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Effective legal project management (LPM) is on the minds of law departments, outside counsel, and the business units that partner with both sets of lawyers. A panel of experts discussed LPM and other thorny relationship issues at a Legal Marketing Association event Thursday in the New York office of Latham Watkins.
The panelists for “General Counsel Focus: Project Management for Law Firms”Michael Caplan, director of operations for the office of the general counsel at Marsh McLennan Companies Inc.; Wendy Bernero, chief of strategic initiatives at Proskauer Rose; and Nat Slavin, founding partner of law firm consultancy Wicker Park Grouptook questions from Alicia Brown, director of strategic relationships at Bloomberg Law.
Caplan said the biggest misunderstanding law firms have about their clients is thinking that they are first and foremost focused on reducing costs. To general counsel and CEOs, he said, predictability is more crucial. Marsh McLennan does a significant amount of transactional work, and when it’s looking for a firm to handle a deal, Caplan said, “We never go with the cheapest.”
Caplan offered this advice to a firm looking to get his company’s business:
- Don’t offer the company a standard pamphlet.
- Do your research on the company.
- Tell the company about how the firm envisions its business-development life cycle.
- Describe how the firm is going to invest in the client.
- Don’t mention hourly rates.
That last one should get the attention of all outside counsel. “The billable hour at companies like ours is dead,” said Caplan.
Once a law firm wins the business, he said it’s crucial to keep the dialog going. Marsh McLennan typically prefers weekly or monthly status updates for any project when partnering with an outside firm.
Marsh McLennan’s in-house lawyers like getting together face-to-face periodically with local outside counsel. “It’s all about building the relationship,” said Caplan. Have lunch together and develop a deep understanding of the client’s area of expertise, he suggested. And every now and then, Caplan added, “Do something for free.”
That ongoing relationship between company and counsel, of course, has two sides. Caplan acknowledged that the best-planned projects can sometimes shift course. If the scope of a project changes, he said, the company is willing to talk with outside counsel about adjusting terms of their agreement.
And while billable hours may be out of fashion, Caplan said firms shouldn’t be afraid to ask for bonuses for work well done. “We want the firm to have a stake in the game just as much as we have a stake in the game.”
When law firms send people to pitch the business to a prospective client, Caplan advised them to send the right people. “Really understand your pitch before you walk in.”
Speaking from the outside counsel’s point of view, Bernero said the most important component of legal project management is scoping out the project in detail.
Firms should assess exactly what in-house lawyers are going to be responsible for in the project, as well as how many lawyers from the firm will be needed. Not having the answers to basic staffing and organizational questions upfront can really hurt the firm down the road. “This is where we end up with write-offs and going over budget,” she said.
The experts on the panel agreed that most general counsel are happy to pay for legal project managers. “Project management is a skill,” Caplan noted. “Most lawyers don’t know how to do it, and it’s not something they can learn overnight.”
When billing the client for service, Bernero recommended scrutinizing the bill first. Put someone at the firm in charge of auditing client bills, she said, so they can pay close attention to any specifications previously agreed upon by both parties.
Slavin said clients pay attention not just to bill amounts and prearranged rules, but also to when the work is being done. Clients won’t feel like they are a priority if their work is relegated exclusively to late evening hours, or if time is billed in short, nonconsecutive increments.
“It is mind-numbing to keep up with all the different needs of clients, but you have to do it,” he said, adding that when it comes to managing a project for a client, “One size fits one.”
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