Rees Morrison, Esq., is an expert consultant to general counsel on management issues. Visit his website,, write Rees@ReesMorrison(dot)com, or call him at 973.568.9110.
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    « February 2008 |
    Main | April 2008 »

    When lawyers use their laptops during meetings

    In many high-tech companies, or perhaps I should say in many young companies, lawyers commonly bring their laptops to meetings. With power cables, LANs and WIFI networks readily available, the lawyers need never be electronically out of touch. They can be present at the meeting while all the time attending to their email, instant messages, stock quotes, and social networks.

    What trips up this keyboard hyper-activity is that humans have limits on their ability to multi-task. Incoming email messages are too seductive to ignore (See my post of Feb. 20, 2008: diminished productivity.).

    Even so, since stretches of every meeting have no relevance to some people, on-line lawyers can interleave their work into those slack periods. They can find and share (or even project) documents and quickly research something, such as a law firm being discussed. Everything electronic is available all the time for the plugged-in attorneys.

    This blog selected to be among Forbes’ collection of business blogs

    It is an honor for this blog, Law Department Management, to be chosen by Forbes for its best-of-business blogs. Over the past three years, I have accumulated more than 3,100 posts here. Around 300 people have signed up for RSS feeds, according to FeedBurner. Since February 2007, there have been 81,000 visitors to this blog, with the average visit length of 1:36 (a minute and a half); there have been 142,000 page views.

    Not that I kid myself that managers in law departments turn frequently to blogs for guidance and ideas, but over time the accumulation of material on management will become more and more widely known and respected. The legal blogospher will improve steadily, as my article forecast a couple of years ago.

    RFP – Request for Proposal and Really Full of Posts

    Many posts on Law Department Management concern Requests for Proposal (RFP), which are a popular tool of general counsel. Some general observations about RFPs have deserved comment (See my posts of Oct. 26, 2007: seven tips for more effective RFPs by a law department; Aug. 9, 2006: RFPs compared to targeted talks; May 3, 2007: confidentiality agreements preserve the secrecy of RFPs; Oct. 29, 2006: untrue that “a lot of RFPs are simply fishing expeditions”; Aug. 10, 2007: RFPs every three years to obtain discounted rates from firms; March 26, 2007:Services that are excluded from the coverage of an RFP process; and May 3, 2007: RFPs: format requirements can be inside or outside the bun.).

    Competitive bids that use an RFP process are common and legitimate (See my posts of April 5, 2005: lackluster response levels by law firms to requests for proposals; March 17, 2006: RFPs and effort set in motion for firms; April 5, 2006: top 10 desiderata for law firms when they respond to RFPs; May 9, 2007: low numbers of responses to the many RFPs issued.).

    Without dispute, the content of the RFP matters (See my posts of Nov. 9, 2006: provide data on spending and matters; Sept. 13, 2006: disclose the names of firms invited to bid competitively; May 3, 2007: unfair question to ask for competitors; July 29, 2007: beyond the traditional RFP; March 13, 2007: broad, essay questions as part of a RFP; and Dec. 5, 2005: use hours of lawyer work, not amounts paid.).

    Once you collect the responses, it is of course vitally important how you evaluate them (See my posts of Feb. 6, 2007: weight the components of law firms’ proposal; Dec. 18, 2006: technique to evaluate competitive proposals; Nov. 28, 2007: fair use of ideas in law firm proposals; Oct. 1, 2005: exclusion of good idea by an unsuccessful bidder; and March 13, 2007: you can’t remove subjectivity from review process.).

    A PDF compilation of my recent articles on spending – third of three collections

    Two posts invited readers to download PDF collections of my recent articles (See my posts of March 5, 2008: five articles on productivity; and March 11, 2008: six articles on cost control). This final collection brings together six articles on spending by law departments. Click here to download the set.Download rees_morrison_law_department_spending_compilation.pdf

    Three bumps on the road to value pricing

    A thoughtful article in Legal Week, Vol. 9, Dec 6, 2007 at 26, sorts through some of the difficulties of so-called value pricing. One is that the few words of the wise counsel may bring tremendous value, but many general counsel balk if asked to pay for what seems to be such a brief contribution. Another difficulty is when a law department tries to argue for some percentage of the transaction's value. An unimpressed general counsel can reply that any one of several other law firms would have been as willing to help, "so what particular value did you lawyers contribute?" This is a problem with this line of approach; “it ends up focusing people on the search for unique or exceptional contributions, which by their nature are going to be rare."

    The article also points out that large law firms with a likelihood of getting future work are more able to agree to success premiums and failure discounts because they can bear the risks, which is a quite different that for a small firm with no less assurance of future work.

    The flip side of innovation is risk aversion

    No one can carry out a new idea who is too afraid of failure. Risk shadows novelty, so as much as we prate about the benefits of creativity (See my post of Nov. 24, 2007: creativity in-house and click here for a PDF of my article Download rees_morrison_creativity_12207.pdf.) we must be mindful that we are dealing with many lawyers who are by personality, training, or context allergic to risk (See my post of June 30, 2007 with its four references to risk aversion in lawyers.).

    Cautious lawyers, who dread the sting of “error,” won’t come up with something new – let alone try something new – unless they feel protected from the stigma of stumbling. At the same time, general counsel look favorably on improved ways of doing something. They favor innovation and its hand maiden creativity. At the same time, general counsel and those who report to them fear making mistakes and see ugly dragons of legal risk in every corner (See my post of June 30, 2007 about risk attitudes among lawyers and four references cited.). We will try forever to square this.

