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Nicole: Hello, this is Nicole Giantonio, the head of Global Marketing at Elevate. Thank you for tuning in to the Elevate.Together.Podcast. This episode features Pratik Patel, the head of innovation at Elevate, and Joe Woods, COO at Lane Powell, a nearly 200 lawyer firm in the Pacific Northwest. Pratik and Joe talk about technology, the transition to a work from home environment, and the results of an effective technology implementation.
Pratik: All right. Joe, welcome, we’re glad to have you.
Joe: Thanks, Pratik. I’m glad to be here.
Pratik: So, Joe, you and I go back, and I know there’s a lot of things that we talk about, today we’re gonna talk about law firms and specifically, Lane Powell, what your firm is doing to improve client service, speed, profitability and some of that related to how you’re managing the billing operations. But before we go there, Joe, I’d love for the audience to get a bit of background on you. Do you mind just giving us a little bit of your journey and the path you took to becoming COO of Lane Powell?
Joe: Yes, certainly. It’s an exciting story, and one that I’m proud of. I started my degree in finance, not quite knowing where I wanted to take it. And I found myself very early at a law firm in the finance department. And I learned at that time, which was very early in my career, that my skill set which was strong on the analytical quantitative side aligned really well with the interpersonal, sort of EQ side that really is required to succeed in a law firm environment. So, I started at Dechert, really enjoyed my time understanding the nuts and bolts, the back office if you will, of the law firm environment, how things worked. Had the opportunity to work with some really, really great leaders at that point. But I got excited about the opportunity to work more front office if you will.
And that interest really had me looking at opportunities around the market, and I found myself at Morgan Lewis. The role at Morgan Lewis was that of a business operations analyst. And in those roles, you support various practice functions, so instead of being back office, general finance, you’re working to support a group. At first, I was supporting intellectual property, then I moved up into a manager role while I was at Morgan Lewis overseeing a labor in employment practice. So, really the experience of growing from the back office, understanding the nuts and bolts of the law firm, to starting to understand how the practices work got me increasingly excited about what I’d be able to do in my career at law firms.
My IP experience, so it happened, proved to be pretty valuable, such that folks around the country were calling me. Again, I was in Philadelphia at the time, but the firm based out of Seattle, it’s a national firm, Perkins Coie reached out to me and said they were looking for someone to manage their IP practice. They’ve got a prominent IP practice, and it was an opportunity for me to try out a different corner of the country, which set me up in the Pacific Northwest. I had a fantastic experience at Perkins Coie, managing a top-tier IP practice; really cut my teeth at that core management large practice side of things.
And then, subsequently, an opportunity presented itself at Lane Powell. They were looking for a COO, and really, I realized that law firms were very much my thing, my ability to navigate, and thread the needle from the technical get it done side, to the interpersonal manage on the stake holders’ side. Lane Powell brought me in in June of 2018 and right around that time, I was dovetailing into some really cool innovative projects that they had begun at least talking about of not working on. And so, for the last two years, plus about a month or so, I’ve been able to really get under the hood and make a lot of progress at a firm that’s of a size and scale that can be incredibly nimble.
Pratik: I’m curious, you know, what really drew you to Lane Powell? What are some of the things that you found that were interesting about the firm that really kind of bode well to what your experience was?
Joe: One way I’ve thought about my own personal journey is when I was managing a practice at a large Philadelphia based firm, I oversaw 15 to 20% of the lawyers, in terms of that type of management. When I went to Perkins, it was a larger subset, it was about 20 to 25%. The Lane Powell opportunity, to be COO of a firm, overseeing a group, the firm itself is of a size and scale that allows it to be incredibly nimble, it allows four leaders to make decisions that can be executed timely. It’s not like turning an aircraft carrier, as some larger very successful firms experience. You know, you’re really able to get things done in time for them to be actionable and provide demonstrable results within a reasonable timeframe.
So, going to a firm where I had that sort of autonomy, but also knowing, and when I was talking to the leaders when I was interviewing, not just the autonomy but the eagerness, and the ability, and the willingness to innovate, to do things differently, to break the status quo, I feel that the firm generally has that, they walk the talk in that way. Where some firms may just put it out there, Lane Powell really doubles it down and it’s evidence by some of the projects we’ve worked on while I’ve been here in the last two years.
Pratik: Now, let’s talk about one of those projects. I know that when we connected, you were looking at a few different areas of the firm, and how opportunistic it was, both from a customer perspective in the market to chase certain things, but also from a firm perspective. Can you talk a little bit about some of the first opportunities and challenges you chose to focus on as you entered the firm?
Joe: Certainly. Like any organization that has a leadership transition at this level, there are a lot of opportunities for me to explore in terms of how we could do things better and different. One of the things that was critically important to the firm was the culture that it created over its 150 years of history here in the Pacific Northwest. I appreciated that, I really appreciated the juxtaposition between that legacy that the firm was so proud of, the culture it created, but then the willingness to try things and do things a bit differently.
With my background in finance and operations, my natural comfort zone, if you will, my inclination was to start there. We do well at our processes with the way we interface with clients, the way we talk to them about their invoices, the way we talk to them about the relationship holistically, about why the time that we spent on their matters is valuable, and in the ways its valuable. So, we talked about how to improve those workflows.
Pratik: Can you describe some of the challenges that you’ve primarily focused on?
