the lawyers what steps could improve their efficiency. This can be done through a series of meetings around the firm, each with a different practice group.

Practicing lawyers are terrible at implementing change. But they are full of suggestions about how to improve their practice. Implementation can be handled in other ways, once the needed improvements are identified.

Steps for success

At the meetings with lawyers in a practice group, note all the suggestions that are made. Then analyze them using the principles described below. The result should be a list of efficiency ideas that

  • address true lawyer needs,
  • align with the firm's strategic goals,
  • create value exceeding their cost and difficulty, and
  • apply across multiple practice groups.

Have a practicing lawyer run the meetings

The meetings need to be run by someone the lawyers will respect. That means a current partner. This may be difficult to arrange, but good meeting attendance and useful results will be completely dependent on the selection of meeting manager. Another alternative is to pair a current partner with an outside senior consultant who also has lawyer credentials and understands the lawyers' perspectives. The current partner's participation adds credibility and buy-in to the process. The outside consultant brings meeting management skills and potentially a new perspective.

Where to start

It's probably best to start the meetings with transactional or advisory practice groups. They tend to have more suggestions and be more open to possible change than litigators about ways to improve the way they practice. To remain manageable, the effort should start with just two or three practice groups.

Each meeting should focus on a single practice area, and include both partners and associates. Junior lawyers have different practice needs than senior lawyers, but may acquiesce to partner suggestions unless specifically called on. If the practice group spans multiple offices, geographic diversity among the participants should also be sought. It is highly desirable to include lateral lawyers. Because of their exposure to other ways of doing things, their suggestions can be particularly valuable.

Finally, the name of the meetings should be familiar to the practice. These meetings should not be called “focus groups.” Getting lawyer attendance will be hard enough without using a name that makes them disrespect the process. For example, in transactional practices the term “working group meeting” is commonly used for deal meetings. The lawyers can better relate to the meetings if that term is used.

Don't fall into a black hole

Black hole canstockphoto8243207 300x261

The consultant cautions Keith that the lawyer meetings need to be moderated, and the answers interpreted. For example, one of the first suggestions will certainly be to create more and better standard form documents. This is rarely a good idea.

Standard forms projects never get completed. Forms require a time commitment from the practice's best, and therefore busiest, partners. Deciding on forms to prepare and recruiting a promising associate to draft them is not difficult. Getting several senior partners to review the forms, the alternate provisions and the drafting notes – and to agree among themselves – is nearly impossible. Forms projects can become black holes. Years will pass with no usable results. Standard forms make sense only for situations that are highly repetitive, such as consumer transactions, or that require a high degree of consistency, such as legal opinions, which are controlled by firm policies.

One way to deflect a request for more forms is to change the discussion to one about establishing a database of precedents – actual documents used in actual matters. That will be the subject of a future post.

Another way to dodge a forms request is to counter-propose checklists as an intermediate step. These could be checklists of provisions that should be in various types of agreements or checklists of steps required to complete various types of matters. Checklists will also be discussed in a future post.

Interpret what's requested

The lawyers will be good at identifying problems. Their efforts at solutions may be unimpressive or impractical. When a request for a particular practice aid is made, ask what's behind the request. Ask them to describe the problem they're having and how their suggestion addresses it. There are probably other, better solutions that can be suggested by a seasoned firm lawyer with a little distance from their practice – or a consultant with senior practitioner experience. The main goal is for the practicing lawyers to identify their problems.

For example, if the lawyers say they need better search tools to find internal work product, it may well be that they don't really know how to use the software tools they already have. In that case, the answer is better training in use of the firm's existing search tools. If they say their practice needs lots of standard forms, perhaps they really need only a collection of precedents and checklists of provisions to include or avoid in various types of agreements. If lawyers in a practice group say they need to improve the efficiency of research, perhaps the firm should consider subscribing to an external vendor's library of basic practice notes in their area.

Compare the suggestions to the firm's strategic goals

If the firm or practice area is seeking to move away from commodity work, practice improvement projects designed to make commodity work more efficient should be avoided. On the other hand, if the firm is embracing that work, perhaps seeking to compete using fixed fees, an investment in practice improvements for commodity work could be very worthwhile. These could include preparing more standard forms, which do make sense for highly repetitive work, establishing a means for automated document assembly using those forms, collecting data about contract terms in repetitive matters to gauge market terms, and improving training and practice aids (such as checklists) for junior lawyers to enable them to take on more of this work.

Compare requests across practice areas

If several practice areas ask for the same kind of aid, it may well be worth pursuing. Requests by several groups suggests the aid is really needed. Also, the effort of creating the aid can be spread over many groups.

In the next post

After getting practice efficiency suggestions from his lawyers, Keith may find that the list of potential improvements is fairly long. What's the best way to prioritize them? In the next post, Keith consider prioritization techniques, as well as how best to start implementing improvements.

[Photo credits: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / alphaspirit & mmaxer]

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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