Law Firm Transparency – Take Two (ILTA09)

Yesterday’s post, Are Law Firms Ready for Transparency, was retweeted on Twitter quite heavily and generated a fair amount of discussion there and via e-mail. Some of that discussion is now reflected in an update I published this morning clarifying a few of the features of Mallesons Connect. (If you’re interested in Mallesons’ terrific project, I’d encourage you to take a look at that update.)

The conversation also led me to think harder about what law firm transparency involves.  For both the sake of the client and the law firm, the purpose of encouraging transparency should not be to play “gotcha.”  Rather it should be to help both parties make their relationship more effective by helping each understand better what goes into creating the work product both need.  And, through this understanding, to help each manage the process better.  From the client’s perspective, if you enter into this transparency looking to find billing infractions, then you have a bigger problem — you have to ask yourself if you are working with the right law firm.  From the firm’s perspective, if you find it necessary to cloak what’s happening within your firm, you too may have a bigger problem — you might need to rethink and revise your internal business processes.  Alternatively, you might have a client whose expectations cannot reasonably be met by your firm.  In each case, transparency will serve only to underscore the need to examine the relationship and the client engagement.

Transparency has the effect of shining a light on your relationships.  Are you ready to tackle what you see?

[Photo Credit: mushi king]

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Are Law Firms Ready for Transparency? (ILTA09)

If you blinked at ILTA09 last week, you might have missed it. And, even if you saw it, did you understand its implications?  One law firm has found a way to create real transparency in its dealings with its clients.  Are other firms ready to do the same?

During the session on Technologies That Will Disrupt Traditional Legal Practice, Gerard Neiditsch showed us Mallesons‘ new client service tool, Mallesons Connect. As I mentioned in my last ILTA09 post, Help Law Firms Deliver Value, this extranet provides clients with a clear window into Mallesons. And, it does this by presenting information from a truly client-centric perspective.  According to Gerard, most extranets function as black boxes. For many, they are simply archives. By contrast, Mallesons Connect provides Mallesons’ clients with an unimpeded view showing how Mallesons is working rather than just what Mallesons has done. How do they do this?  They provide (or will be providing shortly) the following information via a direct feed from their firm’s various systems:

  • Finances – project estimates, what fees have been incurred to date, aged invoices, etc.
  • Projects – real-time status of projects and resource availability.
  • Personnel – a directory of all Mallesons personnel working on projects for a particular client.  The directory is tailored for each client to show the personnel organized in a manner that reflects that client’s business units rather than Mallesons’ internal organization.
  • Current awareness information – news feeds, client alerts, etc.
  • Deal rooms and Data rooms.
  • E-mail – a complete real-time collection of all e-mail exchanged between the client and the firm.  (Using Recommind’s Decisiv tool.)

Yes, e-mail.  Is this the thin edge of the wedge?  Have law firms ever given clients access to correspondence files before outside of a discovery request?  Once clients can see an organized real-time collection of firm correspondence, what’s next?

The answer to that question may well come from Mallesons.  Gerard told us that Mallesons monitors client usage of the service very closely and then adapts the tool to suit client needs.  As a result, Mallesons will know before anyone else exactly what clients want and will be able to provide it while other firms are debating the merits of increased transparency.

There’s another important element that should not go unremarked.  Law firms rightly believe that they should bring only their very best work to their clients.  Since this work rarely springs into life fully formed, this means firms hide behind the curtain all the preparatory measures necessary to generate excellent work product.  However, once you introduce real-time transparency into your relationship with your client, it will be much harder to hide the behind-the-scenes work.  And, that transparency will provide clients an opportunity to comment on our work and working methods behind that curtain.  Are law firms ready for this level of oversight?

To give them credit, Mallesons “put its money where its mouth is” by providing an extraordinary level of transparency into the process of developing the Mallesons Connect tool itself.  They created a prototype and took it to their clients, only to discover that it wasn’t what their clients needed.  Rather than retreating behind the curtain to try another approach, they worked closely with their clients to develop the tool to meet client needs.    This is definitely a departure from the way most law firm technologists and knowledge management personnel are used to working.  And, it will require a change in the way lawyers have come to view the process of developing practice support tools.

