The Legal Helm Podcast: Episode #8
Today we’re pleased to welcome Christine Maloney to The Legal Helm. Christine is the Director of Billing for Finnigan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, one of the world’s largest IP law firms. In this conversation, we delve into Christine’s expertise with e-billing. She shares her take on Covid’s impact on the billing process, where she sees it going as we move out of the crisis, and shares tips on how to make billing teams more efficient. This episode is packed with great information. Enjoy!
Bim Dave is Helm360’s Executive Vice President. With 15+ years in the legal industry, his keen understanding of how law firms and lawyers use technology has propelled Helm360 to the industry’s forefront. A technical expert with a penchant for developing solutions that improve business systems and user experience, Bim has a knack for bringing high quality IT architects and developers together to create innovative, useable solutions to the legal arena.
Christine Maloney is the Director of Billing at Finnigan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP, one of the world’s largest IP law firms. Christine uses her 20+ years in the legal billing industry to lead teams through billing system transformations, conversions, and migrations. She’s an Elite Financial Systems Integration expert and has opened shared service centers in Latin America, Asia, and Australia. She’s an expert in multiple firm management systems, including Elite 3E, Aderant, EHUB, and Bill Blast.
Read time: 45 minutes
Bim: Today I’m with Christine Maloney, Director of Billing for Finnegan, a full service IP law firm with over 340 professionals around the globe. Christine has a wealth of experience having worked in various consulting and law firm roles over the years. I’m really excited to be talking with her today specifically about electronic billing and paperless technologies.
Christine, would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself and some of the highlights of your journey in the legal industry to date?
Christine: It has been a 25-year journey. I started right out of college as a cash-receipt data entry processor. I was one year out of college and manually balanced a whole AR conversion for what was then the largest law firm in Washington DC. They referred me to an Elite subcontractor and that started my journey with data conversions and process improvement.
I was there for about 10 years and then decided to go back in-house to eliminate some travel and just go from firm to firm leading them through process improvement and data conversions. Most notably, I was at a consulting company for seven years and opened up shared service centers to support Hong Kong, Asia, Australia, and South America. That was a seven-year journey. It took five years to execute to that plan.
Then I went to another large global firm and ran their U S implementation of Elite to 3E. Now I’m here at Finnegan where we’re going from Elite to Aderant. So part of going to these conversions is really redefining your process to take you to the next level so that you’re not just taking system A and putting it on B but you’re really strategically using the new system correctly.
Bim: Fantastic! It’s great to hear that history in terms of you being really hands-on, physically moving the data and probably doing lots of the validation, which I guess helped you get where you are today in terms of adding so much value in the role of Director of Billing.
So to talk a little bit about e-billing. As we move to a more paperless world, I think the pandemic has helped accelerate that for many firms who had been sitting on the edge of making technology changes and implementing new technology. For those who are uninitiated and really don’t understand e-billing, would you mind giving us a little overview?
Christine: Sure. E-billing used to be maybe 5% of your bills and you’d create an electronic file and upload it to the web. Now law firms are seeing 40 to 50% of their billing has to be submitted electronically. That does not mean emailing a PDF. It means creating a data file, similar to an Excel file, specific to the client requirements, and uploading it to over 35 different sites. E-billing is the way of the future. Firms hate it because it adds so much rigor to the billing process and firms love it because once the bills uploaded, once you get it through that initial gatekeeper, you have full visibility into the approval cycle and when you’re getting paid.
Why is it so complicated? Well for large law firms, they usually buy a portal. Usually they’re looking at Bill Blast or E Hub that connects to the 35 different sites so billers can just spend their time on a portal submitting to the 35 sites. Smaller firms may not have that technology. They’re actually submitting to the 35 sites. If you have 100 clients e-billing, you may have 100 different format varieties. Whether they want task codes or activity codes, whether they want block billing or they don’t want block billing, whether they’re validating against rates, whether they want to see you billing standard rates with an adjustment line or they want to see the discounted line…. Getting all those different algorithms into place to get the bill through what I call the gatekeeper to even get it submitted to the client can be very challenging.
What I’ve done at several firms is establish an e-billing team and I believe in the rules of engagement. The way I like to structure it is with two e-billers as the subject matter experts. Those subject matter experts then set out the rules of engagement and they’re responsible for all new e-billing setups, which can take days if not weeks. They’re responsible for all the matters getting set up, all the time keepers getting submitted. And the timekeepers can be very challenging. Sometimes the sites want to see you give them the standard rate and the discounted rate; sometimes they only want the discounted rate. Sometimes they want diversity information and you’ve got to go to HR.
