I frequently discuss with law firms and law departments how best to provide lawyer support, including outsourcing as an option. Inevitably, the conversation turns to support quality. I am surprised how few have defined what “good support” means. 

Defining good lawyer support was a big part of my presentation last week at the Ark Group conference Best Practices & Management Strategies for Law Firm Library & Information Service Centers. Jean P. O’Grady, Director of Research Services & Libraries at DLA Piper LLP (US) and I presented the keynote panel, Outsourcing: Outrage or Opportunity. Marsha Pront, Senior Library Consultant, IMS Legal Research Services moderated. In the audience were 45 people from 35 mostly large US and Canadian law firms.

I said that defining good support requires metrics, service level agreements (SLA), and a governance structure. Without these, managers cannot assess if they provide good service, where improvement opportunities lie, or the viability of alternative support approaches. When I asked for a show of hands of who had instituted metrics or SLAs, few hands went up. This is pretty typical in law firm audiences.

We did not have a chance to discuss what metrics to track but “core” support functions cry out for metrics. Jean, citing Jim Collins in Good to Great, defined core as follows (1) “Good to great” companies focus on what to do and (2) they also put equal focus on what not to do and what to stop doing. She surveyed attendees in advance, asking which library functions respondents consider a core business activity of the firm. She reports the results at her Dewey B Strategic blog post, Outsourcing, Outrage or Opportunity? What is Core?

Once you know what to measure, you have to define the right service level to offer. For libraries that might mean, for example, categorizing research requests by complexity and, for each complexity level, specifying a turn-around time.

A governance structure is also key. One element of governance is a process to recover from errors. Another is articulating criteria for when the SLA applies. For example, appropriate governance might limit in-depth business development research to partners with a demonstrated track record of winning new business.

As for the question of “Outsourcing: Outrage or Opportunity,” many seemed skeptical that outsourced service could be as good as what they provide internally. To understand this view, I asked two questions. First, did the audience believe that every support function in their firm was “good”. The looks and comments confirm what everyone in a large law firm knows: some support functions just are not that “good”. But of course, not mine!

And second, I asked how many had work experience in an organization that provides outsourced services. Only a couple of hands went up. I then pointed out that every law firm employee, in fact, works for an outsourcing organization. In-house counsel can “make” legal services or “buy” them from law firms on an outsourced basis.

I hope the audience left with the message that metrics, SLAs, and governance are key both to judge quality and know where to draw the make / buy line. To optimize lawyer support, law firms must adopt the right evaluation framework. That is true whether they choose to work purely internally or to outsource.

This blog post appeared earlier this week at the Integreon blog. Right, I do work for Integreon, which provides legal outsourcing services, so you might think I’m biased. I frame my thinking a bit differently though.

In 1989 I was one of the first non-practicing lawyers in a large US law firm to focus full-time on legal IT and practice support. Then Wilmer Cutler was an early PC adopter so inside the firm, I had support. But when I talked to other firms, the hostility to technology was often palpable: “why would lawyers ever need to use e-mail”; “lawyers dictate, they don’t type”; “I went to law school so I would not have to learn spreadsheets”; “we could never do an e-mail client update, it might not be perfect”; “law firms will never have websites”. The list goes on. And the resistance lasted at least a full decade.

My view is that just as many of us look back 20 years and try to remember what all the fuss about legal IT and practice support was, in a few years time we will do the same for outsourcing. Things take time but the legal market does change and rationalize.

[Update 3 Mar 2011: Steve Levy of Lexician wrote Outsourcing: Bad Word or Wrong Word? today that comments on above. He suggests that managers focus on who is doing the work, not who employs the worker, and that the issue is more one of delegation. I agree. See also my post Is Offshoring the Same as Delegation? ]