One LPM Size Does Not Fit All: A nuanced approach that begins and ends with the client’s goals is the surest path to success

Monday, November 7, 2016 - 03:08

Every firm these days seems to be talking the legal project management talk. McGuireWoods, however, walks the walk – and does so in a manner that clients embrace. The firm eschews a one-size-fits-all approach for a more nuanced, attorney-driven LPM program that is winning fans inside the firm and out. Below, Angela H. Zimmern, one of the architects of the effort, discusses how to win over transactional lawyers and ever-skeptical litigators alike. Her remarks have been edited for length and style.

MCC: Tell us about the McGuireWoods legal project management (LPM) program. What tools and processes does the firm have in place?

Zimmern: To meet greater demand for more predictable, efficient and cost-effective legal services, McGuireWoods in February 2014 introduced an LPM program, ClientSync™, and a proprietary budgeting and alternative fee arrangement (AFA) tracking tool, Compass™. While many firms have LPM programs, our model uniquely employs an attorney-driven approach. Rather than hiring consultants or delegating LPM to an administrative role, the program is led by two experienced attorneys (Carter Arey and myself). This level of lawyer involvement in an LPM program is rare, but it has been critical to the program’s success. Because Carter and I have first-hand knowledge of what it means to manage and track client matters and AFAs, we understand lawyers’ and clients’ LPM needs and are well-positioned to address their challenges.

Our ClientSync program takes an organic, practice-specific approach to LPM, instead of a one-size-fits-all mindset. We collaborate with clients to better scope, budget and manage matters to ensure transparency and avoid unnecessary surprises. In the process, we expand our knowledge of our clients’ businesses and fortify our long-term relationships.

A team of McGuireWoods lawyers and technical staff developed and implemented Compass, a secure dashboard that provides a single location for managing matters and tracking task and budget data. The application pulls data from our time-entry system to ensure accuracy and real-time updating. Our lawyers use Compass to manage single- and multiple-matter fee arrangements, develop more thoughtful case planning and budgeting, enhance matter tracking, meet immediate targets, and identify budget creep before it becomes an issue. Compass also tracks timekeeper information to maintain budgets or fee targets. This real-time information makes it easy for lawyers to stay up to date on how their matters are progressing and quickly adjust their strategies when circumstances change.

MCC: What steps can firms or companies take to ensure efficiency without compromising quality of service?

Zimmern: In the current legal services market, clients often expect their attorneys to provide the same level of service as they always have, but at a lower cost. Becoming more efficient is the best way to meet – and exceed – those client expectations.

Some attorneys are reluctant to become more efficient because efficiency can have a negative connotation – they think, “clients do not pay us to ‘cut corners’ or provide lower quality work, just to save money.” But efficiency is not about working less or working at a lower level; it is about working smarter. Becoming more efficient through LPM actually improves quality of service. If legal work is done in a consistent, process-oriented manner (such as through the use of process maps or checklists) and best practices are implemented, the room for error decreases because attorneys are performing the work in the most effective way.

Another way to approach efficiency without compromising quality of service is to have a frank conversation with the client about their goals and then focus on only doing work that advances those goals and brings value to the client. Becoming more efficient is actually a win-win because the attorneys are focusing on the clients’ objectives. A classic example of this is the client request for a litigator to research a primary legal issue in a litigation matter. Is it more efficient for an attorney to research the matter and summarize it in a legal memo, which then must be rewritten as a legal brief, or to simply research and deliver the findings in a legal brief format? Skipping the superfluous legal memo saves the attorney time (and the client money), but ultimately delivers the desired legal service – a document that can be utilized in the litigation rather than sit on a shelf. Quality of service is not compromised and no one writes (or pays for) a long memo that never gets read.

MCC: How do LPM strategies and practices differ when approaching litigation vs. transactional work?

Zimmern: The overall approach to LPM is the same regardless of whether you are dealing with a litigation or transactional practice. LPM involves combining people, process improvement and technology to deliver high levels of service to clients in an efficient and cost-effective manner. However, how this translates into action does depend on the type of practice. Litigators and transactional attorneys often approach their practices differently. To ensure that LPM tools are successful, these differences in approach need to be taken into account. An LPM team should consult various practice areas to help them identify their most significant pain points in a representation and tailor a solution to best address such pain points.

Corporate attorneys are familiar with how a deal unfolds and what it takes to move a deal from start to finish. They are accustomed to relying on checklists and tracking transaction-specific conditions precedent. While there are a number of variables from deal to deal, the main process is relatively consistent. 