So it’s not 20 years ago keying in five timekeepers with the rate of a hundred dollars. Getting that timekeeper approval can take weeks. I like to keep that with my subject matter experts. They’re more familiar with the individual sites. They develop relationships with the key stakeholders at the clients and the key stakeholders at all these 35 sites. The goal is that when the biller goes to actually bill, that they can get the bill through. Your e-billing experts have finished all your setups. The billers then submit the invoice.
I like the billers end to be responsible for what I call tier one rejections, which are where the task codes are wrong, the narratives are wrong, things that are more billing related. I believe a backup doesn’t get submitted. I believe if it goes to a tier two rejection it goes back to the subject matter expert. Once again you can spend five hours trying to get a $200 bill through because they want different tasks codes on matters. And once again, I want that subject matter expert to go back to the root system and correct it so we eliminate the problem in the future.
Once you get your e-billing team in place and you develop the rules of engagement, then you can use your portals to help manage the workload. That’s how we have structured it in my last couple of firms. As your e-billers get more experienced you can then divide up the billers to have an e-billing expert. I’ve gone so far as to develop workflows so there is a relationship and that e-bill or is engaged with the workflow. They’re the user defined field set up so I can manage those partnerships and know who I need back up for.
I believe emailing is getting so complicated that you need an e-billing expert. And I believe you need an emailing manager who just goes through the sites. As good as technology is, we still have issues with rejections not getting back to the sites. You still need that second pass and you’ll know who your most complicated clients are. You’ll have to do a monthly audit of the AR because technology is not perfect. You can’t risk missing a rejection email that did not flow through to one of these portals.
Bim: It sounds like you’ve got a really tight change control process in that when you experienced those problems what you know it can be rectified, you’re going back to source system and putting down the billing rules so that you’re defining how you solve that problem going forward. Is that is that right?
Christine: Absolutely! And the new financial systems are allowing you to load in those outside counsel guidelines, so that they validate the rules for you upfront. Then as you go forward, you need to fine tune the rules because not everything’s always defined or you didn’t understand it in the outside counsel guidelines. There are products out there that are allowing us to load those rules into the financial systems and eventually even validated at time entry. We’re getting to the technology of having triggers to tell us when backup is required and when it isn’t. To have triggers to tell us when we have to attach a PDF copy of the bill and we don’t. That’s all about getting these rules defined and that goes into the outside counsel guidelines and what the clients are looking to see.
Rates are a big problem. Rates need structure. It’s very complicated if they want to see the standard rate or the discounted rate. E-billing is wonderful in some ways for rates and really bad at other ways. It’s really good because it validates your rates to make sure it’s correct In the financial system. It can be really bad If you have what’s called a sleeper timekeeper; someone who hasn’t worked on the deal in three years and you did not submit them as a new timekeeper. Or they were a summer associate and they come back three years later. Some of these systems will say “tough luck; the last rate we had is a hundred dollars an hour, I don’t care that they’re four fifty now, you didn’t resubmit them; you missed the opening window, I’m going to pay you a hundred dollars.” That goes to these subject matter experts. It happens all the time, but as long as you have someone really monitoring those rejections just because the bill is short paid by $20 doesn’t mean it’s a $20 call. You need to look at the rejections as soon as possible so you can go back to your system and correct your data. You may end up writing off the rate difference, but if it’s one-time card for one person for one month, you move forward.
It could be the symptom of a bigger problem. That a rate card was submitted incorrectly, that the client entered it incorrectly, or that you have this sleeper timekeeper issue and they’re validating from when they were a summer associate five years ago. We liked the fact that the emailing systems validate the rates, but like I said, sometimes you’re out of luck If you didn’t resubmit that timekeeper or if they got promoted from a legal assistant to an associate or associate to counsel. It’s up to you to resubmit those rates. Sometimes they tell you to submit 30 to 45 days ahead of time. Some clients are requiring you to submit everything 60 days ahead of time. We’re right now going into that huge rate season for e-billing and it’s all automated. There’s not much you can do if you miss a deadline.
The other thing that e-billing is doing that can be challenging is accruals. They’er now all automated. If you miss an accrual deadline, they’ll put your bills on hold in the e-billing system until you complete the accrual, until you submit a new rate sheet for a new timekeeper, until you submit a budget. These emailing sites really can control your revenue flow by putting all these rules in place, which is why you have to have people constantly monitoring the sites. Just because you submitted, it could still be on hold because you didn’t know a budget was due. You didn’t know a matter profile was incorrect. These emails are going all over the place.
