Managing Your Consultants
By Eric H. Steele and Thomas Scharbach
TECHNOLOGY migration -- from simple upgrades to brand new, ground-breaking systems -- is difficult for most law firms and law departments, be they large, medium or small. It is particularly complex when outside consultants and integrators are brought into the migration process. Mid-sized firms face special challenges.
There are two important principles that all firms considering the use of outside consultants should remember: 1) The firm is in charge of the migration process; and 2) The firm's business needs determine technology needs.
There is no shortcut. Firm management must set the goals, stay involved in the process from beginning to end, and make high-level decisions. The best system in the world is useless if it does not meet -- and fit -- the firm's business needs. Technology change cannot succeed without the commitment and time of the firm's management, legal and technical/administrative staff. (To say nothing of a healthy budget.)
Mid-sized firms often lack the time and specialized expertise needed to plan and implement systems migration -- particularly requirements definition, technology selection and project management-- so they often bring in trusted consultants to "fill the gaps." Firms may also use outside consultants to supply technical expertise and to add "extra hands" at other stages in the process freeing the firm's internal staff to focus on supporting the firm's legal practice during the migration process.
But firm leadership must commit the time and attention to stay in control of the project to succeed.
Here are seven tactics that will help law firms and law departments get the most out of legal technology consultants on technology migration projects:
1. Minimize Project Competition
The first tactic is so simple and so basic that it is often overlooked: Be sure that the decks are clear and that the firm's project teams have adequate time to devote to the migration process. Identify any competing projects (including caseloads) that will compete for time, funds and staff and work to minimize the conflicts. If this basic step is overlooked, the internal project team and the consultant's staff will be frustrated, the project will falter, and consultant's costs will increase.
As a rule of thumb, it is usually good to schedule no more than "one roll-out per quarter" to avoid the risk of overload and technology exhaustion.
2. Know Your Consultants
Finding a consulting firm with a good reputation is not enough the consultant needs to "fit" the project. A consultant should have three key qualifications -- all of which are equally important for success:
a) Technical expertise and experience with similar projects.
b) A deep understanding of the practice of law in your firm. He or she must understand both how your style of practice will affect the project, and how the project will change the way in which law is practiced at the firm.
c) Strong communication skills, for lucid conversations with lawyers and staff about legal and technology issues, and about the synergy between technology systems and legal practice. This usually incorporates a "culture" match, where the "chemistry" of a close working relationship is just as important as the reputation and technical expertise of a consultant.
3. Contract for Fit
Demand minimum levels of experience for key members of the consulting staff who will be working on the project. Be sure that experienced consultants will be involved in hands-on management of the less experienced staff. No project is completely standard. Handling the "unexpected" requires creativity and experience, the ability to think "outside the project plan."
4. Avoid Scope Creep
Technology projects are notorious for "scope creep," the tendency of a project to expand beyond the limits of the original plan. Most is avoidable with a few preventative measures during the contract phase:
a) Nail down the project scope, in detail, at the beginning of the project, and pay for it, if necessary. Project planning and budgeting is simple in theory , but very tough to do in reality. The more detailed an understanding of the project scope is developed in the beginning, the less chance of scope creep down the road.
b) Contract in stages when it makes sense. The first step in many projects is to answer either, "Do we need to do this?" or, "What should we do?" Many projects can be "staged" (e.g. requirements, system selection, implementation), and the results of each stage of the project may have a determining effect on the work needed to complete subsequent stages.
c) Delineate responsibilities carefully between the internal project team and the consultant(s). When developing your project plan, list every task and assign, for each task, a responsible party, a due date, and a reporting mechanism for problems if they occur.
d) Work from a detailed proposal. What is true of project plans (the more detail, the less scope creep) is also true of consultant's proposals. Detailed proposals are a "reality check" on project plans, budgeting and task integration between the internal project team and the consultant's staff.
5. Integrate the Project Team
Many firms, faced with the pressures of practicing, are too willing to "turn over" a project to a consultant. This is almost always a mistake.
Consultants provide know-how and experience, but successful project execution demands a working team composed both of consultants and the firm's internal staff, as well as a clear understanding and agreement that project success or failure will be shared.
6. Maintain Oversight
Many firms suffer expensive and practice-critical setbacks because technology projects fail. The most common reason so obvious that it bears repeating and repeating is that the firm did not keep a steady watch on the project.
The best method of staying on top is the simplest: Schedule regular progress and status meetings.
Make sure that everyone critical to success of the project is in attendance at each and every meeting, ready to report.
7. Plan for Knowledge Transfer
When the project is completed, many firms find themselves in the uncomfortable position of asking, "Is anyone left behind who understands the work that has been done?"
Plan for systematic knowledge transfer between the consultant and firm staffs from the very beginning. Discuss how the firm will sustain momentum once the project is completed.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line for using consultants comes down to a simple rule: "Get involved and stay involved."
Like a good lawyer, an effective consultant can help best if you communicate and share responsibility with them. When you do, your investment in outside consultants will be well worth the cost and effort.
Eric H. Steele and Thomas Scharbach are principals of Steele Scharbach Associates L.L.P. consulting firm.