What makes a law firm a firm, not a collection of solos? From both the client and firm perspective, technology plays a big role in the answer.  

Client Perspective. I am not sure how general counsels answer this today. Concrete, operational ways to answer this include:

  • How long it takes the firm to find lawyers with experience.
  • How quickly lawyers can find relevant work product, either on an open matter or when starting a new one.
  • Consistency of lawyers’ time entries across offices and practices.
  • Consistency of billing practices, formats, and detail across matters.
  • Receiving appropriate substantive alerts and other marketing e-mail (and of course no duplicates).
  • Ability of a lawyer, during a call, to conference in another lawyer not already on the matter.

This list gets at whether firms have both the culture and technology to share experience, work product, standards, and clients. All of those seem important indicators of whether a firm acts as one.

Firm Perspective. The ultimate answer turns on culture and compensation. Howrey’s demise illustrates that a focus on compensation and a weak culture may make the firm less than one, irrespective of anything else. Beyond these linchpins, operational ways of getting at this include:

  • The percent of firm revenue from matters where at least 25% of the work is done from in an office that did not originate the matter.
  • Whether geography is a barrier to assigning associates.
  • Whether partners in one office can easily determine availability of associates in other offices.
  • For a new matter, the time it takes experienced associates to identify relevant experience and similar matters.
  • The ease with which a partner can get financial reports on all of a client’s billings across the firms.

Technology plays a central role in all these factors. I regularly hear about firms where use of the document management system is optional, where the CRM languishes, where there is no effective federated search tool, and where the firm does not have or use its business intelligence (BI) tools. So I wonder how such firms operate as one. Firms need both to have the right technologies and to use them the right way to act as one.

CIOs who want to have an impact should make sure they understand how their infrastructure and applications support – or not – the firm acting as one. Well, at least as long as the partners care about that goal.