THOMSON REUTERS ELITE

SPRING 2014 EDITION

Forefront

Renewing New Business Intake

By Michael Lowe, President, HardingLowe LLC

I feel for you, New Business Intake professional. Standing between partners and their potential revenue is like standing between a grizzly and her cubs. You cannot possibly assess and approve matters quickly enough, nor can you ask too few questions to do so. And yet your firm, your clients, and the legal landscape are growing more complex, increasing the risks that you are responsible for managing. The small firm you first joined is now a combination of merged firms with offices around the globe, many practice groups, and lateral hires who do not share your firm’s traditional risk profile. Competitive pressures are generating a larger range of alternative deal structures that must be approved and accommodated in downstream processes.

If you haven’t recently, it’s time to assess whether your current NBI capability is appropriate for a modern law firm. Firms are finding that improving their NBI is resulting in reduced risk, increased revenue, and happier attorneys. And, at long last, technology has developed to the point where it can enable whatever operating model works best for your firm’s strategy and culture.

Why NBI Matters

Marketplace changes have forced an expansion of what needs to be accomplished during business intake, besides just avoiding conflicts. Below are some of the areas in which the NBI capability influences firm performance.

Risk management – As the gatekeeper to new clients and matters, NBI coordinates the reviews necessary to identify and mitigate different types of risk – ethical risk (Does this create a conflict of interest?), economic risk (Will the client pay? Will the firm profit?), and strategic risk (should the firm do this type of work?), to name a few. The quality of these various risk management decisions depends on the quality, accuracy, and completeness of information provided to decision makers by NBI.

Client satisfaction – Inefficient NBI can immediately start attorneys off on the wrong foot in building a trusted relationship with clients. Clients with pressing legal needs do not appreciate waiting for attorneys to receive approval before starting work.

Revenue realization – Poor NBI causes firms to forfeit revenue. I have worked with firms who are unable to bill matters for months because they are unable to get accurate invoices out the door. As invoices age, the likelihood that they get paid decreases dramatically. Furthermore, firms lose billable hours when attorneys lack a place to record time worked prior to matter approval.

Attorney satisfaction – Attorneys recognize the importance of NBI, but resent a process that is inefficient and opaque. At the Practice Group level, they want to feel that the process is tailored to their areas of law (I hear attorneys complain that their intake is too "Litigation-driven"). IP Practice Groups within big law firms are perhaps the most challenging, and firms risk losing IP Partners if a rigid intake process cannot accommodate their needs.

Marketplace Trends Impacting NBI

For years, as law firms grew organically, so did the administrative functions that support their operations. Today, as firms make more dramatic changes, those functions have become misaligned to the needs of the firm. Here are some of the trends that may necessitate a realignment of NBI:

Firm growth, diversification, and internationalization – The potential for conflicts increases as your attorneys and clients increase. Internationalization and a changing regulatory environment also add new Know Your Customer requirements. Internally, growth and internationalization introduce attorneys with different expectations and different understandings of the firm's risk tolerance.

Lateral Hiring – According to Anne Scott, Director of Professional Responsibility at Arnold and Porter, a particular challenge is the recent wave of lateral hiring. Lateral intake adds volume and complexity for NBI, which must quickly vet and integrate the laterals' clients and matters. Retainer letters and conflicts waivers must also be reviewed and rationalized with those already existing at the firm for that client.

Client requirements – Gone are the days when clients would accept a single-line bill for "legal services rendered". As they add requirements for your invoices, such as eBilling numbers and task codes, you must have a reliable way of capturing those requirements and communicating them to Finance. Furthermore, Outside Counsel Guidelines must be captured, translated, evaluated, and made accessible.

Firm requirements – Changing firm operations are also adding complexity to New Business Intake. Alternative Fee Arrangements require an additional review to ensure that the firm does not take on undue economic risk, and may necessitate the creation of matter budgets prior to approval. Other functions (marketing, business development, knowledge management), are looking to NBI to capture data for their downstream processes, which complicates the intake form.

