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4 Stories of Stealth: Getting Law Firm Projects Done

4 Stories of Stealth Getting Law Firm Projects Done
The word “stealth” seems a far more fitting description for sleek fighter jets or shadowy ninjas than it does for law firms, but a handful of ITLA speakers proved otherwise earlier today.

In 2014 ILTA Conference session titled “Stealth” Disruption from A-Z, five TED-style talks, moderated Monica Bay of Law Technology News, walked attendees through an eclectic array of law firm projects that have a common denominator in stealth.

1. Un-marketing law firm IT projects

George Kaytor of Seyfarth Shaw LLP demonstrated how to “trick” attorneys into wanting the new technologies IT hopes to roll out to improve the law firm business.  The typical project lifecycle from a vendor’s proof-of-concept to implementation has two major flaws.  First, IT staff aren’t always familiar with the details of a given process, for example, they aren’t billable and so have little inherent knowledge about the effects of a new mobile time-entry project.  Second, in Mr. Kaytor says the culture, particularly in the smaller offices, tends to be very polite – so obtaining constructive user feedback is scarce.

To address the problem he created an “early adopter” program which carried with it the status of exclusivity. Word-of-mouth quickly spread at the firm that that this new initiative was the fast-track to getting the latest and greatest gadgets and tools. Instead of chasing attorneys for new IT initiatives, he had found a way to earn their interest – and they sought him out.

Lawyers are by nature competitive, so Mr. Kaytor is tapping a bit of psychology in providing new technologies to a limited group of attorneys who obtain access before their peers. In the process he obtains useful feedback for improving the implementation of new technologies.  He cautioned that such initiatives must be optional as a law firm mandate dulls the allure.

2. Standardizing vendor processes

In large organizations, change happens slowly, so taking small calculated steps is an approach
Wale Elegbe of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP found to be most effective.  He drew on a small team to fairly and deliberately evaluate the firm’s vendors to understand what characteristics made a vendor one of the law firm’s “favorites.”  Was it superior technology?  Was it superb customer service? And for those vendors that weren’t the preverbal “favorite” was there an opportunity for those companies to make the list?

The team came up with a short list of vendors – some of the favorites and some that were not – and embarked on an expansive evaluation the firm’s vendors from soup-to-nuts.  They created a “safe” environment for the vendors in order to document everything imaginable from reporting to technology processes and looked for ways to increase efficiencies and mitigate risks.

Rather than initiating a major change, Mr. Elegbe and the team created a baseline for evaluating vendors – and more importantly an agnostic means to identify vendors that are either aligned with the firm, or more willing to be aligned with the firm.

3. Use a big change to facilitate even bigger changes

Moving offices is naturally a disruptive process.  So when the Australian-based Corrs Chambers Westgarth decided to relocate an office, Berys Amor saw an opportunity to create the “ultimate open door policy.”

Historically, the firm’s office lay out was modeled in a traditional sense, with closed-door offices along the walls and legal assistant cubicles on the interior.  In moving the offices, the firm sought to create a more collaborative environment and eliminated the offices.  Everyone would be relocated in an open floor plan with dedicated work and storage space.

The firm was careful to include a number of shared facilities such as quiet rooms and meeting rooms. However by sheer design of the office layout the firm has managed to bolster human interaction.  As Ms. Amor noted, the firm used the disruptive nature of an office move as an opportunity to design an office space that would have a collaborative impact on the culture.

4.  Giving constituents a voice in IT

All systems were working – Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP had new computers and no downtime to report.  Yet CIO Steve Fletcher had a hunch that somewhere an attorney might just be banging his or her head against a keyboard in moment of technology driven frustration.

It might have been just as easy to maintain the current course and speed – after all the IT dashboard was showing green.  However, Mr. Fletcher went a step further and created a proactive survey to better understand what attorneys were really thinking about IT. His survey aimed to identify several critical elements:

  • Who was answering the question by experience level, tenure and origin (as in laterals)?
  • To which practice group did the attorney belong?
  • What is working and what isn’t working – from the user perspective?
  • How was IT helping or hindering the practice of law?

Mr. Fletcher distributed the survey by email with the executive support of a managing partner and kept the survey open for two weeks. There was one requirement:  The survey must obtain at least a 50-60% participation rate in order to ensure a representative sample.

The feedback was telling. For example Mr. Fletcher was able to identify IT challenges by office location and earned some 6,000 words the comments of open-ended questions – many of them in bold CAPITAL letters.  The result of such a survey is greater user satisfaction with the IT department because it had proactively sought to identify challenges it might not otherwise have been aware and more importantly – it gave constituents a voice.

* * *

In the final presentation of the session George I. Rudoy of Dentons relayed how a brief career change – a sabbatical of sorts – can foster longer lead but no less “stealthy” ideas.  After departing one law firm, a stint on the corporate side fostered a greater appreciation for data an analytics.

Perhaps it’s the data he’s learned to analyze that’s provided his own answers to the rhetorical questions he posed to the audience:  How important are you to your law firm?  Are you valued?

Photo credit:  Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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About Frank Strong

Frank Strong
Frank Strong is the communications director for the LexisNexis software division located on NC State’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh. In this capacity, he leads communications efforts in support of software products for law practice and law department management and also litigation tools – across large law, small law and corporate counsel segments. With more than 15 years of experience in the high-tech sector, Strong previously served as director of public relations for Vocus, which developed marketing, PR and media monitoring software. He has held multiple roles both in-house with corporations, ranging from startups to global organizations, and has also endured the rigors of billable hours, having completed gigs at PR firms including the top 10 global firm Hill & Knowlton. A veteran of two year-long deployments, Strong has concurrently served in uniform in reserve components of the military for more than 20 years, initially as an enlisted Marine and later as an infantry officer in the Army National Guard. Strong holds a BA in Film and TV production from Worcester State University, an M.A. in Public Communication from American University, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University. He is a PADI-certified Master Scuba Diver and holds a USPA "B" skydiving license.