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LegalSeptember 12, 2023

Legal Leaders Exchange rewind: Let’s talk about “worst practices”

With good reason, we all tend to focus our attention on best practices. It makes sense, of course. When there is widespread consensus on the most effective way to meet some goal, we all want to know more about it so that we can take advantage of that approach. However, there is another side to that coin: worst practices. These are the things that organizations usually do out of inertia, just because everyone involved is accustomed to doing things in that way.

How can we avoid the tendency to fall into that sort of rut? By talking about those worst practices. That was the reason behind our podcast episode Worst practices and challenges of change management in legal ops, which was released in December of 2022. In case you missed it, here’s a recap of that episode.

The fourteenth episode of ELM Solutions’ Legal Leaders Exchange podcast series features a conversation between Nathan Cemenska, our Director of Legal Operations and Industry Insights, and Cheryl Cowley, Vice President and Director of Legal Administration at Santander. Their discussion focused on some of the ways legal departments can modify their approach to improve performance, reduce costs, and increase efficiency.

They framed the discussion in terms of bad habits, or “worst practices,” that law departments commonly engage in. These practices often fall into the category of doing things the way they have always been done. It may be easy for organizations to continue doing these things, but they can hinder progress toward the goals the team is judged on by upper management. Our experts talked a little about why change is difficult and then dove into the areas where many legal departments could introduce improvements. Here are just a couple of the highlights from the episode.

Worst practice: being a friendly negotiator

In-house attorneys understandably want to have good relationships with the firms they engage. However, Cheryl points out that having a good relationship doesn’t have to mean saying yes to every proposed rate increase. When law firms at least attempt to increase rates every year, an attorney who is focused on maintaining the relationship by being friendly during negotiations is likely to miss out on the opportunity to save the company money.

In Cheryl’s view, attorneys are not required to say no every time a rate increase is requested. However, they should take the time to consider the firm’s work and whether the proposed rate increase reflects a fair cost for their services. If it doesn’t, then good communication about why not can be the basis of a good continued relationship. By being open with firms about why you don’t think the increase is warranted, you set the stage for them to improve the services they provide.

Worst practice: continuously growing the law firm panel

While Cheryl doesn’t believe there is a single perfect panel size that works for any company, she does feel that trying to achieve the optimal panel size for each organization is a worthwhile pursuit. Some law departments may do well with a small panel while others require a much larger set of firms to choose from, but most would benefit from the administrative advantages of limiting the size once they have added enough firms.

Even when a panel is established to meet most of the legal department’s needs, it is common for attorneys to request the use of an additional firm, sometimes because there is a specific attorney at the new firm that they want to work with. Cheryl is open to onboarding a new firm when it makes sense to do so, but she has found that it is best to investigate whether it truly is necessary. She asks questions about the reason for the need, involving other attorneys when they may have relevant information to contribute. For example, there may already be a firm on the panel with experience and a history of good outcomes for the type of work in question, but the requesting attorney may need more information about them. This is another instance where good communication can address issues quickly.

Nathan and Cheryl discussed several other “worst practices,” such as approving unreviewed invoices and allowing matters to proceed without defined budgets. To hear the full conversation and their advice on making positive changes, listen to Legal Leaders Exchange: Worst practices and challenges of change management in legal ops. If you are a podcast app user, be sure to follow our Legal Leaders Exchange show on your favorite app (Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Amazon / Audible.comiHeart Radio), to make sure that you don’t miss any of our informative episodes. 

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