Another thing I believe in is setting up e-billing rules and teams, so it’s not going to just Christine Maloney, because I could be out sick, I could leave the firm. We’ve done a lot to structure team environments so we have better quality control and we have better backup processes based on more than one person seeing the email. So if you are setting up a email@example.com, what we do is we say that e-biller one monitors the box on Monday and e-biller two monitors the box on Tuesday. Then we go in and code the messages as completed. It’s all about the rules of engagement and figuring out who has responsibility.
You’re always going to drop a ball and you hope that it’s a $20 bill and you hope you find it in 48 hours not in 48 days. The rule of thumb is if we can’t get it resolved within two or three times, let the partner know. Let the partner know there’s a challenge. Let the partner know that they’re giving you problems on the rates. Let the partner know that they’re not accepting our budgets. It’s all about communication. If the partners are involved within three weeks of the problem, it’s usually resolved within four weeks. If you tell them in three months, the deal could be over and you don’t have as much leverage to get it fixed.
The other challenge with e-billing is the clients don’t always want to cooperate. They set up all these rules and they want you to follow them, but trying to get them to open up the matters in the e-billing system can be very challenging. You’ve got to get those contacts made, you have to keep in touch with your partner, If you’re not getting those new matters open quickly, you need to go to the partner and they can reach out to their legal contact to figure out who the . administrative contact is. You have to stay on top of it. It can be very overwhelming. It’s a full-time job!
Bim: Yes indeed. What would be your suggestion for firms that are sitting on the fence and thinking, “do we invest money in a new billing system?” If you could highlight some of the major advantages you see. I think you mentioned you guys are using Bill Blast. Another big player is obviously Thomson Reuters e-billing hub. Based on your experience, what would your advice be?
Christine: I think the investment outweighs the risk of rejections and not knowing about it. E-Billing Hub, which is a great product and I’ve used it at numerous firms, relies on the information coming into the hub. Bill Blast is reverse technology. Bill Blast goes and monitors the websites for you.
Both are great products, both are not 100% perfect. But as you get to know your data, if you’re on Bill Blast, you’re going to know the client sites that can’t be scrubbed easily so you do a manual audit of those once a month. If you’re on E-Hub, you’re going to know the sites that aren’t sending good error messages. The advantage of both of them is from a reporting and manager standpoint. You can take your data out of whatever financial system you’re on, run an AR report, marry it up to one portal, and make sure that all your AR is flowing through. You’re still going to have to maintain your rejections, and you’re still going to constantly be working with clients, but if you don’t have one portal of information, you would have to go from your financial system to the 35 different sites, manually. At least now, even though they’re not perfect, you’re going to get 98% of your data in one spot.
What I’ve done is write your AR report out of your financial system. You can unload it to Excel, write your AR statement out of whatever portal you have married up with the V- lookup and make sure that you’re covered. 90% of the time you’re going to find a bill or two that slipped through the cracks. Why can a bill slip through the cracks? Well, you could reverse it so many times that it doesn’t feed over to the portal system. It happens. You have to have some kind of triggering system. I believe in a matter-based system because even with one client in 10 matters, nine out of 10 are e-billed, but one isn’t for specific reason. I don’t like it being client-driven. I like it to be a matter-driven system, but that means you got to keep that matter trigger active.
We’ve written reports at my current firm to tell me every AR and how it’s coded and then if it’s a null we go in and code it. We run that every morning . The advantage of the portals is for your billers They can go in every day and look in one snapshot what rejected overnight, where is my hot spot, I’m in over my head I need to reach out to my emailing expert. The E-billers can go in, “Okay I know my billers are overwhelmed today, it’s the three days at month end close and they’re not going to be looking at their E-billing.” In a snapshot I can see if a million-dollar bill rejected overnight, if I have a rate issue on client X Y Z. You’re still going to have to go to the sites, you’re still going to have to do a lot of research, but I feel like you’re not flying blind because you have a portal or a dashboard.
Some of those dashboards in the newer systems flow through to the financial system. You may have your e-billing, your billing portal, your proforma edit portal, your paperless portal. I’m seeing now in the next 18 months that we’re going to pull in those e-billing statuses. I haven’t worked on it yet. I’ve seen demos in various financial systems. That’s how important it is. I think we’re at 40 to 45% now, probably going to be at 60% in the next 18 months.
When the client gets the bill they can go into their portal and approve it and send it through a workflow where in the past they’d have to get the email, open it read it, but that leads to the next level security. We get bills rejected because timekeeper A and timekeeper B both put in the same narrative the same day for the same number of hours. That was on a paper bill. I doubt a client would catch that, but they’re running algorithms against the narratives to see if it’s a good narrative. Stuff will get kicked out just because you use a semi-colon versus a comma, because you have “and” in there too many times. With paper bills that didn’t happen.
