People, Process, and Technology in that Order
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 effective technology implementation.
Joe Woods describes his journey to COO, sharing insights and specifically how Lane Powell transitioned to remote work; including the centralization of billing processes and choosing the right partner.
Joe Woods said – “For law firms to be truly successful in today’s dynamic environment, they need to truly partner with vendors.” And explained that People, Process, and Technology – is the right order to revamp a process.
Pratik Patel co-hosts a wide-ranging conversation on the building of the Elevate Manage Billing module. Explaining that the value lies in how the technology fits into the law firm processes.
We cover a lot, including:
- [03:37] – Interesting facts about Lane Powell that entice Joe Woods to join.
- [04:57] – Opportunities and challenges that Joe focused on first.
- [06:21] – Implementing billing technology to streamline billing operations.
- [07:36] – Blending technology and people’s expertise.
- [09:20] – Role of technology in processes and how Lane Powell has increased the technology adoption rate.
- [11:13] – How user feedback plays a critical role in defining a process and a technology solution.
- [12:43] – Does remote-work impact the adoption of technology?
- [15:13] – Four fundamental aspects of Elevate’s Manage Billing Module.
- [16:00] – How has Elevate’s Manage Billing Module impacted Lane Powell’s journey so far, and what results have they achieved?
- [18:52] – Tips from Joe Woods to implement technology solutions.
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 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.
“For law firms to be truly successful in today’s dynamic environment, it’s my view that they need to truly partner with vendors.”
– Joe Woods
Pratik: When you speak about user adoption, you have a lot of law firms who have gone to a remote work environment. It wasn’t something that they had expected. I think the journey we all took together at Lane Powell, and the timing of your implementation was a bit strategic. Your respective of the remote work environment that we were all forced into, we had a hunch that this was gonna be part of how the legal team and the lawyers would work in the future. How has the remote working environment impacted this particular project? Have you seen it improve the adoption of electronic tools like this? Have you seen it just raised a lot more questions and maybe interest? Where along the spectrum have you seen the response to these things change as a result of everyone working remotely?
Joe: That’s a great question. About 45 minutes ago I got a call from a fellow COO, one of the things he said is, “So, are you back to the office yet?” And I said, “No, we’re really doing a great job working remotely. We’re not in a race to get back. We’ve got whole essential staff there.” And he said to me, “Well, we had to get our finance team back because of the bills.” And I said, “We might need to have another call about that. I’ve got some updates that we’ve done that’s made that easier.” And so, to your question about the moment, it was strategic. We didn’t need COVID to know where the market was going, that remote work is becoming ubiquitous and that the firms who give flexibility are going to remain the places people want to work.
The fortuitous nature was that this thing was rolling firm wide right when it kicked in. To that score, part of it is out of necessity. When you have someone who previously was using proformas coming off of a printer, working with their legal assistant or support staff to help them process and catalog those proformas, help them, shuttle them to other approvers or other reviewers; that can’t reasonably be emulated in a remote work environment. Well, we took our firm from a low percentage remote, to over 95% of our employees remote during this same time frame. This just shoehorned right in and allowed us to say, “Hey folks, you all knew this was coming. Well, it’s here now.” And their appetite to use it was self-motivated because they had little interest in coming to the office when they could try this tool instead.
Pratik: It’s fantastic to hear. We talk about results, it’s not as if, Joe, you or anyone else that is trying to improve a law firm is doing so just because. And it’s really focused on the results you can drive for the law firm. And also, we talk about this a lot and I think its important for people to hear, we actually talked in some of our conversations about it just doesn’t stop at the law firm. A solution like this actually extends into the benefit of the customer as well. When we built the Elevate Billing product, we had four fundamental areas.
One of the categories was speak to cash that we can improve the ability for the law firm and the partners to improve their speed to both getting an invoice with you, but also getting it out to the customer, making sure that they fit within that timeframe. The second was profitability. Reducing any write-downs of realization, but also compliance to billing guidelines. We saw across these law firms the difficulty law firms were having in that. The third category was time savings. We talked a lot about how much time it actually takes folks in a law firm, and frankly on the law department side as well, to get invoices right.
And the fourth category was customer satisfaction. Going back to the customer centric focus, and that if we were doing things on the law firm side that improved the ability for law departments to focus on the right things, they’re a lot happier. If you can speak a little bit about where you are on your journey today, which of those results you’re chasing, maybe which of these you’ve actually achieved, and then which of those are you turning to in the future, that’d be helpful. Because I think folks are wondering where do you start on that results curve, what comes out first and then what do you strive for?
