It’s not unusual for people to start a new activity or initiative with plenty of enthusiasm and the best of intentions, only for interest and energy to wane over time, with the result that the new skill never gets mastered, or the project’s benefits are never fully enjoyed. Whether that’s learning to play a musical instrument or implementing new matter management and spend management software, failure to achieve the desired outcome often causes disappointment and frustration.
For example, a technology solution may be purchased with great expectations, but sometimes the commitment isn’t there on the part of the legal department to fully exploit its capabilities. Perhaps it delivers a couple of outcomes that the legal department wants – i.e. some bills are generated or a few big matters are created – but there’s no consistency in – or guidelines for – its use, and there are no plans for process improvements. Soon, it effectively gets side-lined. But, just as constant practice is essential when learning an instrument to improve playing over time, legal teams can become experts at getting value from their systems if they prepare correctly and put in the work.
Here are the top ten ways to achieve a virtuoso performance from your spend and matter management systems:
1. Assemble a team
A team needs to be assembled, preferably before implementation, to decide how best to configure the system. First and foremost, a decision-maker in the legal department must be on board. This can be the general counsel (GC) or someone who has been assigned the GC’s authority for this project. If the rest of the legal department isn’t made to believe this project is a priority for their boss, the chances of a systemic change in legal department operations decrease significantly. For a large legal department, you may want a representative from each major practice area to give input into the configuration of the system. It’s important to get someone from the accounts payable department on board (or finance, depending on how your company is structured) to discuss how invoices will be handled, plus someone from IT—especially if the system will need to be integrated with other solutions. Having this team in place gives the project authority within the department, and by including all other stakeholders, minimises the risk of surprises emerging down the road.
2. Make goals and set a timeline
So, you’ve gone through implementation, and you’ve got the system up and running with some core functionality your department needs. However, if your legal department is coming from a paper world where reporting was minimal, invoices were approved without following set processes, and few billing guidelines were in place, then there’s still likely to be a lot of room for improvement. That’s perfectly normal for a legal department adopting a matter management system for the first time. During implementation, there were probably many options and suggestions given by your implementation manager, along with a lot of best practice advice. Depending on where your legal department started, the different possibilities and the effort to implement them may have seemed overwhelming. The key is to prioritise what you would like to implement and make a yearly plan outlining what you want to accomplish.
3. Constantly improve
Toyota made famous the concept of kaizen, or constant improvement. This goes along with making and keeping goals for using more system features, but constant improvement can be much more than that. It can include making processes more efficient, questioning how things currently are done both within and outside of the system, keeping up with industry trends and applying them to how the legal department is run.
Even the most sophisticated legal department can improve because the landscape is always changing. Be sure to change with it.
4. Create billing guidelines
If you don’t have billing guidelines, it is time to create some. One of the great benefits of a legal spend and matter management system is the ability to enforce your billing guidelines with your firms efficiently. But the software can’t create your guidelines for you. Look to your account manager to get you started on what other legal departments are doing as far as expense guidelines, fee-earner rates and rate increases, late invoices, etc are concerned. Once this is in place (or updated) you can start automating the enforcement of these guidelines in the system. This equates to real money saved with little or no effort. Depending on your department’s preference you can either review billing violations or employ an auto-reduce or auto-reject functionality to do it for you.
5. Have regular meetings with your customer service executive
Account managers should be experts not only on the solution and how it works, but also on what other law department clients are doing with the system. They should also be on top of industry trends. This person who is designated to assist your legal department should be able to give you best-practice advice on how to implement your next goal and should even be able to strategise with your team on what the next goal should be based on their experience with many other clients. If you’re not already talking to your account manager on a regular basis, it’s good practice to schedule a quarterly call with them and go over your system use and your goals. If there’s a feature that you really want in the product, let your account manager know. The voice of the customer should be extremely important to your legal system partner, and they should welcome this input.
6. Stay on top of new releases
The company you’ve partnered with should be constantly trying to improve their product, adding features that they’ve heard customers want. They should also have a vision about where the market is heading in the future and be building the system in such a way that it anticipates those future needs.
Keep up with these releases and understand the vision so your legal department can keep improving, following best industry practices, and growing with the system.
7. Attend client webinars
This doesn’t mean that if you’ve been on a particular system for several years, you should attend a basics webinar. This means watching webinars for things such as emerging trends for legal departments, tackling key relevant issues in the legal industry, best practices for both using your system and running your legal department, training sessions for new users, and deep-dive explanations of new releases or the product roadmap, among other topics. These will help you save time and keep on top of not only the product, but also market developments.
8. Develop or update your IPP
Along with your law firm-facing billing guidelines, you should also have internal policies and procedures (IPP) addressing your department’s use of the system to ensure it’s used consistently by your internal team. Why is consistency important? The old database administrator’s axiom of “rubbish in, rubbish out” applies here. If the data is inconsistent going in, your reports will be inconsistent also. Using the correct matter types or areas of law, naming conventions, or the requirement of budgets or status reports for matters (or when matters should be closed…the list goes on) – all of this affects how these matters and their spending roll up into reports. Regardless of what sort of reports your department heads and GC may want, the data needs to be consistent for the reports to be meaningful. The IPP also should cover who is responsible for what in the system – such as who reviews billing guidelines violations or fee-earner rates, creates matters, has matter responsibilities and matter access, etc. The IPP also serves as a training document for those that are new to your department.
9. Assess your partner’s professional services offerings
Whether you’re brand new to matter management and spend management systems or you’re a proficient, it’s always a good idea to check out your partner’s professional services offerings. The services should be based their experience with other clients. So, this could involve simple assessment and advice on how to better use the system, or if you’re new, guidance on getting you up to speed as quickly as possible. Or they should be able to guide you on creating complex reports in a time-efficient manner or give you a helping hand to overcome a specific hurdle and achieve your goals for the year. Regardless of your requirements, it can be very beneficial to revisit how professional services can get your department where you want it to be.
10. Reassess all of your processes
You’ve worked hard and had some successes, but how do you develop and maintain a consistent position as a top performer? By constantly auditing and reassessing your processes. First, auditing your system to make sure that everyone is complying with your IPP is important to your data integrity. Remember, a GC is relying on these reports to be accurate and may be presenting them to the CEO or the board of directors. Spot-checking for consistency and accuracy in your processes once a quarter is a good rule of thumb. Secondly, your billing guidelines with your law firms should be reviewed annually, preferably before new fee-earner rates come out toward the end of the financial year. Are you allowing rate increases this year? If so, what percentage raise will be allowed? These answers depend on the state of your company and also the legal market, which changes yearly. You may also want to review what you did that was successful or not successful in the previous year and then tweak your processes as necessary.
If you follow these steps with your spend and matter management system, then practice really should make perfect.