From a collection standpoint, at my last few firms I spent months training the collectors on the e-billing sites. They are our safety net. They can get to their data, they can do better cash forecasting, give them the access to the data. I’m a big proponent of the collections team being that third level of security to make sure these bills are going through. That’s where I’ve taken the collection aspect and how it can help with e-billing. You can go in there and you can see it was sent to accounts payable 60 days ago. Okay collections team please go call the client and find out why we haven’t gotten payment yet .That’s right on the collections team now which is a huge advantage.
Bim: Fantastic. Thank you, Christine. To move on to the concept of the paperless office, this has been talked about for many years. Over the last couple of years with the pandemic hitting, this has been more of a prominent need and people are looking at the world of paperless a little bit differently to what they have done in the past. From your perspective, what do we mean by going paperless?
Christine: I thought about this a couple of different ways. I’ll take it from the simplistic view to the most complicated view.
18 months ago when all this started, many firms were printing reams and reams and reams of paper then delivering in old fashioned carts around the library room. When you talk about going paperless the first issue is figuring out ways to run those proformas to editable PDFs and to word documents and get it out electronically to the partners to make their edits. That happened quickly. It was done by April 2020. And I have to tell you we really pushed the limits. We now can run those PDFs all to one partner. We can page break it by client We can put it on a network drive and they can go pick it up. Some of them are cutting by 150 pages. We came up with 14 different ways within six weeks to get those proformas, draft bills out the door to the partners in a way that made it easiest for them to edit it. Whether it was on their desktop, laptop, a couple are doing it on an iPad, but they’re getting it done and they’re getting it back to us.
That’s the most simplistic view of paperless billing. Not having the partners mark up a piece of paper and send it back to the biller because there’s no way to do that right now. Nobody’s in the office. Everybody’s at their houses. Of course, we have some holdouts that we’re printing paper and carrying it to them, but you’re always going to have that. I can’t say we have a hundred percent compliance, but we did a lot of work. We have 14 different ways to deliver the pre-bills electronically and then the partners deliver it electronically back to the biller. They have the dual screen set up and they just do the editing in the financial system based on the marked-up PDFs and Word documents. We had nothing 15 months ago. We just printed paper all over the place. So that’s the first sign of going paperless since COVID started.
The second variation of paperless would be to have a secretary in a portal. They go in, view it online, make edits in a notes column online, and pass that back to the biller. They’re not actually executing the changes. It’s a little frustrating for everybody because we’re doing double work. They’re still putting in a notes column “transfer to matter one, make this narrative change, make the edit change.” It’s still double work. That biller is still executing all those changes.
Another variation is the concept that the secretary or the partner, depending on the secretarial involvement in billing, would make the changes. They would come through the billing system, you would approve them, and then import the changes. Not bad but Nirvana is that they just make the changes. That you get your security correct, that they can make the narrative changes, that they can transfer time billable to billable, and they can do write-ups and write downs to a certain percentage. Then you have a workflow that routes that approval based on let’s say it’s over $5,000 and then it goes to another workflow. That’s Nirvana. That’s where I want to get to. That is truly a paperless world. When they’re doing the changes, your security is correct, , have your rules in place and you know what your limits are on write-offs.
I have to tell you I get a little frustrated sometimes when I talk to firms and they do a dollar limit. It really shouldn’t be a dollar limit. It should be a percentage of the bill and, in the perfect world, it should be a percentage off of standard or worked. Each firm can define their rules, but I get so frustrated when we have to get approval for $7,500 write off cause it’s over $5,000 on a $2 million bill versus writing off $7,500 on a $10,000 bill. But that’s where we’re going. That’s where paperless is going. We’re going to get to these rules of engagement and we’re going to get rules of the authority and approvals.
Something I’ve seen work at more sophisticated firms would be all the proformas get generated on business day two. They go out to the portals, then a manager goes through the stages – okay it’s a current proforma, now it’s in a draft stage, now it’s in an editing stage, now the partner’s reviewing it. At any point during the month, you can go in and say okay I have to call partner A because they’re still in stage one, I need to call biller B because she’s behind on stage two, I need to go flag that secretary or I need to go talk to my cost backup team. In my last two firms I’ve set up cost backup teams and all they do is pull the backup and attach it to the bills. That’s Nirvana when it’s completely automated and we’re not doing double work.
