Benchmarking professional development success practices – a deeper dive

By Susan Hackett
CEO of Legal Executive Leadership, LLC

In Part 1 and 2 of this series, Susan explored the individual professional development challenges lawyers face; in this installment, she discusses how law departments (and firms) are institutionalizing professional development practices to assure that their lawyers can meet client challenges and exceed service expectations by deploying new – often multidisciplinary – skills and expertise.

In an earlier column, I offered a list of skills and competencies that constitute much of the "new normal" skill set. (Note: not every skill mentioned is necessary or critical for every practice – they represent the variety of skills that many firms and departments across the spectrum are considering.) To add to the checklist provided, we'll examine some real life practices at work in law firms and departments to "mind the gap" between legal training and practical business skills and service delivery by lawyers.

Legal project management

Legal project management is the "hot" skill set these days. (Don't confuse this with legal process management, which is a related concept, but not the same thing. In a perfect world, you'll learn both!)

LPM creates (and communicates and enforces) the plan for a matter, coordinating all the moving parts from case assessment at the front end to the evaluation and data analysis of results for continuous improvement at the conclusion of work.

The main elements of LPM are: setting objectives (and understanding the client's needs), defining the scope of the project, identifying and scheduling all necessary and known activities, assigning tasks and managing the team, planning and managing the budgets, assessing risks to the budget and schedule, assuring quality and measurement of results during the work, managing client communication and expectations, and negotiating change orders. (Credit to Jim Hassett, PH.D., see below.)

There are a number of LPM experts out there who offer training and overviews to those who wish to learn more about project management, as well as tech companies that offer all sorts of supporting automations. Before you jump in to select an expert to help you, consider first whether you want to provide your department with in-depth training (think "Ninja" status) or a quicker/in-and-out set of courses to introduce the concept or offer an overview of the basics. Of course, many choose both, by training fewer leaders to be experts on point for major cases requiring the LPM skill set, and giving the larger team a working familiarity with the basic concepts they'll need to understand how to participate in and contribute to LPM projects.

Some departments have an ongoing relationship with a trainer who does regular classes, and onboards new recruits as needed. Some have arranged for marathon trainings that take place over the course of several days – at a retreat or in the office. And others simply allocate some funds to send their people to a group program that's open to the public through all kinds of provider options. While introductory courses are fine, don't expect lawyers to be able to use the skill sets as leaders without a significant amount of training – this is not a 2-hour class. Those who are expert in this discipline in other industries have advanced degrees and years of substantive apprenticeship behind their skills.

This is a classic skill set that can be co-taught to both the department and law firm collaborating team members together – it's a great way for both sides to not only cement their relationship, but improve their coordination and alignment. And working together, the firm/client can share the costs of training. A good number of firms are inviting their clients to join them in firm-sponsored LPM training since they see it as an excellent way to assure that their will want to work collaboratively with them, rather than with firms who don't use LPM tactics and often remain a "black box" for clients.

Resources for getting started: My personal favorite is Jim Hassett, of LegalBizDev, who's been doing LPM longer than just about anyone I know of, and is tried and true. His book on LPM is a great starting point/overview.

An example of LPM at work in a department is the effort undertaken by Prudential Financial – which included:

  • Senior lawyer training in the early stages of implementation to introduce the basic concepts and then discuss how LPM might be used at large in the department's work
  • Highly granular training for lawyers leading projects (focusing in on tools and templates for work)
  • Intermediate courses for law department "associates" the provides an overview of the principles of LPM and an experiential learning exercise
  • An administrative assistant's course to assure that those supporting LPM projects were not only in tune with the concepts but trained in implementation tactics and resources

Prudential's project also includes a strong focus on after-action reviews that bring together key players to assess the project results in a non-confrontational way that can help make future project management efforts even better. Their efforts were highlighted in an ACC Value Challenge resource.

An example of LPM at work in a law firm is the intense courses and rigorous training undertaken by Crowell & Moring, where every lawyer and paralegal in the firm receives extensive LPM training and every major client project deploys LPM strategies. You can read case studies, as well as overviews of the firm's LPM commitment.

Legal process management

Seyfarth Shaw has probably the most renowned and successful "lean process management" strategy in place in a law firm (and the entire legal industry). Their efforts were founded on the firm's commitment that lawyers – every lawyer from top to bottom – would go through extensive training in legal "Six Sigma" process management strategies to improve the staffing/training, quality, cost control, results, and speed associated with that service. Legal process management involves unbundling the steps and chores in handling a matter, and creating process maps for each kind of service that the firm regularly offers to clients.

You can read more about Seyfarth's Lean projects and the educational requirements and group process mapping engagements that their lawyers live up to. You can also learn about how they partnered using these kinds of strategies and educational models with clients such as United Technologies and Wolverine WorldWide and have integrated Seyfarth Lean into all of the firm's practice areas.

Seyfarth's lean programs were inspired by the SixSigma process focus of one of their larger clients: Tom Sager, the CLO of DuPont, has been a pioneer and advocate of better law department management and the application of business tactics to legal process management for longer than pretty much anyone! A recent article co-authored by Tom describes how DuPont learned to better predict and control litigation costs via data tracking and process improvements (which they call "Litimetrics")... based on the concept of data predictive behavior such as that highlighted in the book and movie Moneyball. So maybe you're not "there" yet; the point is to think about how to tool yourself and your lawyers to increase productivity and improve results – not just learn more about the new EU privacy regulations, emerging labor standards in Vietnam, or the latest holding from the 7th Circuit.

Teaching technologies that apply business results to lawyer tasks

Viacom's legal department wanted to apply better business practices to both their inside and outside counsel. They developed an extensive dashboard and matter management system to use with their outside counsel, and an extensive and detailed budgeting process for their inside teams: but in order for either to work, the department invested in extensive training. Software and training expenses incurred by the department to institute these programs were completely recovered within one year, and the cost savings continuing forward are improving Viacom legal's bottom line year over year.

So what do you want to learn today?

And tomorrow? Looking back at your training to date, even most major law schools are thinking about re-tooling their curriculum going forward to focus on more courses that offer practical skills, business education, hands-on clinics that promote students to understand more about client service issues, and law practice management. Whatever stage you are in your legal career, why not think beyond the "legal" box, and examine the benefits to your department, your firm and to your clients when your team invests in not only re-tooling lawyers to handle current challenges, but making them adept at handling whatever's next going forward. Focusing on developing lawyers with a stronger business toolkit is time, effort and money well invested.

About the author

Susan Hackett is the CEO of Legal Executive Leadership, LLC, a law practice management consulting firm she founded in 2011 after serving as the Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) for more than two decades. As an insider working with thousands of top corporate practice leaders, Susan has an amazing breadth of experience with the inner workings of in-house practice and the implementation of value-based legal models, as well as an international reputation for innovation, excellence and success. Comments welcome to