meeting office department men talking impression
LegalApril 02, 2020

Should excellence always be the goal for law departments?

One of my pet peeves in my former law practice was attorney perfectionism. For instance, in settlement agreements, attorneys would often list the settlement amount as, for example, “$32,492.72” and then separately spell out “thirty-two thousand, four hundred ninety-two dollars and seventy-two cents,” as if the extra verbiage was worth their client having to pay the extra $15.00 (fifteen dollars and zero cents) or however much those words cost to type. When I saw that opposing counsel was persnickety like this, I would lower my expectations for how the case would go and basically assume they were going to waste both my and the court’s time—not to mention their own—by dragging us into a bunch of minor issues or total non-issues that they just couldn’t let go of. 

They couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and (to expand on the metaphor) expected their client to foot the bill as they spent hours researching the genealogy of the trees, the patterns of their growth rings, how wind velocity might have affected the viscosity of their sap in adolescence, and other totally irrelevant questions. If I had pulled one of these attorneys aside and asked them why they would squander even a scintilla of time on such matters, they would have said something like, “I hold myself to the highest standards of professionalism and am duty-bound under the Rules of Professional Conduct to represent my clients zealously, leaving no stone unturned in discharging those sacrosanct responsibilities!” 

What people like this don’t understand is the relationship between doing things quickly, at low cost, and with high quality, or that there are trade-offs between these parameters. Generally speaking, you cannot have all three. The services these attorneys deliver typically represent high quality, high cost, and slow delivery. 

They don’t understand that their emphasis on “perfection” is a choice, not mandated by the situation or the ethical rules governing attorneys. These rules do not require attorneys to waste time on activity that has a 0.0001% chance of making a difference. Their unconscious, default approach to “quality” has more to do with minutiae and other indicators of quality that probably have little correlation to actual results. This approach effectively forces their clients into the extreme right side of the cost-quality curve below: 

cost vs quality1

Compounding the situation, the viewpoint of the “buyer” of legal services—the corporation with the legal problem—is frequently not well represented by inside counsel who are charged with choosing and managing service providers. Indoctrinated by law school and legal practice into many of the same unconscious perfectionistic attitudes seen in outside counsel, inside counsel often doesn’t weigh the criticality of various attributes the same as their employer - the client. The result is that nobody questions if outside counsel is overworking a case and obsessing over details, then sending a huge bill for it. 

Here, legal operations represents a tremendous opportunity for improvement. Rather than focusing on the minutiae of individual cases, legal operations is able to take a bird’s eye view and look at whether the department is handling its overall portfolio of work in a way that really reflects organizational priorities. In the example above, there is an opportunity to analyze each category of cases and ask “do we really want to be on the extreme right end of the cost/value curve or would it better align with our client—the, ahem, company that cuts our paychecks—for us to buy services that are very affordable and ‘good enough’?“ 

An even more tremendous opportunity for legal operations is to move the cost/value curve altogether, as in the example below. Here, legal ops improve the processes, technology, and people (via training and/or restaffing) involved in the delivery of legal services, making them more affordable at any given level of quality

cost vs quality elm2

There are even new tools, like There are even new tools, like LegalVIEW® Predictive Insights from Wolters Kluwer’s ELM Solutions, that are helping make the cost/quality decision a conscious one for legal departments by providing systems for prioritizing value in sourcing decisions. Predictive Insights uses AI and machine learning together with our $130 billion LegalVIEW® Database —the world’s largest body of legal performance data—as well as client data to predict outside counsel expense, cycle times, and outcomes in litigation matters. The tool also displays previously collected law firm scorecard data on quality and other dimensions. Law departments can assign weights to all of these dimensions and the tool will then rank a host of providers in a way that reflects actual client values, not only unquestioned historical patterns based on unconscious perfectionism. 

While improving the people, processes, and technology behind legal is nothing new, what is new is that improvements are coming as the result of an increasingly organized, professionalized body of subject matter experts who have reached substantial agreement on a number of best practices. These professionals are confident enough to stand their ground when the forces of unconscious perfectionism call their ideas, or even their raison d’etre, into question. 

Nathan Cemenska
Director of Legal Operations and Industry Insights

Nathan Cemenska, JD/MBA, is the Director of Legal Operations and Industry Insights at Wolters Kluwer's ELM Solutions.

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