I think COVID has helped us move that process along much more quickly in the paperless world. Just speaking a little bit about how I would structure a billing team in 2021; e-billing once again putting so much more rigor on the billing process and the backup process. And it’s coming. We’re getting there. Technology is getting there. Where when you print the bill, it attaches the backup. We’re not there yet. There’s technology out there. It’s not perfect with line item parsing of the backup and you still have to make sure that nothing confidential goes out.
In my last two to three firms I’ve set up a billing assistant role, and they pull all the backup. We have them loading the backup into the e-billing systems so the billers keep billing; they’re not doing backup. The nice thing about the billing assistant role is some people will be very happy in the billing assistant role. Some people may be aspiring to be a biller, so at this point they’re learning back up, they’re learning the billing process; we have loading the backup into the e-billing systems so they’re getting a flavor of all the different pieces of the puzzle so they will be more experienced when they choose to become a biller. It’s a great role for either type of personality; someone who just wants to have more junior position in the team, and someone who really wants to aspire to learn the whole process. Very happy with that structure that we’ve put into place.
Going back to paperless it really depends on admin involvement. I really am a firm believer if a secretary or an admin assistant is sitting there and marking up the piece of paper, let’s have them make the narrative changes in Elite. There’s no reason to do it twice. Right now, a lot of firms are still doing it twice.
Bim: Totally agree. It’s interesting because obviously there’s the kind of billing processes that I think are a key point in terms of paperless. I remember the start of the pandemic having a conversation with one my customers in the U S. They were having to send somebody into their office physically to go and cut checks so they could pay their staff and vendors. I think there was a lot of realization from that perspective in terms the whole bidding processes being paperless is obviously an advantage. I think you gave some great examples of the kind of stages you can go through to get there. Because it doesn’t necessarily have to be all bells and whistles from day one. You can take it in stages and still achieve great outcomes. Even the other elements, like cutting checks and making those payments electronically, another key area for most firms to look at if they haven’t already done so.
Christine: I was not involved as much in the accounts payable process here last year March and April but we had two receptionists, who obviously didn’t have as big a role anymore when we moved home, calling and emailing every vendor to get ACH and wire information because we were traditionally cutting checks. I think we’re down to 2% checks, if that many. You’re right. It really changed the whole way the finance department worked. We’ve been so successful and I think it’s made for happier employees. I think employees are generally happier working from home and will like the flexibility of these hybrid work environments. It is hard to run big data conversions in the hybrid role, but I think we want to keep employees happy and I think they like the flexibility of working from home. I don’t know where we’ll go over the next six months, but do hope firms keep some type of hybrid role.
Bim: Absolutely. I think ultimately that is the future. You gave some great examples of how going paperless can provide a lot of efficiency gains and narrow down some of the errors that can happen during that process, minimize the amount of physical time that we have to re-input narrative changes and all of the other elements of data change that need to happen throughout that approval process. In your experience can you talk to some of the challenges involved in implementing some of those changes? It sounded like you moved pretty quickly to implement some good solid changes, but I’m guessing there was some issues in terms of rollout and how you make that successful? Any tips you can share?
Christine: We had to do a lot of cross training. Our word processing department helped us significantly during March, April, and May. How to track changes, the best way to create an editable PDF. We had to get partners the right equipment so they could do it on an iPad. We had to get them the correct pens… It was a big challenge from teams that traditionally printed a lot of paper. By June last year, we did buy all the billers printer scanners and ship them to their houses because it is hard sometimes when you’re reading a partner’s handwriting and the bill’s 82 pages long. Sometimes you do still want to print it out and check it off. It was an evolving process in the spring of 2020. We never thought it would be going on this long. We bought color printers so they could see the red lining. I’m sure there’s some edits that were done wrong but we did have a lot of help from our word processing department learning how to work with large files. And like I mentioned earlier, that led to these 14 different printing options we have going so that partners can get it in a way that makes sense to them. We have some that are tricking the system to do a joint bill even though we have to single bill. They’d like the joint bill summary because then they can know quickly which ones they really want to go edit and which ones they just don’t care about.
The double reviewers has helped a lot. We’ve had partners spend hours connecting to the biller’s machine to see how they’re editing so they can work together as a team to pass the edits correctly. Sometimes the partners just didn’t understand what our screen looked like and what their screen looked like. There was a lot of that going on last summer because frustration was pretty high. We did have partners who literally would spend a couple of hours on the phone connected to the biller’s machine and the biller could say, “look this is how you edited it but this is what I have to do.” It didn’t matter in the past. Now it matters that the proforma edit grid was sorting the exact way as the piece of paper was sorting, whether it’s index or date or timekeeper. That was a big process last summer. We kind of had everything rocking and rolling by July- August. There were some phone calls I was on two – three hours with partners figuring out the best way to edit them. And like I said, they are partners and we want to get the bills out the door.