No more little man behind the curtain.  Now, we really need to be the Wizard of Oz.

*** Update (3 Sept 09):

The good folks at Mallesons provided a bit more information on Mallesons Connect that might be helpful to other law firms considering entering this brave new world of transparency:

  • Work in progress information is an optional feature that is provided as a composite rather than in detail.  (I’m assuming this ensures that proper internal firm procedures can be followed in preparing  bills.)    Their clients understand that the financial information is indicative rather than final, and is intended to help clients avoid  surprises.
  • Mallesons is intending to expand Mallesons Connect from its current primarily financial data focus to providing collaborative work spaces shared by clients and the firm.   It is these work spaces (e.g., project wikis) that will house the personnel directory (using Mallesons’ superb People Finder tool) and the e-mail.  As mentioned above, the e-mail displayed will consistent of e-mail exchanged between the firm and the client.  It will not include any internal firm conversations regarding the client or the matter.
  • Their over-arching goal is to create a useful information site for clients that can be populated automatically in real-time.  (It seems to me that aside from ensuring that the feeds from the firm’s systems work, it’s important to understand what firm information can be displayed automatically without editing or explanation.  If there is a danger that a reasonable person might misunderstand the information presented, the firm should think twice about including that information.   The point of the exercise is to introduce transparency and clarity, not confusion.  And, by automating the delivery of information, the firm is hoping to achieve this transparency and clarity without imposing additional ongoing work on the client or the firm.)

Stepping back from the detail, the key to making this work culturally and politically within a law firm is to start by providing noncontroversial information such as prior invoices, completed and current work product, and e-mail the client has already seen.  Once this is automated and functioning well, the firm and client can think about what other information would be useful to both parties to make their relationship more effective and to help both manage the work.  Taken from this perspective, it’s a win-win situation for client and firm.

[Photo Credit:  Just Jefa]

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Help Law Firms Deliver Value (ILTA09)

Shift happens — even in law firms. Are you ready? That’s the question that kept surfacing at the ILTA09 conference last week.

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have noticed the impact of the economy on law firms and their clients alike.  Thankfully, ILTA09 didn’t just remind us of the bad news all around.  The conference did something more helpful — it provided information and real examples of how lawyers and technologists around the world are rising to the challenges of the shifting landscape.

While I’ve provided some fairly detailed reporting of several ILTA09 sessions during the course of the past week,  I want now to take a step back and try to convey some general themes that emerged across sessions.  My first focus is on delivering value.  This theme was launched officially with a keynote address by Richard Susskind entitled, “The End of Lawyering?”.  Over the course of his keynote address and panel presentation, he made the following points:

  • If law firms are serious about addressing client concerns regarding the rising cost of legal services, those firms will have to increase efficiency radically.  In order to manage costs, clients are going to have to consider collaboration with other clients and thereby share costs.
  • The best way to reduce costs intelligently is to start by analyzing your current costs of delivering services.  Once firms break down service into its component parts and price those parts, firms can then experiment with finding cheaper ways to provide those components.  This may mean sub-contracting the work or moving it offshore, for example.
  • One way to reduce costs is to standardize services (e.g., creating model or standard form documents). Going further, you can systematize or automate those services (e.g., by using document assembly tools).  Once automation is complete, a firm can then package these services and make them available online to clients, who can use the packaged services as and when needed.  The example Susskind cited was Wilson Sonsini’s contract generator for start ups.  He described packaged services like this as a means for firms to “make money while you sleep.”
  • Central to rethinking how we deliver services more efficiently is disrupting the current business model and deploying disruptive technologies in our firms.  However, while these disruptive technologies will give a firm competitive advantage, Susskind believes that most firms don’t seek this.  In his experience, firms are more concerned about suffering a competitive DISadvantage rather than having a competitive advantage.  In other words, they are more worried about being left behind than blazing a new trail.
  • Here are the top 10 disruptive technologies  Richard Susskind identified:
    • Automated document assembly.
    • Relentless Connectivity.  (Clients expect 24/7 availability, so lawyers need to use online tools to provide a continuous online presence.)
    • Electronic legal marketplace.  (Like on ebay, clients will have better pricing information and will be able to auction/bid for legal services.)
    • e-Learning.  (Laws schools are beginning to use online simulation tools train students for modern legal practice circa 2009 not 1980.)
    • Online Legal Service. (There are many English public sector websites that offer online legal guidance, so you don’t have to hire a lawyer.)
    • Legal Open-Sourcing. (Some legal resources are now gathered and offered free of charge.  This trend will grow like wikipedia.)
    • Closed Legal Communities. (More clients will form online communities to collect and share legal know-how.)
    • Workflow & Project Management. (Automation and enhanced project management can improve margins on high volume, low value work.)
    • Embedded Legal Knowledge. (More systems will embed compliance requirements, thus removing the need for separate legal advice.)
    • Online Dispute Resolution. (Moving dispute resolution online eliminates the expense of having to meet in a physical location.)