Recommendations

If you are considering a review of your NBI capabilities, here are some recommendations based on lessons learned from those who've already taken the leap:

1

Review your entire capability. A new technology will not magically fix a broken NBI function. You need to look at all of the interacting components that together build a capability: policy, process, technology, and people. Configure the technology to fit your business, not vice versa.

2

Avoid denial. Some aspects of the NBI function seem designed for a world that doesn’t exist (e.g. a world where attorneys do what you ask of them).  Recognize the reality of how attorneys work while designing your capability.  For example:

  • Attorneys are already working on the matter.  In many cases, attorneys have started working prior to formal approval of the matter.  If they do not have a place to put their hours, that time may well be lost.
  • Provide a way to capture time immediately.  Some firms have de-coupled the provision of a client/matter number from approval of the matter, so that attorneys receive a C/M number immediately. 
  • Secretaries will be doing the lion share of the data entry.  Identify and communicate the few data elements that must be provided by the Attorneys (e.g. deal structure details, related parties).  Assume that the rest will be provided by their secretaries.  If it’s information you need, you’d better train secretaries on how to obtain it. 

3

Keep your intake form simple. As you launch your project, with a cross-functional team from across the firm, everyone will try to address their data collection needs through the intake process, resulting in a form that is too long, will annoy your attorneys, and will produce bad data anyway. Use this project to first build some good will with your attorneys. Keep the optional questions to a minimum. As Ted Graham, Conflicts and Intake Manager at Brown Rudnick points out, much of what clogs up intake forms is found by intake analysts anyway as part of their conflicts research.

4

Get a handle on your informal reviews and bring them into the formal process. Your attorneys are smart and motivated to get started. Undoubtedly, they have found ways to circumvent your formal process by obtaining informal approvals for proposed matters. The problems with this are that: it generates unnecessary redundancy when combined with the formal process, it creates additional challenges when rolling out improved processes, and it disadvantages new joiners to the firm who only know the formal process.

5

Create risk-based alternative processes. When it comes to NBI – one size does not fit all. Although you should first improve the process that works for 80% of your matters, it is worth considering whether you should also develop processes for common exceptions. Tailoring processes based on risk allows you to quickly approve low-risk matters (e.g. an IP filing in a dozen countries should not go through the same process a dozen times) while focusing needed attention on the high-risk ones.

6

Support attorneys with analysis. Firms can differ in how much they centralize decision making. However, for even the most decentralized firms, provide a core group of professional staff to support attorney decisions with analysis. Searching and data analysis are tasks done better and cheaper with trained staff. Attorneys don't want raw data, they want recommendations.

7

Adopt a matter lifecycle risk management and data collection approach. The first day of a matter should not be the only time you review its risk or collect information about it. Matter parties change, clients merge, matter descriptions can change dramatically. Firms do not do enough to identify clients or matters whose profiles have changed over time. This exposes the firm to risk and puts an undue burden on the intake process to collect all necessary information.

Conclusion

Being the gatekeeper for new business at a firm can be a thankless role. Yet with so much change for law firms –their size, practices, lawyers, clients, deals, regulations, and risks – the role has never been more important. New Business Intake professionals have the opportunity provide a new level of support to the firm - furthering firm strategy, improving the lives of attorneys, and reducing overall risk. If your New Business Intake practices are holdovers from an earlier age, now is the time for a modernization. Your firms might even thank you.

This excerpt is from "New Developments in New Business Intake," which appeared in ILTA's December 2013 white paper titled "Business and Financial Management." It is reprinted here with permission.


Harding Lowe

HardingLowe is a management consulting firm that helps law firms identify opportunities, solve difficult problems, build capabilities, and deliver complex projects. Formed by Accenture executives in 2010, we combine major consulting firm experience with expertise in the areas that matter most to law firms. From strategy through adoption, combining changes to people, process, and technology, we deliver innovations that generate lasting business value. Click here to learn more.

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