- Paul Longhurst
So here’s the thing – if you were to spend £3,000,000 on a house with six bedrooms, three reception rooms, a large kitchen, a double garage, a pool and tennis courts would you be happy to only ever use three of the rooms and to leave the others empty ? No, me neither. However, this is not dissimilar to what some law firms do after investing hefty sums in a new practice management system (PMS). They simply layer the new system over their existing processes and procedures and fail to realise the benefits of their investment by adapting to get the most out of functionality that has been created to make law firms more efficient. This article will outline an alternative approach which can help firms to increase the return on its technology investment by changing some aspects of the way the business operates.
The legal sector, especially here in the UK and Ireland, is currently experiencing an unwelcome upheaval. This has come about because of the ‘perfect storm’ caused by a number of PMS suppliers announcing an end to the support of their products which is giving rise to a raft of PMS replacement projects. Many firms are coming to terms with the realisation that they need to spend a good deal of money on a project which is likely to impact the firm for the next two years or more... and this is assuming that, in the rush to change before support evaporates for existing platforms, the necessary resources (eg from the suppliers and/or the wider market) are available at the point each firm wants them.
The PMS change is a challenging process akin (to continue my housing analogy) to ripping out all of your existing piping in order to replace it with a new central heating system... whilst still living there. It’s going to be messy and stressful but it needs to be done and the sooner it is, the sooner your heating bills will come down. And you might as well make sure you do a thorough job because it doesn’t make sense to have this disruption twice.
That said, some firms have gone down the road of simply replacing their PMS without making any real concession to the way that, for example, time is captured, bills are created or financial information delivered to their lawyers. Equity partners may have foregone a new car for a system that simply replicates what the old one did. And worst of all, any potential for improvement is lost whilst competitors which have embraced change as a part of their own PMS replacement projects are able to steam ahead.
If your firm is looking to replace its PMS, it would be helpful to start setting the expectation that this is first and foremost a business project. In order to get the most out of it, the practice groups will need to be engaged at various points throughout the process and will need to dedicate time to defining how the new system should work within your firm. Of course the Finance team will be heavily involved too, but its involvement should reflect the overriding business requirements.
Firms often give responsibility for these projects to their IT team, but these are absolutely not IT projects. The IT team is likely to be involved with the definition and provision of the necessary technical infrastructure and may be heavily involved with integrating the new PMS with other systems that the firm operates, but it should not be driving the implementation itself.
Changing your way to success
Using our extensive experience of PMS replacement projects, 3Kites has developed and evolved an approach which helps firms to negotiate through the tricky areas of change, and I will outline this below. However, the key to success is engaging with the leaders of your firm in order to gain a mandate for change and a commitment to delivering the same. It is crucial to build credibility with the firm’s lawyers when considering areas for improvement. We achieve this by virtue of having former law firm partners as consultants – it is much harder for the firm’s lawyers to avoid difficult discussions when the facilitator is able to share war stories of their own! I would strongly suggest using this tactic if you are serious about introducing real change with your PMS project.
Change must be on the agenda right from the start of the project: what is the firm going to gain from the implementation of the new system, and how are those gains going to be achieved ? Both the opportunities which the project presents and the objectives that it needs to meet should be clearly articulated at the outset (ie in the kick-off meeting), otherwise it is all too easy to lose sight of them. The kick-off meeting should be attended by a cross-functional group including partners (ideally the managing partner should be one of these), the Finance Director, a senior Finance manager who will ideally become the project lead, and other senior support heads. The point should be made about this being a business project first and foremost, and it is worth debating this if any of the partners are in disagreement as the project may flounder without their full and committed support from the outset.
Requirements gathering is necessary to understand what the firm likes about the existing system (there is no point in replacing the old PMS with something that fails to match or surpass its key attributes) and, most importantly, what it would like to achieve going forward. This is not simply about maintaining the status quo or trying to meet the current requirements in a more efficient way, it is about anticipating the needs of the firm and its clients over the foreseeable future. Given the speed of change in both the legal sector and the technical capabilities available to it, it is impractical to look across the full 10+ year lifespan of a new PMS. However, looking five years out is perfectly reasonable and provides the required context of a firm’s strategic direction with which a new system should be aligned, eg it should be multi-currency, it should cater for significant growth, clients’ ebilling requirements are going to grow, etc.
The requirements gathering needs to focus on lawyers at all levels and their immediate support staff such as secretaries. However, it also needs to consider the requirements of the various Finance functions such as billing and credit control along with related (or even included) areas/functionality such as legal process (matter or case management), HR, business development and marketing. Lastly, it needs to fit with the firm’s IT strategy, although the project is so fundamental to the organisation that it might be the catalyst for introducing other changes to this strategy such as hosted solutions.
From abstract to reality
Whilst it is important to understand requirements in terms of what the firm would like to do better, faster, cheaper and less manually, at some stage these ideas need to be tied to the realities of what today’s PMSs are capable of doing. This is where the demonstration of appropriate products to the project team helps to marry the two together whilst continuing to build an appreciation of what is actually possible.
This broader understanding of what can be achieved helps as the project moves into the process mapping and policy review phase, which should happen before the implementation commences. Here, members of the back office teams can give an operational view of how processes such as file opening and billing currently work, what their frustrations are and what great would look like. The ideal process, and who has responsibility for which parts of it, can then be debated with members of the practice groups to ensure that what is ultimately delivered will meet the needs of all parts of the business.
More fundamental is the review of financial policies such as write offs and expenses. This is a tricky area as it is potentially constraining working practices which have long been left to individual preference if, as in many firms, such policies are not strictly adhered to. Firms who don’t consider reviewing these policies as part of the PMS project are likely to get something baked into the system which is at best the existing policy (along with any shortcomings it may have) and at worst a policy agreed by the implementation team on the hoof and without the necessary consideration. Either way, there is likely to be pushback from the fee earners as they struggle to get to grips with a new system which they feel is imposing unwelcome constraints on them. Agreeing the policies separately and in advance of the implementation of a new system helps to avoid this kind of resistance.
As these processes and policies are passed to the implementation team, they will be configured into the new PMS and start to take shape on screens, in reports and in alerts. This is where the ongoing engagement of the practice groups is essential to understand how ideas conceived in the abstract will be presented by the reality of the system - small adjustments (NOT scope changes) at this stage can help to deliver a project that is better able to meet expectations. Having changes explained to the lawyers by others lawyers can help to set these expectations in advance of a deployment and limit the friction that can often attend the adoption of a new system or process. This, in turn, can help to steer teams through the teething problems that are bound to occur in the early stages of deployment, avoiding the negativity that can do so much damage in projects with poor change management.
Whilst this article is predicated on a project to replace a PMS, it is also worth noting that existing PMSs can receive a shot in the arm through the application of many of the activities outlined above. So, to paraphrase and slightly adapt the lyrics of one Pete Townshend, “Don’t cry, don’t raise your eye, it’s only PMS wasteland”.
Paul Longhurst, 3Kites Consulting, March, 2016
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