AFAs – A Win-Lose or a Win-Win?

November 22, 2010

I came across’s article “Project Management with SharePoint Task Lists” when looking for task management solution for one of my clients. Its main story line was Fenwick & West’s use of SharePoint as a project and task management tool for their attorneys.
It’s a very good article with practical advice from a seasoned SharePoint professional. What caught my eye however, was this statement:
“While AFAs can take many forms, they share one thing in common — they transfer the risk of cost overruns from the client to the firm”. This gave me a pause. Is this the emerging perception of AFAs? Should law firms be treated just as Wallmart treats their suppliers?

I hope not. The trend towards alternatives to the venerable hourly billing model (see my previous post on the topic), is not, to put it bluntly,  screwing one side so the other will benefit. The idea is to restore some balance. It’s about improved risk management and cost controls as well as a reasonable measure of predictability for the client. Is the pendulum swinging too far to the other side?

Cost overruns can happen for many reasons. AFAs combined with better matter (project) management can and should provide a framework for decreasing and managing risks. Not simply shifting the risk from one side to the other. You don’t need to be a GC or a managing partner with an MBA to know that having one side carry all the risk is simply not a sustainable business model. It could be that some firms will feel pressured to take on all the risk – maybe facing competitive pressures and demanding RFP situations. But I would suggest that firms resist such un-reasonable demands. In the long run, this is a lose-lose proposition. They won’t be able to afford such arrangements and their clients will end up either paying un-necessary risk premium or risk getting substandard services. Everyone’s focus should be on a  balanced model.

Making AFAs work is in the clients’ interest – but it’s also a change issue and therefore a burden for most of them. Law firms – as the suppliers who’re motivated to acquire and retain clients – have an opportunity (and an obligation) to take clients along for the AFA learning curve. It will then become a Win-Win proposition.


Just Go with the Flow

November 18, 2010

Fraser Milner’s CTO, Scott Saundry drew my attention to the concept of “In-the-Flow” and “Above-the-Flow” – specifically in the context of Wikis. But after reading the originating article, I find that this intuitive principle aptly describes any knowledge access and sharing activity that’s vying for adoption. Done right, it should practically integrate into the flow of principal daily activities – hence being In-the-Flow. If our venerable knowledge worker has to stray far from what they do (to make their living), there’s a risk that it will end up Above-the-Flow and therefore will be used less frequently.

As an example, using Outlook’s Linked-In connector is clearly In-the-Flow, but having to  download, open, edit and then re-upload a document into a cloud based Document Management solution, is Above-the-Flow.

Most of us who plan and implement information and knowledge systems learned the hard way how this principle works. But thanks to Scott, I now have a term of art that’s a bullseye.

Here’s Andrew McAfee’s blog post from 2008 on the topic. It’s worth a  read even if (like me), Wikis is not your thing.

Lemmings, Lemmings!

November 17, 2010

In his blog post (Why Implement LPM? More Good Reasons… and Bad), Steven B. Levy writes about the wrong reasons for implementing LPM (Legal project management).
I agree with Mr. Levy. Law firms should not do it just because others do, yet we can’t ignore the “Lemmings” factor. It is a strong motivation for some firms. He’s also concerned about heavy project management methodologies. I agree – Six Sigma may be used as a marketing window dressing on the firm’s web site, but trying to implement such heavy duty PM methodology, just because others use it, is destined to fail.

Project management is an everyday skill for anyone who has a string of related tasks and a deadline to meet (my dinner parties!).  And of course, Attorneys do it already – but mostly with little more than their intuition as a guide. What’s missing are best practices that will help them achieve greater efficiency, profitability and transparency (both internally and with their clients).

Can firms be successful introducing simple PM principles to support those goals? Based on my own experience managing a business consultancy, and working with law firms as clients, I believe it is needed and feasible. But with the exception of very complex files, Legal PM “light” is all that’s required.

As a CEO I know the immediate  financial benefits (profitability) and client management issues (high degree of satisfaction) that simple PM principles can support. Law firms can learn some lessons (both good and bad) from their closest business ‘siblings’ – management consultancies. Simply put, our clients expect us to manage tasks, time, resources and finances. We had to step up to the plate. And so will law firms.

Skype: is it ready for its bright future?

August 11, 2010

I’m a recent ‘convert’ to Skype. Its ubiquity on a variety of devices, acceptable voice and video call quality and cost effective model finally came together for me. But I’m not convinced it is ready for it’s even bigger potential.

