Building on Viewabill’s last webinar session (audio and presentation recording here), they moved into a discussion of transparency, and its impact on the inside/outside counsel relationship. Per their session agenda,
What role has sharing matters via Viewabill played in fostering collaboration throughout the legal process, and what overall impact has it had on your professional relationship with each other?"
The participants in this section include:
Daniel Baker, Sr. Operations Lead, LinkedIn Legal
Mike Haven, Senior Corporate Counsel, Legal Operations and Litigation, NetApp
Vincent Cordo Jr., Global Director of Client Value, Reed Smith, LLP
Rick Howell, Director of Financial Systems, Perkins Coie, LLP
Justin Liu, Associate General Counsel, MGM Resorts International
Karen Anzuini, Chief Information Officer, Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff LLP
Robbie Friedman, CEO + co-founder, Viewabill
Transparency – Vulnerability or Asset?
Friedman started by saying that in the delivery of legal services, as we talk about metrics, there is this "real time" element, which may create some vulnerability. He asked the group to talk about the role of transparency, what it means for the broader relationship, and how it’s used to show the "sausage making," so to speak. Should some things remain non-transparent?
Justin Liu responded by saying that this is a topic that his legal department has been very focused on, because frequently, and moreso in the last six months, they have their business, finance and even sometimes board members, asking how much a certain matter has cost to date, or what they’re spending on litigation, etc. Using transparent legal services, they can run these reports themselves and identify what those figure are, provided their firms are entering their time in real time.
Previously, they would have to go to the relationship partner and have them ask their associates to put their time in, and this might have taken several days or even a week. Being able to see in real time whenever they want to through a platform like Viewabill is something that has become a higher priority for them. They’ve been asking their internal lawyers to more closely monitor their outside counsel on a regular basis – daily or weekly – and certainly expect them to do it more frequently than monthly. Liu commented that monthly bills don’t always include all of the time for that month, and that’s been a problem they’ve been better able to monitor through this management, and help them meet their budgetary goals.
Client View of Firm Reception of Viewabill
Friedman asked the panelists to speak about their experience with talking with firms about this concept of real time visibility. How are the firms initially reacting, and then reacting over time?
Baker said that now that their finance team is aware that data is available, they’re clamoring for more of it. This is where the velocity comes in – they’re able to provide data if it’s available. He added, as he’d told me in our interview, that there is a visceral pushback from firms to the transparency of the data. They don’t understand why clients are asking for it in some respects. Firms think it’s an indictment of how and when they enter hours – but that’s not the case at all, Baker says. He sees it as a tool – the concept of Viewabill is to help firms get paid more, not less. He doesn’t see it as a cost saving solution. Instead, if he’s able to get more information, more accrual data, and he can put that into a forecast, he can then budget for more money…and pay firms more, not less. The issue of management is separate in terms of value-based billing.
Firm View of Firm Reception of VIewabill
Friedman asked those on the firm side to comment on their initial reactions, and how the request for this type of information reverberates throughout a firm.
Howell answered that they’d gone through this the previous year, and initially, there was shock and that feeling of indictment that they’re not doing the work. It’s just because theres a change. It didn’t take too long to socialize the management levels about what the tool provides. It did have the effect of immediately elevating the legal operations services within the firm, which allows them to drive behavior and have more internal conversations. But there wasn’t more than a day or two of this pushback from the client leads while they understood what was happening, and after that, it opened up a whole new set of avenues to pursue with them. Now they can discuss the other tools that are available for them to help manage matters, around LPM and budgeting, and begins to drive down some of the key metrics that were discussed earlier such as time lag and time hygiene.
As a result, they do see improvements in overall time hygiene of attorneys teams. They may not actively track it, but the operations groups are aware, and they look at the clients that they’re sharing this data with to make sure that those things around velocity and hygiene are within acceptable parameters. So for them, it’s a great tool to start the discussion and to raise the awareness that change is coming. Then, they can offer process improvement methods to help them be more productive.
Friedman asked if it’s also creating a conversation with different people on the client side – has there been an opportunity to create a metric-based or measurable type of relationship with the person on the other side who is responsible for managing the legal department? Howell says yes, and used the example of working with Baker, and needing to touch base on something that looked one way in Viewabill, but was part of a separate arrangement that was outside of the purview of what was being tracked, and never had to get up to the billing or attorney side.
He added that it helps to have the legal operations team more involved in how those requests are initiated, because then they can be more involved in making sure that clients get what they are really looking for.
Friedman wanted to know whether these types of metrics are disseminating down to the attorney level, or if we’re further away from a world where lawyers will manage their own behavior based on them. Howell said that we’re not there yet. When they tie this to profits-per-partner or compensation-driven decisions, he thinks attorneys will be more engaged. Sometimes, it also depends on the attorneys. Some of the partners at his firm are very into their relationships and actively track them, while others wait for operations to come to them and point out why realizations will be down.
Friedman asked Karen Anzuini to comment on how Benesch came to the decision to go with Viewabill early on, and what their experience has been. Anzuini said that when she first heard about Viewabill, it fit well with some of the initiatives that they’d been focusing on, such as project management, budgeting, and having more conversations with clients about billing and time spend before the budget goes out. They have made it a priority to stop surprising clients with bills.
