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Top strategies for practice group collaboration and efficiency

Posted by Jack Bostelman on Sep 08, 2014 | 0 Comments

Here are six strategies for improving collaboration and efficiency within a firm:

  • financial tool - introducing profitability of matters rather than realization rate as the financial metric for evaluating partners,
  • management technique - employing methods to overcome lawyer resistance to working on internal practice improvement projects,
  • practice tool - deploying checklists for practitioners,
  • technology tool - developing a search system that adds subject matter and other filters to full-text search to bring the efficiency of on-line shopping to law firm work product retrieval,
  • administrative initiative - creating a system to identify promptly when a matter has been completed, in order to trigger information collection for marketing and fee benchmarking, enable league table submissions, schedule after-action reviews and improve lawyer utilization, and
  • cutting-edge practice change - conducting after-action reviews.

1. Replace realization rate with profitability as the metric for measuring financial success

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Introducing to partners the metric of profitability of a matter rather than realization rate will create more constructive incentives. Realization rate gives only part of the picture. It also doesn't permit comparisons across practice groups because it measures only the revenue side.

Profitability takes into account expenses attributable to the matter, driven principally by the lawyer resources used, and can therefore be used to compare matters with differing associate leverage. This means that if matter A and matter B involve the same number of timekeeper hours, same billing rates and same realization rates, but matter A uses more associates in the mix than matter B, matter A will be the more profitable one. Matter A will also produce slightly lower fees for the client, because of the associates' lower billing rates.

To avoid divisiveness and misunderstandings, the new profitability metric should be introduced in stages: first, through an educational program to explain the new metric and the limitations of the old one; and next, through informational reporting for a year or two until the metric is accepted. After the metric has been accepted, consideration could also be given to using it as a component of partner compensation instead of realization rate.

Read more at Realization rate vs. profitability - what's the better metric at the matter level?.

2. Get lawyers to follow through on collaboration and efficiency commitments

Lawyers are wired differently than other business people. They have a greater sense of urgency – for example, attending to client work before turning to any internal work, rather than doing some of each. They also are naturally less collaborative, preferring to work in isolation. They are skeptical and autonomous, questioning authority and frequently concluding there is no need to perform internal tasks requested by others. They are change-averse, stemming from a fear of failing at something new.

Success in practice group improvement initiatives requires application of management techniques to address lawyer personalities:

  • Obtain buy-in to the proposals and a sense of ownership among the lawyers in the Group.
  • Create a sense of personal mutual commitment with colleagues.
  • Eliminate administrative obstacles.
  • Lay out the steps in detail, so the effort doesn't seem overwhelming.
  • Give recognition within the Group to those who complete a project successfully.
  • Create a sense of competition among the Group's lawyers.
  • Provide input along the way so the lawyers know someone's paying attention.
  • Show senior management's commitment and lead by example.
  • Create a sense of urgency with deadlines and status reporting to the full Group.

Below are a series of steps that seek to apply these techniques to improve lawyer follow-through:

  • Have the Group leader hand pick a few partners to be part of a “steering committee”. This creates a core of partners with buy-in.
  • Convene a formal meeting of the full Group (partners and associates) to discuss the proposals and gather ideas for additional proposals. This also creates buy-in.
  • After the meeting, have the steering committee take on some projects and spread the rest broadly among other partners and associates. This creates a sense of community and mutual commitment.
  • Provide administrative and paralegal assistance where that would be helpful. If possible, obtain billable hours credit from management for the work. This sends a strong signal about the importance of the work to the firm.
  • Establish a weekly check-in with a central person of authority, such as the Group leader. This creates a sense of accountability. Circulate the full status report to the steering committee and all participating teams each week.
  • Hold periodic meetings of the full Group, at which work product of the teams is shared with the Group, and comments from the Group are solicited. This creates deadlines for completion, the potential for embarrassment for non-completion and a sense of competition among the teams. It also reinforces buy-in and a sense of community.
  • Have the Group leader and other steering committee members provide comments on the teams' work product. This also promotes a sense of accountability.

Read more at:

How to improve law firm efficiency? Pt. 1 - Ask the lawyers what's needed,

Pt. 2 - Ask the lawyers about priorities, but don't ask them to help and

Pt. 3 - Make a plan that minimizes dependence on lawyers.

3. Institute checklists for practitioners

A checklist that outlines the anatomy of an agreement, and that is enhanced by the inclusion of relevant precedents, can produce 80% of the benefits of a standard form with 20% of the effort, and can be more quickly created and updated.