I use Skype on my PCs and laptop, for hands free, direct dialing from Outlook contacts, calling landlines and cell phones as easily as I call other Skype subscribers.  It even allows me to use my cellphone’s caller ID so colleagues, clients, family and friends see a familiar number. I can send SMS messages to cell phones and use a built in voice mail box. But what clenched the deal for me, was the iPhone application. Skype is running happily in the background and will ring when someone ‘Skypes’ me, and with its built in instant messenger features, it’s becoming my ‘go to’ all in communications – replacing MSN Messenger and its siblings. I can make calls over my provider’s 3G network and when talking to other subscribers, the quality is crystal clear even when chatting over the iPhone. I hear every word my girlfriend says.  She loves it.

I’m happy (yes, truly happy) to pay a flat monthly fee of just over $15.00 which allows me to have unlimited calls to anyone, on any phone around the world. I’m saving a bundle on long distance bills, roaming charges and cellular airtime. It’s convenient.

Seems perfect?  Almost.

The brainchild of Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström, its long departed founders (and what a messy, litigious departure it was), Skype feels like a mature product in a fast changing market. And that is not necessarily a good thing.  I’m not sure Skype can capitalize on the kind of opportunities that are now opening up. They do not seem capable of innovating quickly enough to maintain the necessary momentum.  Competitors like ‘Fring’, hungry and eager like the startup ‘teenagers’ that they are, renew and change at the speed of Internet.

So what are those false notes I’m hearing? Let’s start with the PC and Mac client:  not the most polished piece of software currently residing on my PC’s desktop. Considering the length of time they’ve been around, that’s not encouraging. Updates are few and far between. Then there’s the time it took Skype to update their iPhone app to adapt it to Apple’s updated iOS4. The iPad version is worse still. It simply does not exist (you can run the iPhone version – stretched!).  This, while thousands of iPhone and iPad apps are almost instantly taking advantage of any new updates on this important platform.  Not a good sign.  Fring as an example, updated their iPhone app to capitalize on the iPhone 4 video call capabilities – almost immediately upon its release – to compete successfully I, with Apple’s own restrictive ‘FaceTime’ application. Then there are obvious features, which should be an extension to Skype’s brand – video conferencing for example.  What really got me worried (why I’m worried about such a thing, I don’t know) – is the suite of 3rd party ‘plug ins’ one could download directly from Skype. Having an ecosystem of developers (think IPhone apps) developing for this platform is the most important sign that this vendor is capitalizing on its tremendous market penetration and is creating a vibrant community that’ll add value, features and encourage adoption. But looking through the list of vendors, and plug ins, except for obvious goo to have ones (e.g. conversation recording utilities), many are not very exciting, user reviews are often quite negative, and some of the vendors seem to be less than truthful when describing their wares and their charge models.

I’m of course not privy to Skype’s management discussions. Maybe new and exciting enhancements are being hatched, features designed and business plans drawn to take advantage of their imminent IPO’s windfall.  Could be.

As I said, Skype is my current favorite VoiP and video communications platform.  And I’d love to see it expand, add features and introduce even more innovative aspects.  But those telltale signs (call it a tech power user ‘smell test’) are not good. In my estimation, Skype lost its founders a little too early. It tried to grow up a bit too fast.

That’s ok for the likes of Computer Associates, or even Microsoft. But it’s too early for Skype and its market.   Perhaps a little look back, to point us towards the future…

Dear Skype, let’s take a page out your forefather’s book:

“What this power is I cannot say; all I know is that it exists and it becomes available only when a man is in that state of mind in which he knows exactly what he wants and is fully determined not to quit until he finds it.”
-Alexander Graham Bell

It’s too early to quit Skype.  Bring the teenagers back to the rave.

Being popular or populist? Innovation in law firms.

April 23, 2009

popular_populistDeploying innovative processes and technology solutions in law firms can be a punishing experience. Directors and managers who raised the ire of partners will tell you: it’s no fun. In fact, it can be downright brutal. So it’s not surprising that some choose populism as their path; If  lawyers ask for it, they’ll do it. Other than that, they simply keep the lights on.

A couple of weeks ago I sat with the CAO (the equivalent of a COO) and CIO of a large firm, reviewing the firm’s major capital projects for the year. We were musing over one of the more innovative initiatives and its value to the firm’s lawyers. The CAO asked: “What would Steve Jobs do?”.  A startling question. In a year when everyone is cutting back, no project is considered unless immediate value is proven, considering a framework for innovation was almost surreal coming from a results oriented CAO.

Steve Jobs did not build Apple or Pixar into the innovation hubs they are based only on focus group feedback. Even now, decisions made by folks at Pixar are challenged. In reality however, few of us have Jobs’ genius for recognizing what consumers want, especially when they don’t yet know it themselves. Trying the same in your firm is suicidal. Yet some of the most exciting innovations were not at all obvious back when. Voice mail, email, blackberries and even document management systems, were far from mainstream when they were first introduced to law firms.

