A fresh start to your practice and mine

I know things have been quiet on this site for awhile, and I have a simple explanation—I took a job. And not just any job: in early 2016 I was asked to head up the legal project management and process improvement function for an AmLaw 150 law firm. For a guy who bills himself as an expert in LPM and process improvement, this would probably seem like too good an opportunity to pass up. And it was, although I wasn’t without reservations when I finally said yes.

You see, I have intentionally avoided BigLaw for as long as I’ve been a lawyer. And while I didn’t necessarily have white-shoe firms beating down my door, my credentials were decent: Editor-in-chief of the Law Review, good enough grades, and something of a je ne sais quoi (or maybe just entitlement) that comes from growing up in the 4th generation of a family of lawyers. I “summered” in law school with a large local firm and got a job offer at the end, but I turned it down. Not because of anything about that particular firm—I enjoyed working with them and had some interesting assignments. But something about the big firm model didn’t sit quite right with me.

Nine years later I’d given up legal practice for legal operations. And not “traditional” legal ops that worked in the 80s and 90s, but a new way of looking at the practice that—to my mind and a growing body of evidence—would result in better client outcomes at lower cost. While I was initially suspicious that this BigLaw firm was truly interested in adopting these new methods, the person who hired me convinced me that the firm was committed to innovation and wanted to stand out from their competition.

Then reality hit.

Within 2 months of my coming on board, my boss got passed over for the firm’s COO job (that she was highly qualified for), and, unsurprisingly, she’d put other irons in the fire and soon left. After the new COO came on board I was initially optimistic. He came from other AmLaw firms but had an honest sense that the industry needed to change and seemed to want to get out in front of it. But he soon became mired in some other lingering problems of the firm, and my function languished on the back burner. (Turns out he only lasted 10 months; though he seemed conscientious about firm politics, his change agenda apparently crossed the line anyway.)

I had some definite wins at the firm. A handful of partners had developed alternative fee relationships with their clients and were facing up to the fact that the ways of working profitably under an hourly fee can kill you under alternative fees. I’ll talk more about those successes, and what you can learn from them, in a future post. But the challenges . . . . I knew I’d face them, but I don’t think I fully appreciated the extent to which lawyers would cling to their status quo even with mounting evidence that those practices will hurt them in the rapidly approaching future.

My typical interaction with a partner went something like this:

Partner: Hey there, good to talk to ya. My client is telling me that I need to start doing the legal project management thing, and the intranet says you’re the guy for that. So can you do some LPM for me so we can keep the client happy?

Me: I’d be happy to help, but it isn’t really something I can do “for” you, it’s more like “with” you. If you and your team are ready to try some new ways of working, then I know we can really start to deliver some better value for your client’s legal spend. Before we go much further though, a quick question: Are you billing this matter hourly or do you have some sort of alternative fee?

Partner: Well the client keeps talking about alternative fees, but I just give ’em 15% off my rack rate and that seems to keep ’em happy.

Me: Got it. Just so we’re clear then, the whole point of legal project management is to make you more efficient at the work you’re doing.

Partner: Efficiency, yes! That’s exactly what the client wants.

Me: Right. It is definitely the right thing to do for your relationship with the client, and really for the long-term health of your practice. But, just so you know, in the short term it means you’re going to bill fewer hours on this matter. I know your and your team’s compensation is tied to the number of hours you work in a year.

Partner: Well of course.

Me: So I want you to be clear that—at least in the short term—part of what you’re asking me to do is reach into your wallet and take money out of it.

Partner: Come again?

Me: If I help make your team more efficient, that means you’ll work fewer hours on this matter, which means you’ll have to make up those hours with other work in order to hit your bonus target.

Partner: I see…

Me: But if you’re OK with that, let’s find an hour or two on your calendar to do some training with your team to get you started down this path.

Partner: A couple hours? Well, um, you see I’m really slammed right now and I don’t think I have a couple hours to spare. Why don’t I just tell my client that I talked to the project management guy; they’ll like to hear we’ve got someone for that. I’ll let them know that you’re on standby and can jump in to do your thing if we really need it, but I’m not sure this is the best matter for all that stuff. Lots of complexities you know. OK, well I’ve gotta go do a thing for a client. Busy busy busy! It’s been great talking with you and I’m really glad we can say we’ve got you on our team.

Me: Great talking with you too, you know how to find me if you need me.

Partner: Uh-huh. Talk to you later then. *Click*

You can probably guess how often they called back.

And so I fell into something of a rut. Yes, there were those wins where lawyers had alternative fees in place, but there weren’t enough to keep me busy full time. For awhile there were folks from other teams who were happy to use process improvement to make their lives better—some of the local marketing leads for instance. But eventually I started talking about using data to measure the effectiveness of discreet marketing efforts, and word of that got back to the Chief Marketing Officer. Pretty soon he let me know in no uncertain terms that I was operating “out of my lane” and was to stay away from his department.