We do have some that we are still printing in our document production service team, sending to their house, and then they’re sending it to the biller’s house, and then the biller ships it back here because they don’t have room for all the paper in their house! We have two or three holdouts. You’re always going to have that. You have to be prepared to work with them.
Bim: Totally. It’s really interesting listening to you because you understand some of the changes that have happened over the last couple of years and what that leads to in terms of not just changes to the way the billing operational piece works, but also the knock-on impact, because you’ve got people moving to a handholding support type role – kind of like a knowledge sharing role – with the individuals who are responsible for interacting with the processes so you’re walking them through it. It’s almost a follow-on to train somebody on how to use a product, but then they need to be handheld throughout that process to make sure that they can be successful. Some of the experiences that we see as a software vendor, where the start of the pandemic saw a big uptake in terms of customers exploring solutions like our chat bot product and the reason they were looking at that was to solve the problem that you’re talking about. You’ve got a gap between a group of people that we’re firstly trying to remotely support, which obviously brings own challenges; you can no longer go down the corridor and talk to somebody and sit over their desk and hold their hand going through a process. Bringing that knowledge and experience into something that’s distributable in a different way. For example, being able to ask a chatbot solution to give an automated answer.
I think what’s really been a common occurrence is the pressure on not just building teams but also IT departments. Some of the things you described like, I need to be set up with a printer, all of that kind of stuff leads to somebody from an IT perspective now needing to do a little bit more than they’re used to doing. Not just thinking about infrastructure in your offices, but also thinking about how to support my workforce inside their homes with foreign networking equipment. Everything’s going to be different.
I think there’s lots of challenges and streamlining that can happen across the board when it comes to this kind of hybrid working model. Some of these technology solutions are quite interesting in terms of how law firms are looking at them to adapt and fix some of those problems in terms of how we communicate and how we support the workforce going through it. Then putting in those best-of-breed systems like you described, like paperless performance solutions, to really make it easy to watch that flow of data going all the way through and ultimately delivering a good clean bill to your customer.
Christine: It’s interesting you mentioned IT. Last year we had two weeks to figure all this out. My team was a more traditional team. We were all in DC and all on desktops that weren’t going home. Within two weeks, we built many computers and sent everybody home with a mini computer and two monitors. Once again, we were thinking two to three weeks and then we’ll just set up an extra training room. What are we to do with all these computers? Well that was kind of funny. We learn in the first 72 hours that launching the core applications on these mini computers and mapping network drives and mapping to all the e-billing sites, everything they had used for 10 years, was not on the mini computer. We had to go to remote desktop and that has worked great for 19 months. Occasionally we have to reboot a desktop, but we’re using remote desktop from these mini-computers and it’s working great.
Once again, it’s been 18 months and those computers were already a couple of years old, so we’re switching everybody to laptops now. We’re going to try and get rid of remote desktop so we don’t have all this real estate with just these computers all day long. We’ve been much more strategic and organized about the rollout, about mapping network drives, about getting connectivity to all the different core financial systems much more engaged with the IT system. We have a weekly meeting about how we’re going to do this. We had pilot group one… didn’t go so great. We’ve met. We came up with what went right, what went wrong. We’ve engaged the training team because in finance we’re too busy to write documentation. That’s not our sweet spot.
We’ve engaged the trainers to help us educate how to use a laptop correctly when you’re coming off of these mini-computers. It’s evolving every week whether it was sending printers home in June-July, then when this kept going on, we bought everybody extra cameras because you couldn’t get hold of equipment in March of 2020. The monitors we bought everybody didn’t have cameras. Never even crossed our minds. So we had to get everybody cameras so that they felt like they had a more normal work experience, that they were seeing their team members, that they were seeing a partner, that they were reading reactions. That came in July and August. We sent cameras home to everybody.
I’d say every month there’s something we do to enhance the IT side making it easier to work from home. We started with a separate VPN just for finance because we just weren’t equipped to have a whole firm work remotely within 48 hours. I’d say every month we come out with a new enhancement to help finance service the firm better and to make it easier. And whether it’s the cameras, whether it’s rolling everybody out to laptops, whether it’s enhancing the Citrix desktop, we’ve been spending a lot of time on that in the last couple of weeks, just to make it a better experience for everybody. Once a month we’re making a change and I think most firms are seeing that as this goes on now 18 months
Bim: Yes, agreed. I’ve been seeing the same. It’s really quite inspiring to see how quickly everybody has evolved. I think it took something like this to push all of us with an IT perspective, from a core business process perspective, to really think differently. You can see the results. You’ve given some great examples. It’s really good to see how a bad situation has led to some good outcomes in terms of how working more efficiently.