At a later session, Fred Krebs (President  of the Association of Corporate Counsel in Washington, D.C.) spoke about the ACC’s Value Challenge, which is based on the premise that it is the clients that define what constitutes “value” in legal services.  He started by pointing out that while overall costs to corporations have increased by 20% during the past 10 years, their legal costs have risen by 75%.  In order to address this imbalance, the members of the ACC have issued the Value Challenge to counteract what they describe as the “perverse incentives of the billable hour.” The Value Challenge aims to help corporate counsel manage costs by increasing transparency in the process for setting prices for law firm services.  Their hope is that this will bring about more efficiency and cost predictability.

Moving from theory to action, we then heard from some firms that were taking concrete steps to address the new economic realities.  One firm that has moved significantly down this path is Bryan Cave.  As John Alber and Connie Hoffman told us over the course of two sessions, they have spent significant time analyzing their services and business processes and now believe they know what it really costs to deliver services to clients.  With this data in hand, Bryan Cave can model the impact on price by changing the components of service (e.g., what happens if you change the staffing?).  Along the way, they created an online tool to help with this analysis and then licensed that tool to Redwood Analytics, who now provides it to other firms.  (This is another example of what Susskind calls “making money while you sleep.”)  Bryan Cave has also rethought how to conduct a due diligence review and created an online tool that streamlines the due diligence process.  They have been able to push due diligence work down to less expensive personnel while ensuring quality through a training component embedded in the tool.  In addition, they are providing transparency by allowing clients to obtain reports on demand regarding the process and cost of the due diligence effort.

On the subject of transparency, Mallesons in Australia has blazed a new trail with Mallesons Connect.  As described by Gerard Neiditsch, this new extranet application gives clients real-time information regarding lawyer activity, progress against project goals, and fees incurred.   It also provides information on billing history and outstanding invoices.  In the process, Mallesons learned that this transparency can have unexpected benefits.  Besides keeping everyone accountable, Mallesons discovered that once their law department clients saw the invoice information, they were able to expedite payments.

If your firm would like to rethink how it delivers value to its clients, the panelists advise you to start by analyzing your business processes.  Using a simple Gantt chart,  identify the components and dependencies of your process.  Once you really understand the workflow, introduce simple technology to help automate parts of the process.  If it works, extend it.  If it doesn’t work, learn from it.  Throughout this process, however, don’t forget the advice of Steven Levy, as quoted by one of the panelists:  “Technology cannot replace thinking. Automating broken processes won’t make us smarter; it can make us stupider faster.”

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For more information on delivering value to clients, see the following resources:

My post on a prior talk given by Richard Susskind and its implications for law firm knowledge management.

David Hobbie’s Caselines posts on Richard Susskind’s keynote address and the related panel presentation.

Andrew McLennan-Murray’s summary of Richard Susskind’s keynote and panel presentation.

Susan Jacobsen’s post on the the ACC Value Challenge session at ILTA09.

ACC’s resources on Leveraging Knowledge, including specific measures taken by various law firms.

[Photo Credit:  dasmart]

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