I know managers, directors and even ‘C’ level executives in law firms who are perfectly content (and have success) simply maintaining the status quo.  That’s O.K.  But for those who have different aspirations, would like to leave their mark, and most importantly, see their firms make (small or large) strategic strides forward, the alternative is to figure out how to be popular, not merely a populist.

Remember voice mail?
What an unpopular decision this was 25 years ago. Lawyers hated it! I suspect that the initial introduction of email was also fraught with uncertainty. And what about BlackBerry’s?

Choose your timing carefully
For some, the current atmosphere presents a challenge. Time to batten down the hatches. For others its an opportunity. Firms are fearful, edgy, and therefore open to ideas that could help them change client perception. Outsourcing, alternative billing methods, improved matter management practices, client billing extranets could be considered strategic projects that a year ago would have been D.O.A. during the budget process. It helps if the firm has a strategic focus.

Choose your battles and build strong alliances
In 2001 one of my clients, a senior partner, had a vision for a unique KM solution.  He teamed up with another ‘heavy’ in his firm to introduce a solution that required ‘warm bodies’ and change to lawyer behavior. As you can imagine, that was a bold move and a hard sell.  It worked.  Nine years later, the system, processes and resources required to maintain it, are still around, waiting to be moved into their new technology framework.

Horde enough good-will capital.
Make sure you have enough good-will ‘capital’ to spend. Enough wins with ‘run of the mill’ initiatives that give you ‘chips’ to spend on more innovative solutions. If you have a big idea around unified HR services in the firm, you’ll need to battle existing fiefdoms. You’ll need a strong vision, motivation, and good-will with the firm’s heavy hitters, to pull it off.  The good news about being bold is the rewards, for yourself and your firm, could be substantial.

Be a marketer and a sales person
What makes all this possible is knowing, promoting and selling your ideas to your target market. Like any market, it’s segmented and should therefore be addressed differently.  Sr. partners, from managing partner.  Fellow directors, from assistants and paralegals.  You need to speak the language of the listener.

If you don’t have a big idea, don’t fake it
Sometimes it’s the right thing to let excellent execution of mainstream projects be your focus. At the same time, keep your eyes open for new trends, your finger on your firm’s pulse, stay close to its management and their vision and the BIG IDEA may reveal itself.  Perhaps invention is seeing the obvious that nobody else sees.  Which is proof; it’s not what you’re looking at that matters, as much as what you see.

Believe in your solution. Believe in yourself.
Confidence and gut level belief in oneself is the fuel that feeds the creative fire. Fear of failure can cloud your trust in yourself, in your ideas, and the value they bring your firm. I know of a CIO who rolled out a unified messaging system, an unpopular decision with the senior partners in the firm. He knew however, at a deeper level, that this was the right step, and is therefore seeing it through, converting skeptics to believers one partner at the time.  Because as Steve Jobs said: “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

Additional reading:

In her blog WorkingKnowledge, Andrea Mayer wrote an excellent post on the topic of innovation. I also found the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki’s “Hanging Tough” to be an illuminating historical lessons on innovation during tough economic times

22 Tweets

March 26, 2009

twitter2I remember a conversation I had with a client, circa 1995, about the world wide web and the Internet. “But will anyone make any money from this thing?” he asked. My answer was: “I am making money from this thing right now. Am I not consulting you on building your first Intranet?”.

Of course, the Internet is now a multi-billion dollar business and a paradigm changing technology etc. But this story should remind us that yes, one can benefit in all kinds of ways, even from seemingly nascent and not so obvious aspects of emerging trends.

Let’s go back to the future: I recently joined the already hot Twitter community. I’ll reserve for a forthcoming post, a more thorough analysis of this latest incarnation of Web 2.0/social networking tool and how it could (or not, as the case may be) help my clients, who are large law firms. It is clear however, that Twitter recently hit the exponential growth curve that propelled the likes of FaceBook and YouTube to be the juggernauts they are today. You can like, love, be obsessed, or hate some or all of them. But don’t be indifferent. If you are in the business of providing professional services, be it a consultant or a lawyer, investing time in digital networking is now more compelling (and in some ways, bewildering) than ever. So is Twitter the right platform for you? There are plenty of other blogs by lawyers who discuss this very issue, so I’ll stay out of the fray, for a bit longer. For now, I’ll share a revelatory moment I just had.

