The law firm experience - a client's experience (this one's anyway)

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Prior to my current role at Juralio, I first worked in private legal practice in the Netherlands and China after which I went into commercial roles at different companies. In those roles, selecting lawyers and collaborating with them during the completion of projects were important parts of my working life.

Barring a few exceptions, those interactions with outside counsel have been positive and the three points below are offered as examples of issues which are not any individual’s fault but which I believe represent systematic weaknesses in the way that complex legal matters are currently handled.

#1 No surprises – to the extent possible

Most recently, I worked for a Chinese solar energy company in the international projects division. Italy was a jurisdiction of interest. The market was highly competitive so decisions regarding which projects to move forward with had to be made quickly, taking into account the advice of Italian advisors, including lawyers.

Consider my situation: I was a Dutchman on the ground in Italy, interpreting situations and writing reports for a Chinese shareholder.

Starting off, while we were of course familiar with the elements that go into a solar plant, there were still a lot of jurisdiction specific items that we didn’t know about. That unfamiliarity was the essential reason for us involving a sophisticated international law firm in the first place. As usual in a complex commercial project, time was of the essence. Scoping and estimation were done using the usual combination of spreadsheets, discussions and email. The usual problems arose of inefficiency in understanding, co-ordinating and keeping it all up to date.

Having a visually represented model of what to expect when pursuing a project in a new jurisdiction would, if easy to build, interpret and maintain, have allowed me and my colleagues to be confident that we and our advisors had a handle on things, thereby avoiding surprises.

Having that visual representation works for both the lawyer and the client: every piece of advice can be seen in the proper context which makes for a comprehensive understanding that benefits all concerned. A thus better-informed client is less likely to be taken aback later in the process by whatever arises. Discussions based on the visualization will also help flush out future issues arising from erroneous assumptions, again reducing the chance of the sting of surprise later on.

Of course high-end law firms deliver bespoke services and it is not possible or practical to scope out every single possible eventuality. There will always be unexpected twists and turns in complex matters but having a comprehensive, visual and easy to update representation will definitely help. Our software, Juralio Projects, allows for these surprise-avoiding measures. By creating a common understanding early in the process the client’s chances at success are greatly enhanced. Clients with a better understanding of, and meaningful involvement in defining, what they’re going to be paying for are far more likely to pay (fully).

# 2 Keeping abreast of developments

Once the green light for a project is given, work begins. And costs to the client start to accrue.

The complex matters global elite law firms are instructed in often take months or years to complete and there can be multiple teams working in different jurisdictions. Coordinating those efforts is clearly of great importance to make sure the work gets done as efficiently as possible. In this kind of environment keeping on top of things can be very difficult as the individual lawyer tries to piece together an ever-changing mental model of what has happened out of all the emails and attachments that flood in during the day. Apart from needing that situational awareness to prioritize work (for herself and her team) the lawyer will also have to keep the client abreast. That means distilling the relevant information from that deluge of emails and writing yet another email. That email in turn is at risk of becoming lost in the client’s inbox. More emails, Word docs or spreadsheets are clearly not the answer. The (often) imperfect mental image pieced together becomes just another fixed, historical document.

Our collaboration software is designed to make these efforts at coordination more user-friendly, both for the person reporting and the person being reported to, in a way that reflects how actual lawyers and clients think about their work.

By breaking down a project into tasks that are presented in a visual and easy to understand way, it becomes much easier to see what has been done (or not done).

We’ve made a lot of careful design decisions, and conducted a lot of experiments, to make these ideas a reality, but our approach allows the individual tasks to be seen in context, including the associated words (e.g. meeting notes) and numbers (e.g. costs) – words and numbers which, at present, are hard and expensive to join up in the real-world scenario of busy teams working on complex, fast moving projects.

This allows the consumer of the information any level of detail required, and also the ability to ask focused further questions if necessary.

This approach also allows for the creation of a very strong record, which can serve as the corporate memory. The membership of teams almost invariably shifts over the months and years a project is ongoing. That can lead to very painful and time-consuming trawls through old emails to piece together what happened, when and why a few years down the line.

# 3 Client collaboration

While at the Chinese solar company, large amounts of my time were spent gathering information to write reports for our shareholder. Understandably, with significant amounts of money at risk in a far-away, foreign jurisdiction, our shareholder felt the need for frequent and quite comprehensive updates. This led to a weekly dance that involved a planned call, a few ad hoc calls from me to the partner or senior associate in the law firm and no doubt quite a bit of digging around for the required info within the firm. While necessary, this was tedious, time-consuming and costly for both parties.

Our solution to this problem is two-fold:

  1. Juralio provides for reports which can easily be exported and provided to clients.
  2. Once lawyers are comfortable working with Juralio, the option will also be available to give the client direct access to it (with certain restrictions) so that they can see for themselves what the status is, and collaborate directly.

If further color is required, they can then pick up the phone or write an email, but their questions will be informed and thus far more focused. On the part of the lawyer, far less time is spent updating.

With everybody working off the same up-to-date understanding (which is easily generated and shared) a lot of time will be saved as people are brought, and kept, up to speed, both within and between organizations.

Conclusion

These three instances are based on my personal experiences of instructing lawyers in relatively complex, high value matters. These experiences have been reflected in our product.

A lot of the tension between lawyers and clients comes down to cost, in several ways:

  1. The fees charged by the law firm – in particular, the feeling that the level is partly a result of communication and other inefficiencies, and that the predictability is less than it could be (even accepting the limits of this).
  2. The cost of the client’s time in understanding what’s going on to a sufficient extent to collaborate effectively (and the even greater costs and risks which result if the time requirement is so great that effective collaboration is not possible).
  3. The difficulty of understanding how cost is linked to value. Bill narratives, phase codes and automated summaries of these just don’t cut it.

These are topics which we help address in Juralio. Part of our vision is to link costs directly to the tasks being done, rather than expecting people to handle cost-related issues via separate, financially-focused software as at present.

I’ll go into more detail on this in future posts. For now, I’ll leave you with the central message: insight leads to happy relationships.

Victor Bekink is the CMO of Juralio Ltd.

Victor Bekink