In-house lawyers news archive

Lessons from the US in-house teams

22 October 2013

Rob Gitell shares lessons from the US

Rob Gitell is a man who knows in-house legal teams and the challenges they face, having visited over 100 so far this year across the US, Europe and the UK.  I was keen to meet up and to learn how his knowledge might assist our members.

This is the first of two articles sharing lessons from the US markets and looking at panel management, matter management, collaboration, and billing models - issues all in-house teams have been increasingly considering since the downturn.

Rob heads up global sales for the most widely used and highly rated legal department management system globally - with 18,000 in-house, and 35,000 private practice users. The system provides one shared online platform, allowing in-house counsel and external law firms to coordinate on legal projects and deadlines, exchange bills and budgets, collaborate on documents, and run performance reports.  However, he's keen to point out that every conversation he has starts with asking what is keeping lawyers up at night, and understanding issues and needs.

Impressed at the overview this must give him, my first questions were big picture - how do we compare with the US market, what can we learn, and what's been happening in the States in the last five or so years that will hit here next?

Like in so many discussions recently, it became clear that the start of the downturn triggered step change, in Rob's words: "Prior to the credit-crunch there was often a reverence for trusted panel firms with little real oversight of work - indeed, to many it seemed problems were handed over with little more substantive instruction than 'fix it as you see fit'."

In a transition that seemed almost overnight, as I listened to Rob enthuse, this attitude changes, and he indicated he started to see much more clear delineation and a much more proactive approach: "There was a change to focused project management, often to a granular level of detail.  Scope of work is now being discussed in detail, with associated billing, budget and retention guidelines. The message changed, with the briefing now being 'If you want to work with us, this is the way it is!'"

Other trends also started to emerge. We both joked that although for two decades or more the end of hourly billing has been foretold, it had not yet seemed to materialise.  However, we are finally starting to see more alternative fee arrangements being used, and these are clearly being led by in-house demand, more than private practice initiative.

I was interested in the change management behind all this and how it might affect our individual members.  Rapid change is demanding, and in areas where people and knowledge are the key inputs, I wanted to know if change had been driven by replacing staff, training staff, or simply empowering teams to use the skills they already had.

The answer appeared to be "all three". Project and process managers were starting to be more visible in in-house teams, alongside roles further up the hierarchy such as head of legal process or head of legal finance. In-house teams were now engaging with central business improvement teams or those elsewhere in the business in a way they would have perhaps resisted in the past, and were also developing those skills in their lawyers. New ways for working were also allowing those who had always been keen to see more structured management of engagement with external consul come to a fore. Neither of us could decide how or when this might impact the future route to qualification of lawyers, but seeing a curriculum in Scotland still leaning to the academic it does cause pause for thought about our talent pipeline and whether legal process management needs to feature somewhere.

In contrast, continuing professional development for lawyers had already changed. Rob summed up this really visible difference by noting that "typical seminar programmes for in-house lawyers had moved from little process and business management content to that being around a quarter of the programme".

So far, these issues seemed similar to the UK. Like in many areas, we may be slightly earlier on the change curve than US teams, but I was reassured that none of these issues would be wholly unfamiliar to our members.  Indeed, at points in the conversation we were left wondering if the gap was reducing. But what about differences?

Tendering processes in the UK seem to remain slightly different, with more emphasis on things like RFPs (request for proposals) and a more structured tendering process for external counsel. I was interested in continental Europe, where in-house lawyers are still often viewed as a different species, and in many countries cannot register with the local bars, but it was clear this was not stopping similar changes there around the internal management of these teams.

The discussion then moved to metrics.  In researching Rob's CV in advance, I noted he had started life as a certified public accountant.  Of course, part of the Law Society's own change in recent years was seeing a CA arrive as chief executive and start the conversation about KPIs and quantifying value. I wasn't quite brave enough to ask for the 'bean counters' take on the state of the legal profession, but instead asked if law could learn from accountancy, which in the past has often been cited as being ahead of the legal sector in quantification, process management and billing of work. There was positive news here, as Rob felt that law was now catching up, but a clear message also emerged that in-house teams must not sit back and wait for others to ask questions, such as the finance director starting to focus in on value and lead change; it was always better when this came from within the legal team. As a man who believes in shaping your own future and the value of leading if you can, this was a thought provoking note to end on.

So, let's ask ourselves, have we done all we can to ensure efficient and effective management of legal work in our teams? And do others believe that? Or should we be looking again at process and technology and what they can deliver for us? Our conversation moved to solutions, which we'll cover in the next article, and how on average legal teams can save 5% to 15% of cost by using technology.

Neil Stevenson is Director of Representation and Professional Support at the Law Society of Scotland.

Rob Gitell is Director of Sales for Serengeti and their market leading products. He's been with Thomson Reuters since 1998, having previously been a consulting certified public accountant working with leading law firms on business automation.  Rob holds a BA in business from the University of Connecticut and earned his MBA. from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. To hear more about Serengeti's e-billing and matter management solutions, or to arrange a demonstration of the service, please contact: Tel: +44 020 7393 7447 serengeti.uk@thomsonreuters.com.