The Legal Marketing Association recently hosted its annual conference on project management, process improvement and pricing (P3) in Chicago. Billed as a forum where innovative practice management approaches are shared, the event continues to showcase progressive ideas and practical experiences from firms transforming the business of law.
It’s wise to take any presentation of best practices with a proverbial grain of salt. But you also have to give credit to those who proactively invest in new ideas and risk failure. That’s something we don’t see enough of in law.
Here are some of the ideas heard at this year’s P3 conference.
The Chicken or the Egg?
Some firms have based innovations on a philosophy of putting clients first, others started with internal strategies. My perception is that firms with relatively steep declines in profits or earning capacity start with strategy aimed at adjusting firm culture or operations while those with steady or improving profits have started with a clients-first approach aimed at increasing market share.
If you base any initiative on meeting long-term client needs and if you have accurate, unbiased research to support your ideas, your chances of success are good. But no idea will get traction unless you have buy-in from partners.
Building a base for innovation
“Culture without consistency is chaos”, said Jeffrey Carr of ValoremNext in his keynote address. He presented a simple process to promote consistency based on his experiences as in-house counsel at FMC Technologies and in his work at Valorem: plan using a project management platform, perform the work while adjusting processes as necessary and perfect through evaluation. Every time.
How do clients really perceive the value and capabilities of your services? The most successful firms know, share and benchmark reputation before launching any program aimed at improving competitive position.
Every presentation at P3 illustrated the need to understand and agree on profitability metrics. There is no point in launching a process improvement initiative if it won’t help your firm maintain or increase its profit margin. It also needs to be tied to compensation.
The next level
Process improvement ideas were plentiful. The most obvious – but perhaps also most difficult to get off the ground- suggested mapping processes to enable appropriate resource allocation and agility. It’s also important to create a culture where successful procedures are defined and shared on a regular basis.
If people can’t see what they are gaining, they will focus on what they are losing.
Pricing options need to align with value delivered, internal resources and profitability goals. And it isn’t only firms that can do better; one firm trained its lawyers to train their clients about win-win pricing options after realizing that clients –while inspired to demand “predictable budgets” – actually had trouble modelling how those budgets could or should be structured.
Legal project management remains the most popular form of process improvement. More firms are training people to create shared language, narratives and procedures that align capabilities with value creation. Honigman LLP, a 300-lawyer firm primarily based in Michigan, shared lessons learned since launching a firm-wide LPM initiative more than four years ago. Their story illustrates the tenacity and time required to really commit to improvements.
Practice management: Toby Brown, Chief Practice Management Officer at Perkins Coie LLP led a refreshingly frank panel discussion on the impact of increasingly complex outside counsel guidelines.
Voluminous, defensively crafted guidelines signal mistrust between institutional clients and external counsel, but they can be addressed through: a) improved communication within firms to ensure that administrative departments understand implications and enable compliance through process improvements, and; b) checking assumptions by facilitating discussions with clients about factors influencing guideline development.
The most interesting observation after spending two days discussing practice innovation was the variety of roles now seen at law firms; chief value partners, marketing and IT directors who lead cross-functional initiatives, business analysts, pricing executives, project managers, COOs and others.
It’s evident that firms are asking more of administrative leaders and that roles are still being defined and implemented to varying degrees of success.
Evolving roles also imply opportunities for lawyers interested in an alternate career path. Lawyers who have spent a portion of their career within a firm will understand its culture and (likely) take less time to build the type of trust required to convince others that change is worth the effort. They can also decipher the competing concepts to determine which ones offer the highest return on investment, which, in the end, is what practice innovation is all about.