My Blog - Connecting the Dots

How to get lawyers to play ball (Pt. 3 of 4)

Posted by Jack Bostelman on Jun 10, 2012 | 0 Comments

In the last post, Larry, as leader of the initiative to increase premium work within the commercial real estate group of an AmLaw 100 firm, laid out the steps to gain support of his fellow partners to hire lateral partners and train existing partners.

Steps for associate training

Having addressed partner buy-in, Larry turns his attention to gaining associate support. The most important aspects of the associate training are attendance and assimilation of the material. The mid-level and senior associates are the main audience, yet they are subject to the greatest pressures to put client work first. Accountability for training attendance and participation, and support from the partners, are the key ways to address attendance. Larry's key steps are:

  • Have Keith and Jeff explain to the associates in the group the overall goal of the firm in upgrading associate skills:  supporting the premium work being sought and ensuring longevity of the practice group through financial success.
  • Explain the personal benefits to the associates:  improving their skills (making them more marketable), engaging in more interesting and challenging work, taking on greater responsibility, increasing their client contact and getting billable hours (and CLE) credit for training.
  • Use the lecture format to accommodate the necessarily larger class sizes, but use the case study method. Make attendance mandatory. Unlike most law firm training, give reading and writing assignments. Call on associates during class. Give written comments, but not grades, on the assignments. State that attendance and completion of assignments will be factors in performance reviews.
  • Advise associates to speak to Larry if they feel caught between client work and attending mandatory training. Explain that partners are supporting the program but in the press of client demands can lose sight of the importance of class attendance, or they may simply be unaware of the associate's conflict. Obtain Jeff's commitment to intervene with his partners as necessary to ensure associates can attend training.
  • Record the training sessions for use as make-up classes.
  • Spread the teaching load among as many partners in the group as possible. Recruit associates to assist in preparing written course materials. Many of the topics and materials may be borrowed from the partner training program.
  • Establish a mentoring program so that associates can better apply their classroom learning to client work.
  • Describe the electronic knowledge base that will be established to support the commercial real estate practice.

The success criterion for the associate training program is that associate leverage in the practice group increases by a specified percentage.

Larry recognizes that success in the associate training program will require significant administrative effort at a high level. He is happy that he hired a former lawyer dedicated to assist with the training programs.

Steps for the electronic knowledge base

Keith encourages Larry to hand the knowledge base project off to the firm's IT Dept. He tells Larry he is already busy enough and the knowledge base is mostly a technology project. With some reservations, Larry follows Keith's suggestion, figuring the firm's chairman must know best.

The success criterion for the knowledge base is that associates and, to a lesser extent, partners, find the system improves their efficiency and ability to find new answers, based on a subjective survey. The result is a near-disaster.

The IT Dept. Struggles. The knowledge base is to be a repository of practice notes, articles, research memos, transaction precedent documents, standard forms and other materials useful in the practice. The IT Dept., lacking any knowledge about the substance of the commercial real estate practice, plans to place all the material in one file and allow it to be accessed using a “smart” search engine that automatically assigns categories to the documents. To obtain documents for the knowledge base, the IT staff asks Larry and some other lawyers he suggests to send documents for the knowledge base. These lawyers are too busy to pull out much material.

In the absence of documents from lawyers, the IT Dept. moves into the knowledge base all documents in the firm's document management system that relate to commercial real estate matters, relying on the automatic categorization software to organize it. They design a slick user access system through the firm's intranet. Fortunately, the IT Dept. also schedules pilot testing with selected lawyers in the real estate group before rolling out the new system.

It becomes quickly apparent the system is a failure. Luckily, because only a few lawyers tested it, the failure is a quiet one. The system contains hundreds of thousands of documents, mostly irrelevant. Not knowing this, the categorization software has duly organized them, although the chosen categories are not granular enough and don't correspond to the terminology actually used by the real estate lawyers in their practice. There is no browsing feature. Many users of the knowledge base want to be able to start without knowing specifically what they're looking for. Rather than a search engine, they need a way to browse through the material to see how it's organized and get a sense of what's available. Even when the users attempt a search, there are so many irrelevant documents in the knowledge base that search results are too lengthy to be useful.

A Better Way Is Found. Having wasted many months and some money, Larry decides to re-do the knowledge base project his way. He recognizes that cooperation from the lawyers is the most important element. He needs the help of a few in designing the system, the help of many in placing content in the system and the interest of all in using the system.

