It seems that, slowly but surely, an increasing number of law firms in the U.K. are seeking to solve some of their business issues by applying various techniques found within the broad church of Legal Project Management (LPM). Sooner or later – most usually sooner – thoughts turn to how IT systems can help. I sometimes get asked for advice about applying IT to business process reviews which involve the application of LPM. For example, recently I was asked if I knew of any software which could help with a project designed to improve the estimation of costs in large civil litigation cases. Leaving aside specific projects and advice about particular software applications, my general approach to these types of queries is as follows.
1. In your project focus on methodologies, processes and other change agents (such as culture) at the outset. Indeed, keep the focus here for as long as you reasonably can. Don’t go looking for a new IT solution too soon.
I have long been an enthusiastic supporter of applying IT for improving the productivity and effectiveness of lawyers. I have spent much of my career in legal IT (for more about my background see the ‘About’ page on this website and my LinkedIn profile). I believe the full potential for applying IT to law has yet to be realised, and I continue to be excited about the future of IT and law. However, I have seen too many business change projects become premature IT projects. Because these projects are premature they soon become high maintenance, requiring resources which can be best deployed elsewhere and which are often engaged in an exhausting effort to implement something which, frankly, is not suitable given the time and place. Software should support and enable business change projects, not assume the position of becoming the main driver or, worse, acting as a resource drain. You may think this is common sense (and it is!) but it is very tempting to reach for an IT solution too early, especially a new IT solution, perhaps hoping that it will supply the silver bullet to project success. Well, there is no silver bullet. To be successful you need to design your project thoroughly, think carefully about all the factors required for success (not just new software) and be prepared to engage and lead your team through an intense, and exciting, period of hard work.
There is a paradox here though. I am cautioning against the too early adoption of new IT systems to help with aspects of LPM, but for your LPM implementation to be successful you will almost certainly need to rely very heavily on IT. In fact, the intelligent use of IT – or more particularly, intelligent use of your data – will be critical to your project’s success.
2. Start by examining the data in the systems you already have.
For example, when seeking to improve cost estimates for a particular class of cases, look at the data for like cases in your practice management or workflow systems. The data should tell you how you have performed in the past and provide a baseline for estimates in future. One of the few benefits of lawyers rigorously recording time according to particular types of activity is that all the baseline data – covering the good, the bad and the ugly – is there somewhere in lawyers’ legal IT systems.
I am assuming the data has been recorded properly over the years, and not just by fee earners. Professional support staff in Finance, Marketing and HR should also have all recorded valuable data in IT systems Often each class of data (HR, Marketing and Finance etc) is held in different IT systems or, more accurately, in different databases. This leads to silos of data which are often hard to put together in a coherent whole. This can be overcome, but it takes effort. Of course, if the data has not been recorded correctly in the first place you are left with GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) in any event, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to construct reliable baseline data.
You can soon start to refine the basic data extracted. For example, consider how your PMS software allows you to bill. PMS software I have been involved with allowed users to raise bills either at matter end or interim bills, related to case stages. If you have something like the case stage billing set-up, then examining previous case stage data could allow you to compare stage costs versus amount billed per stage of case. There is another important aspect of this approach. Being able to chunk your data down into manageable items should help you understand it better and help with future estimations; it is easier to estimate smaller discrete stages than a whole project.
3. Think creatively to see how much your existing systems could help you in future.
So much for historic data, but how can current systems be used to improve things such as cost estimates in future? PMS software I have been involved with also had the facility for users to create custom fields for data entry. It might be an idea to investigate things like this and perhaps discuss with your supplier. Using custom fields might be a bit crude, but assuming your PMS software can be configured for staged billing (see above), you could in theory create custom fields which mirror each stage. Your fee earners could then input stage estimates into the custom fields, which could thereafter allow for the comparison of estimates against actual time recorded and time billed.
Generally, workflow software more readily lends itself to customisation than PMS software. If you have workflow software in operation, chances are your cases are already run electronically in stages according to well recognised milestones. This is most obvious in litigation, but the same principles can also be applied to non-contentious processes. Hence you have a relatively easy opportunity to create new custom fields in your workflow application allowing for fee earners to estimate costs per stage.
The point is, you may be able to advance further than you think with your existing software by being curious, creative and exploring the possibilities offered by straightforward software customisation. A well designed pilot project should provide you with a lot of feedback about any proposed business change project, so start by creating a good pilot project and heed the lessons learned.
- When designing your business change project, for which you should have some clear objectives, consider all the factors required to make the project a success, not just IT.
- Run a pilot project, with a fixed deadline and, with regards to IT:
- Examine the data and software capability you already have.
- If you are having problems extracting and compiling the data – ie, reporting – talk to your suppliers. I’m sure they will be happy to help.
- Investigate the extent to which your existing software (perhaps with some straightforward customisation) can support your project goals.
- Review the success of your pilot scheme. If you are unconvinced by the ability of your existing software to help achieve your aims in a satisfactory way, then it may time to look elsewhere.
- As part of the pilot review consider where there is room for improvement and ask yourself how IT systems can help attain the improvement. The answers then become a starting point for your IT requirement building.
During any business change project (including a pilot project) there will inevitably be cultural, organisational and human factors which need to be moderated or overcome. This is usually a tough enough assignment without also having to cope with a premature IT project as well. So leverage what you already have and pay close attention to all factors required for success. Then when you are absolutely clear that you do need new software to support your business objectives, go and look for it. There is a lot of really good software out there, with increasing focus on supporting LPM practices: just don’t go for it too soon.
If you have any queries about implementing LPM and/ or legal IT solutions (particularly relating to practice management and workflow systems), please contact me.