While working away on my computer, I noticed a stream of short Twitter messages (that are only sent around to a consenting community) consisting of 22 questions and answers. This turned out to be a real time interview, between Lance Godard, aka @22Tweets on Twitter (@ is preceding all of Tweeter’s alias names) and one of the lawyers in this community, the New York based Fred Abramson (aka @fredabramson). So how is this innovative interview process on Twitter, equal real business you ask? As I was glancing at this rapid fire interview, I learned (within minutes) that Abrams’ target market is entrepreneurs and consultants. Guess what? That’s exactly what I am!

I found the idea to be brilliant. Lance (a marketing consultant to lawyers and law firms) created the equivalent of an interview show called @22Tweets on the Twitter platform. By only asking 22 questions – keeping it short is the name of the game here on Twitter – he also created a memorable brand. By connecting a vendor to a potential client, he demonstrated why some consider Twitter a viable business development tool. I can assure you that the founders of Twitter didn’t dream of this kind of application. But here it is. And there’s more. @22Tweets shows the emergence of Twitter as a great ‘mashup’ tool. It’s email, RSS, FaceBook like, Instant Messaging, and otherwise a communications channel, like a real time podcast, or a radio show of sorts.

For some like Fred Abramson, and Lance Godard, this platform is showing real promise.

Billable hour – exaggerated rumors about its death

March 20, 2009


Those sounds we’ve been hearing since the deafening implosion of the economy are lingering protests over the hourly rates bubble charged by some law firms. Now, more than ever, there’s renewed interest in alternative billing models shifting away from billable hours to fixed or value priced engagements. Noted articles in mainstream media such as the New York Times, and countless posts in the “blawgosphere”, are now trendy. But the debate about the value of the billable hour is not new. A 2007 article by Scott Turow as well as others before him, foresaw its demise over the years. It seems that this time it could be different. The shock waves hitting the legal trade may actually change the way law firms charge for their services. But are we burying time billing a little too fast? Let’s look at a different industry for some clues.

As a CEO of a knowledge management and technology consultancy, I often tell my legal clients that our business model is not that different from theirs. In order to help clients, consultants, like lawyers, charge for knowledge, advise and research time. Although it has always been pretty standard for firms in our industry to charge by the hour, clients have asked that consulting firms will shoulder some of the risk, and provide ‘fixed price projects’. For a period of time, fixed price engagements were all the rage. There are however certain complex engagements that are virtually impossible to estimate up front, so consultancies had to build into their ‘fixed price’ high contingencies in order protect themselves. More recently we’re swinging back into a more rational mix of fixed price, ‘gated’ deliverables, and hourly billable models that suits the tasks at hand.

My consulting firm for certain activities, can offer some services as a fixed price model, with some cost overrun protection built in. In other cases, it makes sense to bill by the hour, but also to cap expenditures based on deliverables and other such goals. The client retains control over costs, ensuring the latter will not spiral out of control. This, by the way, works well for both parties, not just the client.

Inevitably the issues that must be addressed when discussing billable hours are how much to charge per hour, how long will the work take and the mix of legal resources on the file. In our industry, no one charges $1000.00 per hour. It’s simply the rules of supply and demand. Where we, as a consultancy have an obligation to our clients, is to staff our engagements (the equivalent of ‘matters’ in law firms) with a healthy mix of expertise and ensure that younger consultants provide good value for their time, and do as much as the work as it makes sense, while limiting the time senior consultants are used for.

In order to consider such models, firms will need to develop more sophisticated estimation and matter management practices. One of my clients, a large law firm here in Toronto, developed a model that allows lawyers to to price their engagements more effectively, using advanced spreadsheet, which is in turn connects to various systems in the firm. They can now provide their client with target fees, which enables them to then measure their progress as the matter progresses. This level of transparency is great for all parties. The firm controls costs, the client benefits.

It’s all common sense really. Looking around, law firms will find that other professional services organizations already dealt with this issue. There’s no need to ‘kill the billable hour’. But instead find ways to provide different types of service models that will serve the client, their specific needs, and the different types of engagements. Billable hour will be one of the arrows in the firm’s quiver.

(P.S. Ron Friedman posted a succinct reply to my post, and I was just told about Lance Godard’s blog post discussing this issue back in January!)