To move on from paperless specifically and talk about legal technology overall; what do you see as the hottest areas of legal technology and innovation going forward? What are you excited for?
Christine: I’m really excited about a more robust paperless workflow. Not just what we’re doing now, but really getting to the point where we’re only doing work once. That those right-off approvals are automated and the biller has more flexibility to work with a partner because we can set up the rules of engagement in the system. We know this client, we know they have this rate structure. We’re not worried about a write-off up to this percentage… To get those workflows in place and to make it easier on the partner. They hate billing, they hate editing narratives. How can we get those outside counsel guidelines loaded in? How can we get it to trigger whatever time entry system you’re using to come up with that word that says, “Hey this client requires X Y and Z?” You can’t expect a young associate who’s working on five different clients in 42 matters per day to know all the rules, to understand task-based billing, to understand what the client needs at the time of time entry. We should not be spending so much time editing time.
I really believe pricing’s a huge new revelation in the last couple of years in law firms. There was a huge study 10 years ago where a law firm for just rushing so excited to do a job and be a hundred hours in and not even know what the goal the project was. This whole thing with pricing and understanding the project; going back to more of a professional service not a law firm model. Understanding where we need to go using task codes correctly not just for e-billing, to budget per workflow within that engagement, and then using that modeling for the next similar case. I think pricing departments are going to be out of control in the next couple of years.
Pricing would lead to better budgeting and getting those budgets loaded. Once the partner loved to see it on the pre-bill – this is the budget we did by tasks, this is where you’re running by task, this is where your overages are… Then have a dashboard where they can go in and say, “oh that was a new associate, I’m okay with it, hat was value-add to go over” or, “that’s a very senior associate; I think I have a bigger issue here. Was it me not communicating the tasks correctly? Or did they really not understand or not have the right tool?” We can’t go back six months later and we didn’t have the right tools. We need to know immediately so we stop the overage right then. I think that’s going to be huge because clients are holding us accountable. We need to get the data to the partners more quickly and accurately. Clients are holding us accountable to these accruals.
I’m actually on a new associate orientation committee in the next couple of weeks. It’s not about getting a nastygram that you didn’t put your time in. That means we’re doing the accruals wrong. If your time’s not in, it’s not just about your law firm having late time. We could potentially be under budget and accrual. They don’t even understand what an accrual is. Once again, they’re all loaded into the e-billing systems and the client says, “well they don’t even have to do anything.” They hit a button and goes, “well, Finnegan, you were 42% over your accrual budget; Why?” Then you spend three hours justifying late time. That’s real important knowledge transfer. We keep talking about billers and partners, but associates and getting that information out to them of why we need better time entry.
I’ve seen a couple of demos now where we’ll load the outside counsel guidelines into the financial system and the financial system can then feed the time entry system. It would come up with warnings to tell them how to put their time in. I think we’re going there very quickly because we’re spending too much time editing these narratives. If it’s a huge bill and you lose $2,000 you’re not going to appeal it. You’re not going to upset the client by submitting those four time cards again. You’re going to write it off. That’s where I see that whole budgeting and pricing and getting tasks codes. I think that’s going to be the future. Even if it’s not e-billing, to get the task codes in to really categorize the work.
Bim: Agreed. I think pricing is pretty exciting and there’s a ton of products out there that try and realize that dream of being able to price things correctly and use some intelligence to do that.
What I’m really excited about is when we’re doing a starting point that’s a little bit more refined, where we’re looking at planning the delivery of a matter. Like at the start of the matter, let’s make some good decisions and really empower lawyers to make that selection in terms of who’s going to be working on this matter. You gave a great example of the junior associate who is going to bring the value to delivering that piece of work, but being able to make good decisions on whether to use somebody more junior or not at the outset of making those decisions. Being able to say, “I’ve got this particular type of matter” and then using some intelligence to check to see if the firm’s done similar types of work before. Then making suggestions.
In the past, we’ve used these timekeeper titles to deliver these elements of work so that, if by default, you have an attorney who’s using the same people again and again, they could be senior, they could be working themselves up the ranks, but they’re really doing lower level work that could be done by a junior associate or a paralegal. They’re equipped with that data to make a better decision and ultimately see how that transitions into a better profitability number. I agree pricing is really key for law firms and professional service firms to make sure that they’re really looking at it that way and looking at how they deliver a resource model that makes sense for that particular piece of work. It will be interesting to see how that pans out over the years. I think that whole pricing topic will be a completely isolated topic in its own.
