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Clearing the Technology Bar: Clients Demand Basic Skills

Posted in Legal Project Management

In today’s technology-driven business world, a lot of clients are worried that their outside counsel – and specifically the associate worker bees toiling on their matters — don’t possess the requisite technology savvy and skills to serve clients efficiently. In a competitive environment where clients often instruct firms not to assign first or second-year (and even third-year!) associates to their work, write-offs, write-downs, do-overs and other symptoms of poor performance are major law firm problems.  Clients want to know whether outside law firms are cultivating young lawyers who can perform capably and cost-effectively when handling basic, frequently-recurring billable tasks.

This is particularly important when large firms’ 8-to-1 lawyer to administrative assistant ratio means that a lot of lawyers will be performing what often are essentially secretarial tasks. In this highly-leveraged context, all lawyers simply have to master basic technological tools of their trade.

Vetting the Baby Lawyers

Some clients are taking associate skill-vetting by the horns. Kia Motors, for example, has been conducting an informal but sobering four-part audit of basic associate skills. They recently asked nine firms to nominate some of their sharpest associates who would be evaluated by Kia counsel on how they performed several relatively low-level tasks. What they wanted to evaluate, inter alia, was proficiency in Microsoft Office (including sorting, filtering, cleanup and other ministerial functions), use of protocols and best practices for preparing written word product, availability of practical templates, forms and checklists, and the firms’ investment both in current technology and tutelage in how to use it.

None of the firms have passed.

What was Kia’s objective?  Surely not to humiliate associates or embarrass their law firms. As Jason Fliegel of Abbot Laboratories observes, these kinds of audits can help both firms and their corporate clients decide on cost savings strategies, including bringing in contract lawyers or managed document review services rather than using associates, or creating “preferred” law firm and vendor programs.

You Need Best Practices…Now

Kia declines to name the firms that took the plunge, but Kia corporate counsel D. Casey Flaherty noted that two were ranked in the AmLaw Top 10 and six were in the AmLaw 100. “The only one that was outside the AmLaw 200 was by far the best,” Flaherty said.  Kia stresses that while these firms may still be in the running for legal work, they are likely to face requirements for implementing technology “best practices,” or at least improving measurably.  The firms also may have to agree to an across-the-board reduction in fees.

The learning point here is that companies like Kia aren’t willing to pay for the time and money it takes lawyers to learn basic skills.

Equally important in these technology-driven times, they want lawyers to know how to use the basic technology tools, such as Word or Excel, that support efficient and cost-effective service delivery.

Framing the Issue

All this is no minor concern. The technological proficiency issue has become so pressing that last August the American Bar Association beefed up its Model Rules of Professional Conduct to include language requiring lawyers to understand and embrace legal technology tools to best serve their clients.

As Kia’s experiment demonstrates, even bright kids in hot-shot firms are falling short of the bar, a fact that is presumably more the fault of their professional development than of their intelligence, legal aptitude or motivation. Farrah Pepper, executive discovery counsel of GE, put it this way at the E-Discovery Institute’s 2012 Leadership Summit: “By and large, the largest firms are not training associates in technology.” She adds that the increasing popularity of alternative fee agreements “shifts the burden – efficiency becomes the problem of the people doing the work, and value becomes the dominant factor, not just the lowest price.”

Speaking of Efficiency…

A review of recent Requests for Proposal (RFPs) from major corporate legal departments shows that clients are getting a lot tougher in their demands that outside counsel prove – measurably — their ability to operate both effectively and efficiently. It is these demands that are fueling the rush toward Legal Project Management (LPM). Pepper agrees that “project management is the key to success for most efficiencies,” but is saddened that when it comes to adopting LPM, most legal organizations “are notoriously bad at it.”

Obviously, the ability to navigate technology is a crucial skill-set in Legal Project Management. Without marginalizing legal knowledge and judgment, LPM does require a basic facility with tools, templates and technology. New tools and methods mean that scoping can be more realistic, budgets more accurate, and desired outcomes more specific. Today, metrics matter; as we at Edge often say, “if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed.”

 

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