For design, he works with a small group of lawyers to generate a taxonomy for the real estate group. A taxonomy is a multi-level table of subjects and other attributes that will be used to find material in the knowledge base. It includes, for example, whether a document is a practice note or a transactional precedent, the nature of the transaction to which it relates and the substantive topic of the document. Fortunately, Larry has maintained an extensive paper file of resource materials for many years. He starts building the taxonomy using the topics covered in his own paper files. With the help of an associate, he makes one-on-one visits to other partners, including the new laterals, to locate additional content and possible taxonomy topics.

Larry next asks the IT Dept. to create an electronic storage location for the paper documents from Larry's and the other partners' files, which will be scanned into searchable documents. He also asks the IT Dept. to create a way for lawyers to browse documents by using the taxonomy via an intranet interface. The IT Dept. suggests that an advanced full-text search feature also be made available, which Larry accepts. Building the system actually turns out to be a challenging project for the IT Dept., which brings in a technical consultant to help. Larry gets Keith to approve the expenditure.

When the system is ready for testing, it contains the documents from Larry's and several other partners' files. It also contains all the documents from the practice group's central paper files, maintained by a paralegal, as well as the standard forms the group has prepared. It also contains all the written material from the partner and associate training programs. The dedicated former lawyer hired by the HR Dept. to help with the training programs also has spent much time tagging those documents with the relevant taxonomy terms, working with the associate Larry has involved in the project. Larry decides tagging new documents must become one of the dedicated former lawyer's continuing job responsibilities.

The lawyers remain involved. Larry asks a few partners and associates to test the system. With their feedback, some changes to the user interface and functioning of the system are made. Larry knows that what seem to be merely cosmetic issues to the IT Dept. can become substantive obstacles to lawyer acceptance.

Larry gradually expands the group of lawyers who use the new system. He gets the new lateral partners, some of whom had similar systems at their former firms, to become advocates for the power of the knowledge base. Larry also gathers success anecdotes, as lawyers are able to save time locating useful resource material or find precedents they would not otherwise have known about.

Finally, Larry announces the knowledge base at a regular practice group meeting, sharing many of the success stories. There is already good word-of-mouth about the system, so acceptance comes fairly readily. Larry uses the regular practice group meetings as a continuing platform to remind users of the need to send material to the knowledge base. Larry schedules periodic training programs that use a case study methodology and real-life research questions. He also creates on-line reference material about how best to use the knowledge base for common tasks, such as researching a question of law, drafting a certain type of agreement or learning the steps required for certain types of transactions.

A content contribution incentive is created. Mindful of the need to keep the knowledge base content fresh, and not wishing to rely on voluntary contributions by lawyers, Larry has the dedicated former lawyer make periodic “sweeps” of lawyers' offices, focusing on the partners and asking them for new material. These sweeps include trips to the firm's other offices where commercial real estate lawyers reside. Larry also has included a feature in the knowledge base that allows a user to filter its content based on the contributing lawyer's name. A lawyer can make the system work like a private electronic knowledge base, mimicking the lawyer's own paper resource files, by filtering the browsing function to show only documents contributed by the particular lawyer. Larry also ensures that the knowledge base is available remotely via iPads and laptops. Over time, this filtering feature and the remote access flexibility persuade a great many partners to send their new resource documents directly to the knowledge base, abandoning their personal paper resource files.

Promotion efforts continue. Larry keeps up the effort to ingrain the knowledge base into lawyers' thinking. He includes a success story anecdote at all practice meetings. He offers annual retraining for all lawyers in the group. He sends periodic e-mails seeking content, to supplement the “sweeps” and partner voluntary contributions. Larry knows he has succeeded when partners begin to tout the knowledge base in new business pitches.

Why did Larry's approach work?

Larry's approach worked because it had the following elements lacking in the IT Dept.'s approach:

  • Design the system with lawyers, so it will address their needs and gain their buy-in.
  • Have a respected partner visibly lead the effort.
  • Have fellow lawyers promote the system to their colleagues.
  • Don't rely on altruism or long-run benefits to the group as motivation for lawyers.
  • Remind lawyers regularly about the system's existence and its capabilities.
  • Create immediate personal incentives for lawyers to contribute content.

The IT Dept. plays an essential role in translating the business need defined by the practice group into a functioning system. Nevertheless, lawyers need to lead the effort and be involved at every stage in order for the system to be successful.

In the next post

In the next post, we will jump ahead two years to see what aspects of the initiative have worked and what haven't.

[Photo credit: © Lushpix /]

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.

Jack Bostelman, President

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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How a practice management technique called knowledge strategy can help law firm leaders achieve strategic goals – ideas from a former AmLaw 20 senior partner.