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What I Learned In “College”

By Steve Nelson

Each year, some of the greatest minds in the world of law practice management convene at the Annual Meeting of the College of Law Practice Management. Fellows of the College are accomplished professionals from all walks of “legal” life: small firms, big firms, in-house departments, bar associations, service providers and academia.

The past three years a Futures Conference has been included, open to the public. This year’s program, held October 28-29 at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, focused on “challenging the law firm model,” with a special session on value billing. I attended, and Attorney at Work asked me to share some of my observations. So here are five things from the program that really stood out for me.

1. Corporate law departments are pushing the envelope to force large law firms to focus on value. A case in point is the Pfizer Legal Alliance, under which 17 law firms, including giants such as DLA Piper, Skadden Arps and White & Case, have agreed to accept yearly flat fees for an undefined scope of work. The Alliance’s Chief Counsel, Ellen Rosenthal, explained that Pfizer forbids its lawyers from even talking about hours. While bonuses may be awarded at the conclusion of the year, they are based on collaborative behavior and successful outcomes, not on the amount of work done.

2. Adopting the core principles of project management goes hand-in-hand with value billing. Lisa Damon, chair of the Labor & Employment Department at Seyfarth Shaw, described how her firm has adapted principles of Lean Six Sigma to the practice of law, and has produced sophisticated process maps to trace the efficient handling of all types of clients matters. Surprisingly, Seyfarth has even started to address what she dubs “the elephant in the room” when it comes to promoting efficiency—the partner compensation system.

3. While large firms are starting to embrace some aspects of innovation, the lead is still being taken smaller firms. And we’re not just talking about firms that handle so-called “commodity” work. I spoke to two lawyer attendees who are handling sophisticated matters for business clients on a flat fee basis, including one handling a unique type of securities offering.

4. There’s a big revolution coming to the world of document review. Maura Grossman of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz reported on a study she conducted showing that computers are much more effective at reviewing documents to identify key concepts than even the most skilled attorneys. As a result, the whole contract and staff attorney model is likely to change soon.

5. Those who innovate will not only have to look at their processes, but also how they view their workforce. Ray Bayley, President and CEO of Novus Law LLC, an industry leader in litigation document review, analysis and management, talked about the Google-like approach his company has taken to spur innovation, including no job titles and no vacation or leave policy. Bayley’s remarks dovetail well with what I’ve seen lately about reorienting how we look at the practice of law.

Steve Nelson is Managing Principal of the Law & Government Affairs and the Law Firm Administration practices at The McCormick Group, an executive search firm based in Arlington, Va.  Steve conducts searches for both partners and high-level marketing, practice management and professional development professionals. Previously, he served in high-level editorial and management positions at the Legal Times and Prentice Hall Law & Business. He also practiced antitrust law at a large Washington law firm. He is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management.

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Categories: Daily Dispatch, Innovation, Law Firm Strategy
Originally published November 4, 2011
Last updated April 13, 2019
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Stephen Nelson Steve Nelson

Steve Nelson is an executive principal at The McCormick Group, an executive search firm based in Arlington, Va. Steve conducts partner-level searches, searches for in-house counsel, and searches for administrative professionals for law firms. In addition, he serves as a consultant for law firm merger planning, practice area expansion, and in recruiting strategy. Steve is a former attorney with 17 years in legal journalism and publishing and is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow him @SKNLegal.

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