A Recent Event Highlight – General Counsel Focus: Legal Project Management

by Sander Coxe on May 18, 2013

Alexander Coxe

On Thursday May 16, 2013, an outstanding set of speakers were empaneled for the NYLMA May lunch meeting to discuss Legal Project Management:

  • Michael Caplan – Director of Operations, Office of General Counsel, Marsh & McLennan Companies, Inc.
  • Nat Slavin – Founder & Partner, Wicker Park Group
  • Wendy Bernero – Chief of Strategic Initiatives, Proskauer Rose LLP
  • (Moderator) Alicia Brown – Director of Strategic Relationships, Bloomberg Law

Among other topics, the panel shed light on how to engage potential clients and win business, best practices for how to work with your client’s legal departments, building the internal tools to manage the evolving nature of legal engagements, and the ever-increasing challenge to the billable hour model.

Marsh’s Michael Caplan led off with an absolute emphasis on cost predictability and a clarion call for the death of the billable hour.  Operationally they view their not insignificant legal engagements as projects to be managed, and like any other, cost certainty is essentially to planning.  Fixed prices for legal services are the model of the future for Marsh and they increasingly only want to work with law firms who are willing to embrace fixed pricing.  He never picks the lowest bid and told a fascinating anecdote about the effect of paying “bonuses” to your lawyers.  In managing a significant amount of litigation, Marsh worked with its outside lawyers and developed bonus schedules for milestone achievements.  Marsh found that removing the billable model and replacing it with a bonus model led directly to fewer lawyers being staffed on the cases, fees going down overall by 1/3rd and, not surprisingly, settlement coming more quickly than originally planned.  From his perspective, everybody won.

Michael also made it clear that their department has ZERO interest in reading detailed itemizations of the tasks performed by lawyers and staffs.  Lengthy bills which require significant time to review look to be a thing of the past if the project management model continues to take root.

In addition, Michael made it clear that you only get one chance to make a first impression.  Some of this may seem remedial, but he stressed that any engagement with a potential client – especially the first meeting – needs to be treated with absolute professionalism. Dress to kill, don’t be afraid to bring your BD people or whomever will leave the best impression, and make sure that everyone you bring has a reason for being there. They don’t need a roomful of lawyers, with only one speaking.  He reads The American Lawyer and researches, heavily screens all firms before he begins any engagement, and expects all of us and our lawyer to be doing the same.

Wendy Bernero of Proskauer picked up Michael’s engagement thread using her now famous “dating” analogy.  Treat potential clients the way you would on a first date – ask them what they need from this potential relationship, let them talk too, answer their questions directly and solidify a plan to follow up – it’s a process.  And remember, you only have about 90 days before people forget who you and what you said, so prompt follow up is essential.

She also emphasized how important it is treat all engagements from  the project management perspective.  Product development, service delivery, whatever you sell, rethink how you deliver and price your services and employ real “scoping” of any potential project – sketch out the expected timeframe, set benchmarks, establish the particulars of the deliverables and detail the staffing model.  She asked the room “How many of lawyers would understand these terms and the importance of this kind of planning from the very beginning stages?”  Very few hands went up.  We need to feed our lawyers the advice, tips and metrics to manage the engagement process.  Teach them the language of legal project management.

Further, corporate clients will increasingly want lawyers to do only the legal work.  Wendy pointed out that many RFPS now ask for the number of non-lawyer project managers that your firm staffs.  Let the project managers run the project management and report to the clients. Let the lawyers practice law.

Wicker Park Group’s Nat Slavin framed it very interestingly – to some extent, lawyers need to cease thinking of themselves as lawyers, and begin thinking of themselves as business people who manage a legal function.  He stressed the need for firms, lawyers and staff to walk around “in the shoes” of clients, so to speak.  Understand their needs and their business and drive your interactions and process from the perspective of what works easiest and best for them.  Make them look good and add value – make every aspect of the working relationship clear and easily understandable, so that they can convey the importance and the function of the work you do for them to their colleagues and superiors. Listen to their concerns and don’t surprise them – they are managing both up to their bosses and down to you to make sure that you are delivering what they need.

Nat cited the adage “one size fits one” at the front end of the engagement – and Wendy and Michael strongly echoed its import.  Every client is unique – do your homework, learn all you can about them, their organization and their needs – before you ever meet them.  DO CONFLICTS CHECKS! Don’t come back later needing to explain something like that.  This would also fall under Wendy’s “don’t be lame” rule (we paraphrase).

We are also pleased to include a link to coverage of the event by:   
Corporate Counsel HERE 
The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel HERE


Alexander “Sander” Coxe is the Director of Marketing and Communications at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann LLP.

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