Adoption or adoption? (part I)

February 22, 2009

adoption_bbThe word ‘adoption’ has at least a couple of meanings to a law firm. In Ron Friedman’s blog post, Can Law Firms Continue to be Late Adopters?, he asks whether law firms can afford being late adopters of technology and automation. My focus here is on lawyer adoption. Or more specifically, why lawyers do not use tools and processes that IS, and others in the firm are working long and hard to design, develop and roll out. Here are some lessons I learned over the years:

  1. Initiative perceived to require too much change and have little value (“it was working fine before”)
  2. Resistance to any form of change
  3. ‘Carrot’ not sweet enough, and the ‘stick’ non existent
  4. Lawyers did not remember it was coming (even if you sent emails announcing it)
  5. Solutions do not seem to meet expectations (e.g. poor usability, cumbersome functionality, confusing processes etc.)
  6. Poor attendance in training sessions

During one of my engagements with a large law firm, I interviewed a number of lawyers, including past managing partners in the firm. I was given a mixed bag of advice from which to glean pearls of wisdom:

  1. Don’t launch during busy season (e.g. just before Xmas)
  2. Send more reminders that something is coming, but keep emails short
  3. Make sure it’s important to me. If it’s meant to be used by my assistant, don’t bother me
  4. If you change things, make sure it’s for a very good reason and that it improves things substantially for me
  5. One size does not fit all. I make great use of a ‘cheat sheet’, others may require training
  6. I liked it when <name of any high energy assistant goes here> kept dropping by my office to check in on me
  7. Get support at grassroots level as well as the firm’s management. The first is more important!
  8. Be especially careful with initiatives that alike affect me immediately, email

Big Law: “Skate to where the puck will be”

February 10, 2009

The picture is bleak. After years of tremendous revenues and profit per partner growth, upheaval in the credit markets all but dried up the flow of M&A deals, the lifeblood of corporate law practice and a substantial source of revenues for large law firms everywhere. With so much pain and fear, should law firms do anything but batten down the hatches? As the owner of a professional services organization myself, I understand the need to be cautious. But I also see an industry that is heading for renewed growth sometime in the next 6-18 month. Lack of credit and dramatic uncertainty (now coupled with meltdown in the financial markets – a large source of revenues for law firms) is hurting ‘big law’. Here in Canada we had a grace period. We’ve managed to avoid some of the pain. But commodities and energy markets, the under-pining of the Canadian economy, are now in a recession, and therefore lower demand. Gravity takes its toll everywhere. From my vantage point as a  consultant to large law firm, I see troubling issues as well as a dawn of new opportunities. Unlike some who see a silver lining in the form of mounting bankruptcy work, I doubt that troubled times related work will completely replace the ultra lucrative ‘deal making’ side of corporate law. When a very large multi-national is about to be bought or merged, there’s little choice but to employ a large team of lawyers in order to manage risk, paper legalities and perform complex due diligence. It’s a fiduciary responsibility at the highest levels of management and directorship. Spending (or investing) 10 million in legal fees is therefore considered a ‘no brainer’. while there’s little doubt that bankruptcy work increases in hard times I doubt that it will increase enough to compensate for the revenue shortfall from the shrinking deal flow. Recent resesarch indicates as much:

…The conventional wisdom has been that litigation work, which represents nearly a quarter of the revenue generated by the legal industry, increases in economic downturns. But the West Peer Monitor Economic Index, a survey of law firms around the nation, shows that while demand for bankruptcy and regulatory work grew, litigation declined 2 to 5 percent in each of the past 10 months. Mark Medice, who oversees the survey, attributed the decrease to cost-conscious corporations curtailing their legal filings…

Law Firms Tightening Belts — By Request. By V. Dion Haynes. Washington Post Staff Writer

In contrast with this less than happy situation, my humble prediction is that the market is starting a build-up towards a crescendo in corporate legal services and It’s about 6-18 months away. There’s a strong probability that the credit crunch, the very issue that stemmed the tide of corporate acquisitions, will be resolved due to global efforts now under way. Flow of capital and credit, some of which is sitting on the sidelines, will come back into the market. Hungry, opportunity seeking buyers will be looking for great deals. The financial work WILL sort itself out. The vacum created by the demise of venerable names like Lehman Bothers and AIG is palpable. As a result, things will heat up again in corporate law. In fact, I also predict that for some firms, residual business from downturn related activities (as an example, legal work related to government funding now made available to large financial institutions all over the world) could result in a lucrative overlap between the two types of legal activities.

Warren Buffet’s weekend op-ed in the New York Times expressed confidence in the future of the American economy and specifically, equities as a source of growth and wealth. Not withstanding his role as an American patriot and cheerleader for its ailing economy, his quote of Wayne Gretzky’s adage: “skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been” was indeeed timely. While some firms cut back on ‘nice to have’ expenses like premium cookies and Starbucks coffee, or more serious fire lawyers and associates, others are hunting for merger opportunities. Judging from recent history of downturn cycles,  those with vision and fortitude will be better positioned for the next upswing. As always, it’ll come quicker then most think.