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The role of ‘non-lawyers’ in delivering exceptional client experiences

Managing Partner Forum
|Written By Rick Kathuria
The role of ‘non-lawyers’ in delivering exceptional client experiences

Note from Scott Jolliffe, chairman and CEO of Gowlings:

When I was asked to write an article about the increasingly important role of “non-lawyers” in law firms, I asked Rick Kathuria, our national director, project management office and legal logistics, to share his views on the subject, particularly given his role in our newly launched legal project management initiative, Gowlings Practical™ — in which Rick has been a vital and driving force. Rick is not a lawyer, but he has credentials as a project management professional, certified management consultant and professional engineer. What follows is his response.

Lawyers often like to see themselves as the smartest people in the room, and when it comes to the law, they (almost) always are. However, I wouldn’t want to get double-bypass surgery from a tax lawyer or have my car’s transmission replaced by an insurance litigator — no matter how brilliant they might be.

In law firms, there has traditionally been an “us” and “them” mentality, with distinctions like “lawyer/non-lawyer,” “professional/staff,” “timekeeper/non-timekeeper,” “revenue generator/cost centre,” etc. It’s easy to read a prestige distinction into these kinds of labels.

Not surprisingly, what could be seen as a two-tiered system is found not just in law firms, but in virtually all professional services firms and many other organizations.

Having grown up in the consulting business billing 2,000-plus hours per year and thus having experience on both sides of this fence, I get it and understand it. The distinction between revenue generators and “staff” is hard to avoid, but becomes deeply counter-productive if the support side is not leveraged to provide the full value their expertise can bring.

Fortunately, this “class distinction” is finally starting to fade as law firms recognize the key role those without a law degree play in the proper functioning of their business.

As a revenue generator, the focus for lawyers is on clients, and meeting or exceeding their expectations. But over the past few years, this has come to mean not just delivering great legal advice, but providing each client with an outstanding level of service at every stage. The role and engagement of non-lawyers is essential in delivering this effectively.

In this context, some lawyers find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Some of the best technical lawyers are just not that experienced or comfortable with meeting the demand from clients for improved predictability and risk-sharing. This is why Gowlings has engaged experts who can infuse these capabilities into the sophisticated work that lawyers do.

Their expertise in the non-legal support components of service delivery has become a vital part of the overall client experience. The concepts and best practices in project management, pricing, marketing, IT, and many other areas are critical to modern law firm operations, and allow us to deliver the best offering possible. Like any great team, we pull from the individual strengths of each member, each team, and each department to create a sum that’s greater than its parts.

I am an engineer and a professional project manager. I have a great deal of experience in complex project management. My focus is on helping the firm deliver great legal project management through our Gowlings Practical™ Legal Project Management platform.

What I find gratifying is that Gowlings Practical has been so successful and well-received in our firm. It shows the culture and business that I’m a part of values my skills as much as they do those of a fee earner.

Gowlings Practical was designed with the primary focus of helping our lawyers deliver excellent service to clients, without taking the lawyer off their preferred focus on doing great quality legal work. Using it is far more beneficial (and actually easier on the lawyers involved) than not using it and going about their work as usual.

It makes lawyers more efficient. It uses simple, jargon-free language, and straightforward, accessible concepts. It helps to prevent those bad conversations with the client at the end of the matter — when it’s too late — and encourages crucial, timely conversations with clients so surprises don’t happen. It is just enough project management.

Gowlings Practical provides us with other benefits as well. We are starting to look at data analytics in more depth because we can now better measure how much processes actually cost at a more granular level, and we’re able to more easily compare historical data. This is not something lawyers with their busy practices are likely to build on their own. Gowlings recognized that and hired a professional pricing manager with an accounting background and an MBA who loves data analytics. That is her strength, and she loves doing it.

This is not to say that lawyers can’t be great project managers. In fact, one of the lawyers on our firm-wide project management team is moving out of legal practice and into the role of a non-billable, full-time legal project manager. Indeed, some of our lawyers have been using formal project management in their practices for years; that’s just how they worked.

With Gowlings Practical, we have simply made that process easier and more consistent across the firm — all with lawyers and non-lawyers working together with a common goal.

And we could only have accomplished this with everyone — each with our own strengths — working together.

Rick Kathuria is the national director, project management office and legal logistics, at Gowlings. This is the third in a year-long series where law firm and law department leaders will share their thoughts on the practice and future of law.

  • Law Office Managment Consultant

    Catherine Moffitt
    This "Gowlings Practical" model would appear to be a great benefit to lawyers, particularly in terms of outside resources to expert opinions and best practices.

    I can attest to Gail Cohen's headline that "Lawyers can't do it all" . Engaging a law-firm savvy consultant to support partners and lawyers to manage all the "other" areas of running a law practice can provide immense relief, efficiency, productivity and increased profitability.

    Grooming and retaining associates can be a difficult game. Often this role is best conducted by someone outside the firm who can provide objective advice and pay consistent attention to results to report to partners.

    It has been our experience that dividing up the office management tasks to the staff or other lawyers invariably creates more stress, inconsistencies, and ultimately decreases individual job satisfaction and productivity. In other words, they didn't sign up for the additional headache.
  • President, QLex Consulting Inc.

    Aileen Leventon
    The term "non-lawyers" should be banished.

    We addressed this in writing our book "Implementing Legal Project Management - The Legal Professional's Guide to Success." The authors are all lawyers - currently or previously in private practice.

    We believe that those who support the practice of law, including the management of the firm, should be considered "legal professionals."

    And hats off to Gowlings - truly practical and a great contribution to the needs of the profession.
  • Managing Director

    Jim Bliwas
    Rick makes an important point.

    Having worked in and with law firms for decades, I've discovered that the firms - especially in law - where the "practitioner/staff" mentality doesn't exist tend to deliver more to the clients.

    I don't mean delivering better work product but a better, overall client-firm experience.

    For example, one firm turned writing of lawyer blogs, alerts and articles over to someone who was an actual writer and saw readership jump to 29% from 4%, and started generating new files as a result; another let marketing recast seminars as "big idea" business conferences and changed the firm's perception in the market and got new files and clients as a result.

    In the US, most large and midsized firms turned everything not involving practicing law over to executives and staff. The lawyers like focusing on law, clients like the better service, and staff feel like they're a valuable part of the organization.