For example, for corporate lawyers, establishing highly detailed checklists that follow a transaction (such as an M&A deal) from soup to nuts can provide a clear roadmap that ensures consistency and reduces the risk of omitting steps in the process. In addition, outlining sequences of transactions that are repeatedly encountered (e.g., due diligence or entity formation) and establishing a set procedure and/or form documents to use in these instances can result in heightened efficiency, reduced response times and more consistent work product. We work closely with a variety of our corporate practices to identify these sequences and develop useful tools to streamline them.

Litigators, on the other hand, are sometimes inclined to resist LPM due to the variability of their practices. While the life cycle of a case can be somewhat predictable, no two cases are alike in subject matter, complexity of facts, judicial preferences and relationships with clients and opposing counsel. For this reason, litigators sometimes resist certain process-oriented LPM strategies because they believe that most aspects of their practices cannot be boiled down to repeatable processes. Rather than challenge these perceptions, we help our attorneys see that some of the more routine aspects of litigation (like procedural motions) can be streamlined through LPM, which allows more time for the attorney to focus on developing the intellectual and creative arguments that litigation requires.

Simply put, LPM allows all of our attorneys to spend more time on what our clients actually value and are paying us, as the experts, to do.

Another LPM strategy we have brought to the firm is the use of universal task codes for all of our matters. While many clients for years have demanded that litigators use task codes, this has not been the case for transactional work. Therefore, there is some culture shock and change management that must be addressed to fold task code use as an LPM tool into transactional practices. With our transactional attorneys, we emphasize that implementing task codes brings additional detail to assist with planning an engagement at inception, as well as discipline in monitoring a matter as it progresses. On the litigation side we focus on using task codes as a matter management tool to ensure that our timekeepers are not only working on the correct tasks, but spending the appropriate amount of time on the tasks. For all attorneys, especially those who often must provide budgets to clients or structure AFAs, we highlight that the data gleaned from universal task code usage is extremely valuable.

MCC: What questions should corporate lawyers ask outside counsel about LPM?

Zimmern: It depends on your priorities. Is predictability of legal spend your highest priority? Is it reducing your legal spend? Are you concerned about unnecessary or duplicative work? The answer may be all of the above. 

The most important step is to have a conversation with your outside counsel about your goals, concerns and objectives and to figure out together how various aspects of LPM can help, no matter where their firms are in the LPM process. At McGuireWoods, we have fine-tuned LPM tools, like Compass, as well as attorneys who provide peer-level LPM support to our attorneys. While some firms do not have formal LPM programs, their attorneys may employ LPM skills and strategies without even calling it LPM. At a very basic level, you should be asking your outside counsel to budget for critical (if not all) matters, use task codes for time entry, provide regular updates on legal spend and performance of your matters, and demonstrate how they are using LPM principles and strategies to save you money. It also makes sense to explore using AFAs with your outside counsel as a great way to collaborate and align your goals and interests in the delivery of legal services. 

MCC: What best practices can corporate counsel implement to develop or improve their own in-house LPM programs?

Zimmern: A key way to improve any LPM program (at a firm or in-house) is to identify goals that you want to achieve or problems that you want to solve, big or small. It can be a challenge and seem overwhelming to bring LPM programs in-house, but often small steps, like bringing everyone together in the same room to discuss basic things like “What is the one aspect of my job that can be improved by putting pen to paper on a good process?” or “What is something that I do every day/week/month that I know takes too long and could be simplified if I would just take the time to make small adjustments?” can yield the biggest and most impactful results. 

Teams also should discuss how to better leverage existing technology and resources to make work environments more streamlined, efficient and productive. Having internal meetings to discuss these issues with someone designated to follow up with team members on what small steps they have taken to implement these improvements can go a long way. No one knows your business, your culture and your pain points better than you, and often just bringing some initiative and structure toward solving those issues can be more effective than seeking outside assistance. That being said, you can always check with your outside counsel to see if they have ideas to help you bring LPM into your legal departments.

The best outcome of all would be that you and your outside counsel collaborate on dual LPM strategies, which enable them to provide better and more cost-effective legal services while enabling you to meet your internal needs. I have learned that LPM is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and there is no uniform strategy that works for everyone. Rather, LPM requires nuanced internal insight into the unique challenges a legal team is facing and a commitment to meeting those challenges. 

Angela H. Zimmern, senior litigation counsel in the Charlotte office of McGuireWoods LLP, co-leads the firm’s Legal Project Management program with Charlotte-based senior counsel Carter Arey. Angela can be reached at azimmern@mcguirewoods.com.