Joe: Those are great questions, and you’re right. One of the core tenants of our firm vision is a relentless client focus. So, we don’t make decisions to feel better about coming to work every day, we make decisions with our clients in mind and how we’re going to provide them excellent service. So, the first point I’m going to speak to cash inventory cycle time. And the way I always think about this in my various roles to date is of the three-core metrics, your hours or your production, your billing and your revenue. What does the law firm have total control over? Demand can fluctuate, revenue streams can fluctuate. Go on law.com, you can read about revenue streams fluctuating.
But billing, that’s an area where you’ve got the production, you’ve got the demand, you need to communicate that value to your clients in a timely manner and an effective manner, so your client can read that invoice and say, “Yep, that’s what we did.” And you can work to speed that up. So, your point about time to cash to your point about it coming in the time of COVID, that’s the time where we went from wide full scale to the firm. While we’re still working to measure how that is going, it really is showing an ability to speed up that process in the middle, and the ability to get those efforts, those time entries to work, the value your firm is contributing to its clients into a tactile form ready to be presented to the client is and will continue to be increasingly shortening.
And that gives us more time to talk to our clients. That gives us more time to interface with them and talk about the value delivery, talk about what else we could be doing. So, we’re really seeing progress there and as we get more months under our belt with the system and technology, I expect to see real positive results in terms of our ability to get those out the door, with the same, if not better, exactitude than ever before.
Would like to know more about Elevate’s Prebill Review Module?
Pratik: The market talks a lot about these outside council billing guidelines. Looked at how many billing guidelines there were to manage. How the timekeepers, or the lawyers, and the legal professionals all had to comply with those billing guidelines. It’s an apparent difficulty, if you will, of how to manage that. And I think it’s just important that just as law firms continue to take these kinds of journeys, just the efforts frankly of the law firms to actually manage that process in and if itself, is a big one, and it’s quite underestimated, if you will. But I do think, like you say, Joe, that the more and more law firms, and firms like Lane Powell take the baton and say, “That’s a challenge that we’ll take on behalf of the customer,” from what I hear from the law department side, I think they are very thankful.
Because I know they spend a lot of time on their side doing it. I know it’s a topic that is very interesting and we could talk for days on that. I think there’s a lot of folks that are looking to do the same thing. But one of the things that we could help with is if we were to rewind a little bit and say, “Now that we’ve been through it, what are some of the things that we would have done differently?” What are some of the things that you’ve learned that potentially could help others in their journey, and is there anything specifically you feel like you could highlight that could save other people a little bit of time as they take some of the same steps you have?
Joe: Great question. And honestly of the various projects I’ve been involved with, this one went more smoothly than ones in the past. And I think in large part, it was the conversations we had up front. So, this is a bit of reflection but it’s also I guess implicit advice to those who are listening would be – know what you want, know how you want it to look, have a vision, and be able to share that vision with your partner, whoever that is. If your partner is down on the 11th floor in the IT department or if your partner happens to be a third party that you’re working with. Scope the work but beyond just what does the product look like, scope the support experience, talk about what’s important to you.
If you’re a firm that has fewer operational support resources than Lane Powell’s fortunate to have, maybe you talk to your partner about or vendor about, “Hey, we really need extra help in the integration part of this because we don’t have a product management function.” And talk about what that looks like. If I’m going is at the early stage if you have the vision and you know where it wants to go, go a little bit farther than that and talk about what the journeys going to look like. And I think we actually did a good job of that which prevented many headaches along the way.
Pratik: I agree. And I think your point is well taken. Make the technology work for you. What is the lawyer’s user experience? That’s the only translated version that most users, whether they be lawyers or professionals, think about. I think it’s really important. These technology tools provide a lot of different types of functionality. I think where and how that functionality fits into the style, into the process of the law firm, I think is most valuable. Joe, this has been fantastic, and I think it’s been very valuable to the folks listening as well. I’ll leave it with this, if there is a single word, or a couple of words that describe your journey that you’ve taken with revamping, improving, automating, what are the couple of words that describe your journey thus far?
“These technology tools provide a lot of different types of functionality. I think where and how that functionality fits into the style, into the process of the law firm, I think is most valuable.”
– Pratik Patel
Joe: If I were to describe the journey about implementing tools at a law firm, it would be buy-in, collaboration, and partnership. As it relates to the specific project we’ve been discussing here, I would go back to a point you just made, which is lawyer experience, and subsequently client experience. Because that’s more important for us, it can’t be additive. I’ll leave it with that. Lawyers are an increasingly busy breed, so it’s all about the user experience and not being additive to their day.
Pratik: I couldn’t agree more, Joe. Well, thank you so much. Congratulations to you and Lane Powell for a fantastic journey and great results.
Joe: Pratik, thank you so much. Great talking to you.