As is well documented, a number of legal sector Practice Management Systems (PMS) are approaching the end of their (supported) lives, and this, coupled with the challenges thrown up by expansion and globalisation of some law firms, has proved to be the catalyst for a number of PMS replacement projects. 3Kites has been lucky enough to be involved in some of them.
This note focuses not on the technology, nor the project management of a PMS replacement, both of which we have described elsewhere, but on the policy decisions that a firm needs to make before finalising the brief for the PMS supplier and the change management challenge represented.
The implementation of a new PMS is a major project in a law firm, since this system is often the backbone for a number of business processes – billing and time capture being amongst these. In any environment, adapting to change is difficult, and we have seen firms struggle with significant resistance to new systems, often not simply because people have to get used to a new interface, but more importantly because a new PMS will often ‘bake in’ some of the firm’s key policies, leaving users with less room for manoeuvre, and often less flexibility. This may be a good thing – a PMS project is a good time to tighten up existing controls and policies. However, it can be tempting to go too far, and to implement new and tighter policies, which have not been discussed and agreed with the partners of the firm and which create inflexibility, causing a backlash. At 3Kites we encourage firms to think about the policy issues carefully up front, before the project timetable pushes them into making hurried decisions, which may be regretted later.
Policies to underpin the business processes
If you are looking at a new PMS, the chances are that your existing PMS has been in place for a long time. Maybe over 10 years. Just take a moment to remember what your firm – indeed any firm – was like at the time your existing PMS was installed. There may have been fewer offices where you may now be multi-site. International business may have been the exception where now it is the rule. The PMS systems themselves in their first incarnation were basic accounts packages, supported by essentially manual, paper-based processes. Admittedly, neither PMS suppliers nor law firms have stood still since then and either through upgrades or through bespoke work many improvements have occurred to reflect the changing circumstances in firms and the opportunities afforded by new technology. Nevertheless these incremental improvements have come along in a tactical not strategic way, and the implementation of a new PMS, bringing newer technology with it, is a great opportunity properly to refresh those business processes. For example, firms may wish to consider:
Whether this is the time to take paper out of the approval process
Who can write off how much time or money?
What management information can usefully be input at client/matter file opening
Time recording codes, especially for non-chargeable work
Recording activities/phases in billable matters in a way that assists estimating and tracking costs as well as subsequent analysis and, ultimately, increased recovery rates
The process for recovering expenses and the amount of time necessary for approving these
Responsibilities for client relationships and matter management.
In short, there are many opportunities for automating and improving process flows and data validation. However, we are seeing firms embark on PMS replacement without really taking time to review and refresh these and other policies, then finding they are asked these questions by the supplier who of course has to build it all in. Every firm is different and there are no “right” answers – it is a matter of finding what would work for your firm and doing so in a timely way in advance of implementation.
We advocate a structured process for this. We start with a map of the firm’s current processes (sometimes not easy to unearth, and sometimes with as many exceptions as rules!) as they have grown up over time.
We then typically interview both those responsible for implementation such as Finance and IT personnel and the firm’s management, and also some users such as lawyers and secretaries to come up with ideas for refreshed processes. Often they will be aware of ways in which the existing policies and processes could be improved, and may also be surprised by the inconsistency of their existing approach. Of course it helps that we know what is achievable and what is working or not working in other firms. It is easy to be unrealistic in the artificial environment of a workshop and we inject some scenario planning to avoid this. An example may help to demonstrate:
Writing off time. No firm likes to see write offs without some approval, and in practice whatever the current policies (where these have been formalised) say there will be some give and take. While the process is manual this is easy to build in maybe without documentation. However, the system does not come with common sense built-in and needs to be told what de minimis levels to set to avoid a snow storm of approvals for trivial write off requests.
Involvement of stakeholders in this specification phase is useful in its own right to improve the quality of the decisions taken but it also stands the firm in good stead when it comes to implantation of the new ways of working.
It is often worthwhile to have the debate (and gain buy in) about the new policies in advance of the implementation of the new system so that there is an understanding of how and where processes will be tightened up and this does not come as a surprise when the system goes live. All policies should also be robustly challenged to minimise bureaucracy and inefficiency.
Embedding the new processes
For the sake of this note we now take a giant leap forward, past product specification through installation, data conversion and testing to the day of launch.
Our assumption, based on best practice as described above, is that the new way will be quite significantly different – probably with more automation, work flow and in some ways possibly more restrictive than the old ways. Lawyers may have to take responsibility for aspects which they have delegated to secretaries, data may be sought for fields that have been ignored in the past. If the firm got the specification right these changes are all sensible and should help to reduce inefficiency, but they may not seem it on day one of the new PMS!
It helps greatly that key stakeholders were involved early on and can act as your “sales” team to promote the new ways of working. It helps that you planned it with care and are equipped with FAQ answers and had anticipated some problem areas. As with any change project it pays to think about the situation of each constituency in advance and head off problems. Make sure you have your explanations ready as to why the new ways are better than the old, and set out clearly what people need actually to do. Keep it specific to their role and simple to follow. It helps to be able to point to consultation and agreement about policy issues before the system was configured.
Remember that Kubler Ross curve - there will be an initial period of resentment when the old ways (even ones they have been complaining about!) are not available. Help them through that towards acceptance and moving on.
Don’t let up (although you may need to be receptive to points that had not occurred to the team in advance and be quick to put right errors) until the new ways are properly embedded.
It sounds dull, but keep this going long beyond the project phase. Make sure you have monitoring in place to track compliance with the new ways and have someone or a group of people ready to address non-compliance. It may be a technical problem, it may be training or it may be stubbornness. It will take longer than you can believe really to become the new norm but if you get the first phase right and with the benefit of modern technology, it will be worth it.
3Kites Consulting can assist law firms with the analysis of requirements for a new PMS, the evaluation and selection of a new system, project managing the implementation of the selected product, data and process mapping and the change management process, including the policy review work described here.
3Kites Consulting is a limited company registered in England and Wales. Registered number: 5644909. Registered office: Chancery House, 30 St Johns Road, Woking, Surrey, GU21 7SA. www.3kites.com.
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