    Cottage industry: lawyers who consult on compliance, corporate governance, and ethics

    The whole topic of compliance, ethics, risk management and governance has attracted much attention and drawn consultants. Three of them known to me are Linda DiSantis of EthicsLINC, Rick Wolf of Lexakos, and Debra Sabatini Hennley of Compliance & Ethics Solutions. DiSantis has been a co-author on this blog.

    Each of them offers significant experience from their days in corporate life and have now joined the ranks of consultants. Other consulting groups that provide advisory services in these broad areas undoubtedly have among their staff some former lawyers.

    To get right to the point, you are what you write

    How a lawyer writes mirrors how that person thinks. Depth of understanding, force of reasoning, and clarity of expression all blaze from a person’s pen.

    This blog has connected effective writing to effective lawyering in various ways (See my posts of May 13, 2007: writing instructors; Sept. 21, 2005: writing coaches; May 19, 2006: comparative styles of firm lawyes and law department lawyers; Feb. 8, 2006: maximum of two drafts; and June 12, 2005: “a good lawyer sounds and writes like a lawyer.”). These posts, along with my defunct series on writing better, have all gone toward the quality with which one expresses oneself on paper (See my post of Jan. 4, 2008: why I stopped the writing posts.).

    Other posts have talked about email, but more in the context of format and tone. I have also written generally about communication style (See my posts of June 20, 2007: working style of your boss.). Writing permeates almost everything an in-house attorney does; writing clearly increases productivity and boosts your value to your client.

    To borrow from Continental Airlines, work hard, write well

    Should you track the point where your law department is brought in on a matter? No

    I lately read an intriguing idea: report the stage at which the law department is first involved in important matters. It would be easy enough for the responsible lawyer, when setting up a new matter in a management system, to categorize the point when she first plunged into a project as early, intermediate, or late – a subjective measure (See my post of March 26, 2008: how to define “matter.”).

    No objective standards exist, at this time, for such labels, and lawyers might bend toward noting “early” so that they look better. After all, smart clients want to bring in a good lawyer early on. But what do you do if your are brought in prematurely, before clients kill a bad idea for business reasons? On the other hand, a lawyer might categorize the point of first involvement as late to create an excuse for something.

    For data to be reliable, lawyers would have to consistently and objectively categorize their time of first involvement – yet, how do you define the quanta of involvement needed – and do so over many months. Would clients’ ratings match?

    Given how hard it is to define a matter, it is harder still to define when one starts. Even if you had a start date, nothing may happen of significance for a period of time and reports would have to account for that. In short, the metric sounds tidy, but the reliable and useful collection of data would be too messy.

    It matters how you define matters and files

    Much management of in-house teams depends on the term “matter.” For instance, managing attorneys often assign work according to matters (the British “file”) and visualize workloads by numbers of matters on someone’s desk (See my post of March 26, 2007: “a material increase (44%) in the average number of Legal Requests completed each month.”).

    Matters, however construed, are ubiquitous. They are the bedrock of time tracking. Matter management systems are aptly named. Benchmarks assume shared notions of what are matters (See my post of April 3, 2005: how to measure productivity.). Law firms bill for each matter they handle (See my post of Sept. 14, 2005.). We talk about the complexity of a matter, which presupposes we all know what one is (See my post of March 13, 2007: a complex issue to define a matter’s complexity.). Matter data informs RFPs (See my post of Nov. 9, 2006.).

    How you define a matter doesn’t matter If your department eschews metrics. Everyone just handles their inbox. But if you want to track anything about what your department does, it’s important to have some shared parameters for what makes some set of tasks a “matter” (See my post of Sept. 14, 2005: when to put a matter into your matter management system;

    It may be that finance insists that you separately identify and track “matters (See my post of April 17, 2006: accounting may dictate when to create some matters.). Insurance coverage might influence the creation of matters (See my post of Oct. 4, 2005: payments for insured litigated matters.). The deal you struck with the vendor of your matter management or e-billing system may influence what you call a matter (See my post of April 17, 2006: varied pricing models of e-billing vendors.) because there is a cost consequence.).

    If left to your own devices to define matters, some activities at least appear to be discrete and sizeable and therefore easy to label as a matter (See my post of Jan. 25, 2006: number of lawsuits pending; May 15, 2005: NLRB matters; and Oct. 27, 2005: regulatory proceedings and arbitrations.).

    Often, however, whether and how to classify related activities as a “matter” is far from clear. In fact, a “matter” might be the designated term for any of several segments of a flow of work (See my post of Nov. 2, 2006: notional cost of handling a matter and when it ends.).

    To offer just one example, many lawyers in-house devote much of their time to contracts (See my post of June 19, 2006.). Does every agreement signed by the company deserve to be a “matter”? At what point do you open the “matter” (See my post of March 26, 2008: track first involvement in matters.). You might decree that a contract matter ends when all parties have executed the contract; or when the primary agreement is signed; or one year after either of those, since there are often post-contractual questions. It might be that only contracts with a minimum dollar value warrant being called “matters” (See my post of Sept. 17, 2005: $25,000 at Cargill.). It might be that you aggregate most or all contracts into a single large “matter” or create smaller “matters” by client group.

    The point is that the application of the concept “matter” in law departments is socially constructed.