It was a bit controversial within the firm, but their COO was behind it, and she was as well. Some attorneys were concerned about sharing information in real time, and the accuracy of it, but they started with a couple of clients and got good feedback. There hasn’t been as much demand from clients as she would have expected, but the clients that are using it are engaged and it helps their relationships with them.
Within the firm, when an attorney is working with a Viewabill client, they are especially cognizant of getting their time in, which is a good thing for everyone. There are benefits to the firm as well as the client in not surprising them with a bill they didn’t expect. Overall, she feels that it’s been a good and positive experience.
Friedman asked whether there is an opportunity to show their willingness to innovate by using this tool. He acknowledged that there will be some mistakes, and sometimes billing data changes, but is there an opportunity in making clients aware of this type of technology? Anzuini said that they’d started a new process when engaging new clients – they make sure that someone, not always an attorney, talks with the client about the technology that they can offer. Viewabill is part of them. Some of their partners are very excited about it, and would share that with clients, but that wasn’t the majority.
Some of the reason for this is that lawyers just don’t think about the administrative stuff sometimes. So they’ve put together a questionnaire for new clients that they walk through with them to discuss the things they can offer. Using Viewabill started this, and they’re expanding it.
Educating & Socializing New Tech in an Age of Change
Friedman asked the other panelists for their closing thoughts. Lane Secor said that it’s not just about educating the firms’ lawyers; it’s a complete firm-wide education. He mentioned that when they first started putting Viewabill in place, their IT department even asked the why in the world they would ever let a client have this.
Friedman followed up by asking how Viewabill can make this process easier for firms. One of the panelists said that it’s just an evolution that the legal industry is going through – we’re changing the mindsets of people who have been working in these environments, sometimes for thirty years.
Another panelist added that sharing case studies helps – lawyers love these, seeing examples of where doing something helped to improve their practice, attract new clients, improve relationships with existing clients, and expand their business. The more examples that Viewabill can share of how this accomplishes law firm goals, the more buy-in there will be to this technology. The less evidence available to the lawyers that it achieves those types of goals, the more skeptical they’ll be.
Mike Haven of NetApp added that a lot of it is a matter of credibility – you can sell products all you want, but until lawyers hear from the clients themselves about why they believe it’s a win-win for both sides, they may not be interested. They’ve found that even a short conversation between the inside team and the firm about what they hope to accomplish with the tool goes a long way.
We’re still in this socialization phase, where the industry is going through a change. It will get easier because those on the call are busy blazing new trails and changing what has been an age-old practice within the industry. So he has a short conversation with the outside team, sharing three key points, and they start to see the light. He added that they’re starting to see some cool things from the firms that they’ve piloted this with for the last year.
For example, over the holidays, he got a message from the relationship partner at Perkins Coie to let him know that they’d be late on time entry because of the holidays. He appreciated that, because it shows that they’re thinking about it, thinking about the benefits to both sides, and realizing that they’re important things.
He used billing guideline compliance as another example, saying that when he was a BigLaw partner, the firm required them to enter their time on a daily basis. At NetApp, they require their firms to enter it within three days. Viewabill helps to ensure compliance with this guideline, and avoids delays, and that’s a benefit for everyone, as it increases billing accuracy. Firms want to capture all of their time, and clients don’t want to be billed for a minute more than is required to do the work. The more time that passes, the more firms realize that it’s a cool thing for them too.
Friedman wanted to know, for a legal department that focuses so much on operating like a business, what’s the reaction when a firm doesn’t want to participate in these type of initiatives? Haven said that they’ve been fortunate that it hasn’t happened much – after piloting Viewabill with a few top firms, they decided to extend the opportunity to their top 20 firms. They issued a connection request to their top 20, and only two said no. They had to have very difficult conversations with those firms, because they don’t accept no as an answer.
In one case, they told a firm that they’d worked with for ten years that they no longer appeared to be a good fit because they were refusing to adopt the technology. The firm was shocked and started scrambling – the partners wanted to adopt the technology, but their CFO was being stubborn. They knew that as long as they continued to take that position, NetApp wouldn’t pay for their services on an hourly basis.
The conversation then changed to fixed fees and they negotiated some very innovative fixed fees with that firm – so even though the relationship appeared to be a casualty at first, the unintended consequence ended up being a big win. The relationship is on the mend now, and may end up stronger than ever.
Friedman observed that there will be certain situations where a technology like Viewabill is not applicable for a firm. Haven agreed, and said that is the case with some types of matters too. Viewabill bills firms on the number of matters, so if you’re a patent prosecution firm and have a zillion matters open, and you’ve hardly worked on any of them, their pricing structure doesn’t make a lot of sense. But he’s found that Viewabill has been willing to be creative and flexible in terms of how those types of things are structured when it’s necessary to change the typical model.
Friedman closed by saying that there’s always a learning curve for a start-up in legal and used this as a segue to the final presentation of the session on legal technology.