Archive for the 'Business of law' Category

AFAs – A Win-Lose or a Win-Win?

November 22, 2010

I came across Law.com’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.

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.

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.