Joe: Again, with culture comes commitment to the status quo, for lack of a better word. And so, there’s always those experiences and those leadership challenges that prove to be relatively interpersonal in nature. Building a coalition of the willing, developing steering committees were really important to anything we did. But to your question about where those challenges were and where I wanted to focus my attention, I looked at the spots that the lawyers were talking about as needing improvement. And so, the areas were the things that they experience every day, maybe every week on their Friday afternoon they say, “Oh shoot, I’ve got this pile of bills that I need to do.” And I’ve seen it at other firms, Pratik.
I recall at one firm where a partner with a massive portfolio would go home with six, three to four-inch binders every Friday, and his weekend was working on bills with a red pen. Knowing that that is a categorical issue across most all firms, and then seeing our ability to be nimble, and to leverage our size and scale to make a change firm wide, I really pursued that path as one of my main objectives. And having a real strong finance team under me, I knew it was doable. So, what we pursued was the ability to move away from some of the more manual billing processes and to centralize the process. So, it proved to be a really successful end.
Pratik: Yeah, it sounds like it. And especially in the billing operations process, right, it sounds like there’s a blend of process, opportunity; it sounds like there’s an element of how the legal teams are using technology, and then there’s also a people in the change management aspect to getting all of that done right. There’s always been a way to do things, and I think that’s been driven by a lot of comfort. Can you talk a little bit about how the solution that you implemented included or blended some of those things together?
Joe: Law firms, being a people business, talent is our greatest asset. You need to get folks on board. It’s easy to identify the problem, the problem is that our process, while effective, it got bills out the door, people got to have their say in terms of how the bills looked, it wasn’t necessarily as efficient as we knew it could be. That part’s easy, establishing that, right? And most firms do establish that and then they put it on a list. What I was able to do, being new, being objective, is to say, “This is on our list, and this is really important. Not only that, this is something we can fix.” And so, focusing on that, my experiences in other firms have also led me to the conclusion that implementation of solutions and really managing that change needs to originate from the top.
And by the top, I don’t just mean the professional staff leaders, your chiefs, and your directors, but the lawyer leaders who tend to have the final say in what a firm does or doesn’t do. And I was really fortunate at Lane Powell that not only the management team, the president, the vice president, the leaders of the practices, but the board themselves, every board member was super enthusiastic about doing this. And so, there I spotted a true opportunity because the change management part is the, now while it may be one of the easier classes in undergrad, it’s one of the hardest things to actually do as a leader. Really finding that guiding coalition at the top was instrumental in allowing us to push this through in a way that I felt confident it could work. And importantly, Pratik, work at scale across the whole firm.
Pratik: Speaking to scale, I know that one of things that Lane Powell did specifically was choose technology to support the process, right? We talked about the need for technology to play an integral role, but as we all know it’s not easy to actually implement technology into any organization. Can you talk a little bit about where technology specifically plays into the process? And are there specific things that Lane Powell did to actually maybe improve or increase the adoption rate of the technology itself?
Joe: People process technology in that order. Technology itself won’t fix your problems. You need to have the right people who are designing the right processes, then you bring in technology to fix them. Now whether I’m right or wrong on that, I’ll stand by it. And my view is that technology in this example, when we’re trying to get our bills reviewed, the technology that we brought in and implemented was such that, what used to be done on paper with red pen markups and passing honesty from one individual who tactile finishes, edits, passes it to another person, we use the subject matter expert, and says, “Can you review these entries?” All clients should be happy that their lawyers are doing this with such diligence. So, the spirit of that has always been in the right place.
And clients are always getting the right invoices in that regard, with the right time entries, and the right reflection of their value that’s being delivered. But the efficiency can be so lacking, it’s not atypical to see firms considered to be top on the game who have processes that involve significant amounts of paper. Looking at a tool that really managed the workflow, you see the time entries that are coming as the billing attorney through the system to you for you to review. You can review all the litigation work, but if there’s some immigration matters for that client or some IP matters, that’s not your area of specialty. Now previously, you may have said, “Okay, I’m going to put these proformas off to the side and later I’ll walk them down the hall and give them to Sally or Steve and have them review.”
Now, the tool that we’ve implemented allows them to edit the entries that are in their realm of expertise and it allows them to pass, and designate and delegate entries that would have been reviewed in normal terms in a manual way, in a very electronic and expedited manner.
Pratik: You’ve taken the steps in a law firm to implement Elevate’s Billing product, we’ve seen a couple of learning experiences and that’s been one of the most fascinating things. With any form of technology that we implement, the users are actually the ones that give us the best feedback for what actually works and what doesn’t, right? Is there anything that surprised you, or you found as most enlightening about their feedback of what works and what doesn’t?
Joe: I’ll go back to size and scale. I’ve had the great fortune of again working for some amazing leaders, operational leaders, lawyer leaders at a very large firm. Here at Lane Powell, I know every individual lawyer. And every individual lawyer at the firm feels comfortable coming to me, or one of our leaders in our finance team, and saying “I used this tool, right now I feel like it’s at a B+. But here’s what we can do to take it to an A. And by the way, this is really helping, it’s saving my weekends.” And being able to have that conversation with a partner, such as the folks on the Elevate team, and then say, “It would be really helpful if this summary looked a little different. Or if the way this was conveyed on the screen showed up a bit differently.”
For law firms to be truly successful in today’s dynamic environment, it’s my view that they need to truly partner with vendors. And so, that’s been a key to success. The feedback loop, strong customer service, and the real willingness from the provider of technology to react timely and actually hear the client. So, that’s been a great attributor to our ability to roll this, iterate, iron out some of the wrinkles in the early stages and get it to a place where user adoption across the firm is there, and that’s really what’s needed.