Similar troubles arose when I poked my nose into HR (“Do you think it is a problem that we have over 30% annual attrition for non-partner positions? Especially when nearly half of the people leaving were our ‘diversity hires’?”). And then collections (“Why are we spending so much time and effort chasing payments that are over 120 days past due when our historical data show that we’ll only collect pennies on each dollar? Couldn’t we reinvest those efforts in programs to encourage early payment?”).

In short, I was genuinely trying to be helpful; I was using my toolset and experience to try to save the firm money and improve performance. But that wasn’t what the old-guard powers within the firm perceived. At best they saw me as some upstart gadfly who, to their minds, was effectively saying that they’ve been “doing it wrong” all these years. At worst, they saw someone who was stirring up trouble and threatening their hard-won fiefdoms.

The final straw came a couple of months ago when I was asked to help answer a few questions we’d received as part of a Request for Information (RFI) from one of the firm’s existing major clients. The queries had to do with the firm’s adoption of tools and technology for legal project management and process improvement, and I initially responded that, although I’d been trying to build up our capabilities for over a year, the reality was that we didn’t have very good answers. I asked if I could have the entire RFI document to see if some context could help me frame better responses.

When the full RFI arrived, I knew we were in trouble. The whole thing was taken directly out of the playbook published last summer by the Association of Corporate Counsel called “Unless You Ask; A Guide For Law Departments To Get More From External Relationships.” I’d spent some quality time with that guide, going so far as to send copies to a handful of the big bosses and to put physical copies on many lawyer’s desks. I told them at the time that “this report is probably too long, but it is the closest thing I’ve seen to a ‘client bill of rights,’ and right now we don’t have very good answers for it. If we don’t take this thing seriously, we’re going to be in trouble when our clients or prospects actually start to use it.”

So nine months later we hadn’t done squat, and now one of our biggest clients was following the playbook to a “T.” When I eventually discussed the full RFI with the relationship partner for that client (one of the people who had received the ACC guide and my urging to read it), he remarked, and I quote, “It’s almost as if this thing is specifically designed to take our pants down.”

Now he gets it.

There were some real challenges getting our RFI response back to the client.  I won’t go into them other than to say that a fantastic biz-dev lead—someone who had done everything in her power to make sure things stayed on track—was thrown under the bus by that relationship partner to cover for his own shortcomings. Her boss, the aforementioned CMO, sided with the partner (he knows where his bread is buttered) and she wound up resigning in tears. +1 to those attrition figures for “diversity” employees.

Just about a week later, that same partner called me into his office and put me on speakerphone where a voice from headquarters informed me that the firm, “due to cost-control efforts,” had eliminated my position effictive immediately. That is to say the firm no longer felt the need to have a Program Manager for its Legal Project Management and Process Improvement efforts.

As I said in my hastily-typed farewell email, it was a “fascinating” 15 months. I’m sure I made some missteps—not the least of which was mis-underestimating the momentum of the status quo. And, to be fair, I had largely failed to deliver the substantial improvements I’d hoped to build, though it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

But I learned a ton, and am more excited than ever to bring those learnings to other firms and other practices (if they’re ready). Perhaps most exciting to me, with those lawyers who were using alternative fees, I was able to substantially and measurably help them improve their profitability using Agile project management and Lean process improvements. I’m not giving up those tools’ effectiveness for billable hour work yet either, but they definitely operate with a headwind in an environment that favors hourly compensation.

It’s been just a few months since I’ve been back out in the world as a coach and consultant, and already I’ve had some great projects. I’ve helped an Estate Planing firm in Portland use Agile tools to clear their backlog of “stuck” matters and transition many of their new clients to flat fees. I’ve helped a plaintiff’s side employment firm in Irvine develop a Lean matter management system that has significantly increased the throughput of their existing team. And I’ve helped a legal marketing firm in Pasadena develop the biggest Kanban board I’ve been a part of, a tool that’s helped them increase their velocity and improve their capacity to take on more new work.

I’m excited to tell their stories, but I’m even more excited to help get you started with yours. I’m more committed to using Lean and Agile systems for improving legal practice than ever, and the only thing I like more than talking about it is doing it. To learn how I can help you get started with your own improvement efforts, don’t hesitate to contact me to set up a free call. I’m energized by this fresh start to my practice, and can’t wait to help make it a fresh start for yours.

Finally, if you haven’t already, please sign up for the Agile Attorneys Slack Group to find easy access to some of the world’s leading thinkers on Lean and Agile practices for the legal industry.

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