The Misalignment Between Corporate Clients and Their Legal Service Providers

The term “legal mystique” refers to the shroud of secrecy that surrounds what lawyers actually do. Historically it has been very much in the interests of professions to cultivate an air of secrecy so that their work retains its arcane and somewhat magical character. The secrecy serves to continue monopolies and heighten prestige, but it also precludes any detailed analysis of whether work has been executed efficiently or whether it is good value for money.

For lawyers, the last thirty years or so were the Golden Age of time costing, where the smug answer to any question on how much something would cost was “I charge $X per hour”. If really pressed, a lawyer might give an “estimate” but inevitably the client would receive an invoice for more than the estimate. That is not to suggest that lawyers were being unscrupulous; the nub of the problem was that Project Management was not considered part of the core skills which need to be taught to budding lawyers. As a result practitioners did not have the skills to prepare an estimate on a scientific basis, in the same way as perhaps an engineer would. And the balance of power had not yet reached a tipping point where clients could break the time costing trade union.

Alas, as any Buddhist knows, all realms constantly change. Over time clients have begun to resent strongly being charged for six minute increments recorded indifferently on a time sheet. Specifically, clients feel that there is a total disconnect between the charges and the actual value that is added. Indeed it is difficult to see how a system that rewards slow workers could operate in the best interests of the customer.

Sophisticated clients realise that law firms, generally, do not give sufficient attention to the process side of their work. A lawyer wants to spend his or her day doing what they learned in Law School – “real” law. Everyone hates administration and supervisory stuff, and will provide endless excuses to avoid doing it.

A client sees an engagement as a holistic experience. Even if a lawyer produces excellent work product, the client will have a sour taste in its mouth if it receives an invoice well in excess of the “estimate” without proper reporting during the life of the matter. Clients want certainty and hate surprises. They want to agree a proper scope of work showing what work will be done, who will do it, when and what it will cost, and then to receive periodic reports against that plan. The curse of the life of in-house counsel is to have to explain to management why budgets for outsourced legal work are constantly exceeded.

The introduction of project management principles augurs badly for the vestigial legal mystique. Plain English drafting enabled clients to understand agreements without rushing back to seek an opinion. Similarly Legal Project Management , through the process of breaking down complex tasks into understandable components, will have the effect of unscrewing the cover which has traditionally masked the inner workings of firms.

The sociologist Max Weber referred to a process of “rationalization” where advances in science and technology drive behaviours away from traditions and towards reason. Clients may have considered invoices based on time costing as products of a modern form of sorcery, hence the drive now to subject legal work to the rigours of science and logic. This is largely what LPM is all about – it is a way in which the legal profession can react to the demands of clients for greater efficiency, discipline and transparency. What the legal profession is experiencing right now is not evolution, but rather revolution, driven by an unhappy market. 

The ideal outcome is a symbiotic relationship. Clients, particularly in-house counsel, must also adopt practices which are conducive to work being delivered efficiently. They must also “own” the Project Execution Plan including the scope, underlying assumptions, and the alignment of objectives. They must be prepared to pay something for project management and reporting (but not necessarily by the most expensive person in the firm) and, finally, in-house counsel cannot cling to the safety net of hourly rates when assessing tenders if they want to insist that tenderers abandon hourly rates.

Written by Peter Dighto

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