Christine: Going back to emailing, we’ve had clients cut our bills and e-billing because they’ve run their own leverage statistics. They’ll say, “why are you leveraging at this percentage of partner to associate? We’re going to cut the partner time down to an associate rate.” So clients are getting smarter.
Bim: You’ve been in and around the legal industry for a number of years now. What would you say has changed most since you’ve come into the legal industry?
Christine: I think the desire to have the data faster and more accurately. The complexity of the rate agreements are out of control. It used to be, “okay we’ll give you a 10% discount.” The complexity, the volume-based discount, that’s another topic. Automating these volume-based discounts. I think most firms, like mine, were doing it manually and sending around a document.
I think volume-based discounts are going to be a huge deal in the coming years. It’s a way to get in your big clients and to get more work so you can get a global client and get all the work in the firm not just one piece of the puzzle. I think volume-based discounts are the way the future. I think e-billing is going to become even more, and I think the COVID situation has forced more firms to go to e-billing. I think there’s going to be some move in the legal world within the partnership between the billing and the collections departments. I think the billers are getting more educated on the whole process which I think is very important. I think the partners are going to want to have one single point of contact. I’m not sure where that’s going to go over the coming years because they are two different skillsets, but I think partners want full service from one person. I think they want the technology in place where they can just go to a portal at three o’clock in the morning when they’re traveling and hit a couple buttons, be done with it and know it’s going through the process whether that’s the billing process or the collector to check on an open AR. They want to give them the information like, “I talked to Susie Smith today the general counsel she didn’t realize they were behind, can you please call this person in accounts payable.”
I think we’re going to get more into automated workflows and approvals so that it’s not so email-driven. Email’s great, but it can get lost in translation. I would like to see more automated workflows so we have a dashboard when we come in every day. We don’t have to read 800 emails and make sure that we didn’t drop the ball on something. I’m really looking forward to more dashboard-driven, workflow-driven products whether it’s in billing, e-billing, and collections.
Bim: I love that. Also, that collaborative element that you just mentioned is really key because like you said you can have systems in place, but if you’re still doing your communication using a disconnected state where you’re just emailing each other or emailing between the firm, then a lot of context get lost. If you can do it in the context of what you’re actually working on that brings a different ball game.
We’ve heard lots of times over the last couple of years that embracing regular chat IM technologies, like Microsoft Teams and Zoom; really moving to a more virtual way of collaborating on matters is a game changer. Getting to that point where you build a hub of communication associated with the type of work that’s going on and bringing everyone into one area to communicate so you can capture that content outside of email. You can have a more interactive experience when you’re talking to each other. I think there’s some really interesting things happening out there from an innovation perspective and adopting some of these existing technologies in a different way which I think will be really helpful. Just couple of last things just to wrap up then Christine. What are you curious about right now?
Christine: I think artificial intelligence with time entry is going to be interesting and making it easier for the timekeepers to get their time in quickly and efficiently without writing down on a piece of paper all day long what they’re working on. I’ve seen some demos that are going that way. It will be interesting what happens. Some people don’t like the big brother aspect. I don’t know what will happen. I’m not that close to the technology in it, but I think time entry in general has got to come along faster..
Bim: Is there anything I should have asked but that I did not ask today?
Christine: I think the one thing we talked about a little bit that was very interesting is the outside counsel guidelines and where we’re going to go in automating that. I’m sure most firms just email them around and save them on a network drive.
The volume-based discounts. I know the newer products do have volume-based discounts. I haven’t seen it in place and working yet, but it would be nice for partners to see the whole book of business because sometimes the partner that brought in the case or the client is not engaged in all the workflows, And I think it would be nice for them to be able to call their contact and say, “Hey! Thanks for giving us all that work in all these workstreams over the year.”
Bim: I think that whole analytics of what we do for a client and delivering that to the lawyer is going to be an interesting dynamic and something that can really change the way their relationship with that client works.
I love the idea of being able to deliver some of that information at the point of time entry. I think that in itself is a game changer. If you have what you need in real time while you’re doing it then, ultimately that’s going to help the situation anyway. As much of that that can be automated through AI or other technologies is really going to take us to a whole new level.
Christine, it’s been really good talking to you today. I appreciate it. I have learned a lot from talking to you and I’m sure our audience will as well. You have a wealth of experience. I really appreciate you spending some time with me today.
Christine: It was great It was great to spend time with you We’ll talk to you soon.
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