The kind of checklist envisioned is one that describes the key provisions of an agreement or other document – in effect, an anatomy of the agreement. The checklist will be used by the draftsperson to gain an understanding of the finer points of the key provisions. It tracks the main section headings of the agreement, and perhaps important subsections. It includes links to useful precedents containing sample language. It also includes cross-references to secondary explanatory material, such as a useful firm memo, relevant article or section of a treatise.

A checklist will not only help junior lawyers prepare drafts, but also prevent senior lawyers from overlooking what's been left out. It will help all lawyers review drafts prepared by third parties.

A process checklist can aid junior lawyers in performing a particular type of task for a matter, and can also serve as a master roadmap for the matter. This type of checklist could also include cross-references to relevant documents used during each step, or even to a checklist of the type described above that describes the contents of a relevant document.

This kind of process checklist not only can aid less experienced lawyers, but also can be used on a more real-time basis as a status reporting tool. If made available on-line, lawyers working on the matter could post status updates for the various steps in the matter, enabling the senior lawyer on the team quickly to assess where things stand for purposes of managing the team and reporting to the client.

Yet another type of checklist would list all the documents needed in the matter – essentially a closing checklist. By including assignments of primary responsibility to the firm and various other parties involved in the matter it could also be used as a status tracking tool, as well as enabling the relevant lawyers on the matter better to manage the production and finalization of documents.

Read more at What good is a checklist in a law firm?

4. Establish a search system that brings the efficiency of on-line shopping sites to law firm work product retrieval

Lawyers ask for their internal searches to work like Google. Instead, they should have a tool that works like Amazon.com: allowing relevant filters to be applied to narrow the results of a full-text search to a small number of highly relevant documents. Existing enterprise search software can do this. Work is required to develop the filter index and manually tag documents. The results, though, are very powerful.

Canstockphoto13223146

First, a list of subjects for tagging has to be developed. There should be many sets of these lists: for example, one list for legal topics, another for transaction types (or dispute types), and still others for document types, industries and geographic regions. In order to be useful, each list should have a tree structure with many levels. The lists can't be bought from a third party. They have to be developed specifically with the document collection and user group in mind. In a law firm, these types of search systems are best developed for a specific practice group.

Next each document in the collection must be tagged with the relevant items from each list. Not all documents will be tagged with elements from all lists, but many documents will be tagged with many elements from many lists. Tagging can be done only by someone familiar with the underlying content, such as a former practicing lawyer employed for this purpose.

Whether the effort to create tagging lists and to tag a document collection is worthwhile for a law firm practice group depends in part on the benefits in quality or efficiency expected to be realized. The anticipated benefits will be arrived at through interviews with the lawyers. Larger practice groups can spread the effort over a larger user base.

Read more at Finding our work product should be as easy as shopping on Amazon.com.

5. Institute an administrative system to identify matter completion

The seemingly small task of identifying completion of matters can actually be quite difficult. This is because it requires input from the lawyers, yet is considered by them to be so trivial that they assume others can address this need without their help.

Identifying matter completion is nevertheless important for many processes that benefit these lawyers:

  • collecting matter experience for marketing, to find precedents and to identfy lawyers with relevant experience to staff on similar new matters,
  • collecting data for fee benchmarking and budgeting, and
  • triggering after-action reviews.

The answer is for firm leadership to push for a central matter completion database. The steps to identify completed matters should piggyback to the extent possible on existing firm processes.

Read more at Leverage the small stuff.

6. Conduct after-action reviews

After-action reviews enable a practice group to learn by considering what went right and what went wrong, so they will do it better next time. That leads to greater efficiency, better financial results for the firm, greater client satisfaction and improved lawyer morale.

An after-action review should be conducted within a few weeks after completion of a matter or, for multi-year matters, within a few weeks after completion of a major phase. The review should be conducted in person with key players from the team, run efficiently using a checklist, led by a neutral partner and recorded in meeting minutes, with action items noted.

These reviews should be piloted at first, and conducted to avoid finger-pointing, given lawyer sensitivity to individual criticism. After the lawyers become comfortable, clients should be made aware of the firm's new practice and, in appropriate cases, invited to participate.

Read more at:

What's the fuss about after-action reviews? (Pt. 1 of 2) and Pt. 2 of 2.

Conclusion

These strategies can improve practice group efficiency, make lawyers happier and increase client satisfaction.

[Photo credits: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / limbi007 & edharcanstock]

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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KM/JD Consulting LLC renders impartial practice management advice to law firms on improving efficiency, increasing profits and reducing risk, emphasizing knowledge strategy.

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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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