Here are six strategies for improving collaboration and efficiency within a firm: (1) introducing profitability of matters rather than realization rate as the financial metric for evaluating partners, (2) apply methods to overcome lawyer resistance to organizing work product for more efficient re-use, (3) institute checklists to guide practitioners, (4) create a search system that adds subject matter and other filters to full-text search to bring the efficiency of on-line shopping sites to law firm work product retrieval, (5) institute a system to identify on a timely basis 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 (6) begin conducting after-action reviews.
How a practice management technique called knowledge strategy can help law firm leaders achieve strategic goals – ideas from a former AmLaw 20 senior partner.
Learning the magic – how to get lawyers to follow through on collaboration and efficiency commitments
Kendra Masters, head of the Capital Markets practice at an AmLaw 100 firm, has tried for many years to improve the way her lawyers collaborate, yet her efforts have not succeeded. Kendra sees how her lawyers can be more efficient, and produce a higher quality and more consistent work product, if they took the time to create some tools. For example: checklists, a repository of precedents, a system for sharing current developments news, an enhanced training program, a robust Group intranet and a complete deal list. Kendra has tried to do some of this work all by herself. These were all good ideas, but she has little to show for her efforts. A consultant explains to Kendra why, due to lawyer personalities, her efforts have not worked. He outlines a different approach that he says has worked many times, which employs tactics designed to overcome lawyers' natural resistance.
This post discusses a key point in Altman Weil's 2014 annual survey of law firms in transition, which was released last week, and its implications for law firms. An addendum to the post also summarizes other highlights of the survey. The law firms that are successful in improving efficiency will have the advantage. The hard part isn't deciding what to do; it's getting it done. Start with a pilot group and keep up the pressure. This is a long-term investment that will take time and effort at the outset but can bring great benefits over time.
“Top 10 Knowledge Strategies for Larger Law Firms,” a 57-page white paper for law firm leaders, is now available from the Knowledge Strategy Interest Group, which I chair, in the Law Practice Division of the American Bar Association. Knowledge strategy focuses on improving efficiency and quality at the practice group level through better collaboration and sharing of what lawyers know about client work, about clients, about markets for their services, and about their firms as businesses. Knowledge strategy also emphasizes involvement by the firm's senior-most leaders, which is the main driver of change in law firms.
“How can I change the culture here?” ponders Keith Mayfield, chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm. “I want this firm to be more open to new ideas about how we work, especially changes that can make us more efficient,” he thinks to himself. Keith has just finished reading an intriguing article that explains why some innovations take a long time to take hold, and ways to speed that up. For example, two dramatic medical innovations in the mid-19th century illustrate contrasting acceptance periods. Surgical anesthesia caught on immediately. Within six months it was being used in most regions of the world. In contrast, only a few years later the discovery of the life-saving benefits of antiseptic liquids and procedures in surgery had virtually no impact. Despite the fact that infection killed as many as half the patients who underwent major operations, it took almost 50 years for antiseptic methods to become an accepted part of surgical practice.
There are gaps between what law firm leaders acknowledge they should be doing and what they are actually doing, according to Altman Weil's annual “Law Firms in Transition” survey, released last week. For example, while 96% of respondents believe more price competition and a focus on improved practice efficiency are permanent changes in the law firm environment, only 55% of firms with 250 or more lawyers have significantly changed their strategic approach to efficiency in delivery of legal services. This post comments on improving efficiency in delivery of legal services, then presents a summary of the full survey, which also covers other topics.
On the advice of a consultant, Keith has been pushing for more proactive practice group management: asking each group to establish a strategy and external identity, specific revenue and realization rate goals (with profitability goals to be imposed in a couple years) and plans for client relationship management, business development, talent management (for partners and associates) and internal practice efficiency improvement. The primary burden falls on the practice group chairs. While many have shown good management skills in moving their plans forward, others have made little or no progress. Generally this latter group are in their positions because of their superior lawyering and new business skills, not their management skills. Replacing them as chairs is not an option, however. Keith decides to apply the personality strategies to the chair of an important practice group.
Recognizing that without more lawyer input the administrative staff cannot gather accurate and complete profile data about concluded matters, Keith has started a lawyer-driven project to collect this information. This experience data will be used to assist lawyers in identifying comparable matters for purposes of finding precedents, preparing pitch materials, staffing matters with lawyers who have relevant experience and identifying internal experts on a particular type of matter. The data can also be used for more complete league table reporting. The project envisions associates submitting the required data at the end of each matter, using an on-line form. Keith had asked a partner in the firm's capital markets group to head this project, but progress has been limited. The partner has been diligent in pursing the initiative, but has been getting limited traction with her fellow partners and the associates in the practice group. The main challenge has been getting the many involved lawyers to attend meetings and follow up on their individual commitments.
“How can I get my partners to follow through on their commitments?” muses Keith Mayfield, Chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm. His current concerns are several internal practice improvement projects that need to be headed by partners but are floundering because the partners spend all their time on client work and none on the projects. These include: a legal project management initiative, a pilot program to collect better data about matters to facilitate finding similar matters for precedents, pitch materials and internal expertise, an effort to revitalize management of an important practice group that has been essentially unmanaged, and a project to revamp internal continuing legal education for senior associates and partners. Keith has never believed as strongly as he does now in the accuracy of the maxim “Managing lawyers is like herding cats.”
“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.
This is a four-part post. In this Part 1, we will see how Keith gets the right people to run the profitability initiatives. In Part 2, we will see how the leaders of the initiatives get the rest of the practice group to play ball. In Part 3, we will see how a collaboration between the practice group and the IT Dept. can work. In Part 4, we will look back after two years to see what worked and what didn't. We will also summarize some of the principles that lead to success. Having decided to move forward with his plans to capture premium work and to move associates more quickly up the work food chain, Keith Mayfield, chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm, considers how to make these plans happen. Moving associates up the work food chain will affect the entire firm. Capturing premium work is intended only for some practice groups.