man in a foggy forestEarlier this week, I had the privilege of teaching an advanced course in Law Practice Management as part of the LL.M. program in Law and Management of the INIDEM Business Law School. INIDEM is an international institution based in Panama, which offers graduate programs, including an LL.M. at locations throughout the Americas. We had eight outstanding lawyers, all from Central America, in the class. The class included associates, in-house counsel, and partners from some of the best law firms and legal departments in the region.

What particularly impressed me by the people in the class was their ability quickly and efficiently to penetrate through numbers and surface details in the fiendishly devious case studies I presented, to diagnose underlying issues and vulnerabilities that were the real potential causes of the problems, and to find solutions that could produce lasting results.

As we worked through the eight case studies, I thought about how many lawyers and law firms never take the time or invest the intellectual effort to do that. Instead, they frequently focus on obvious, quick-fix responses that usually only cover over the basic issues, which always return sooner or later and sometimes worse than ever before.

For example, we considered the varying realization rates reported by the practice groups and partners in our case study law firm. The typical response of many law firm partners would be to blame the collections department or the billing partner. In fact, as one of the group suggested, the real source of the problem might be weak or non-existent client intake procedures.

Another partner in our case study had very high lockup (i.e., unbilled work in progress plus accounts receivable). The traditional knee-jerk response in many firms would be to say that she's lazy or not a team player.

Her practice area was labor and employment.

"How much of that work is paid by insurance companies?" one of the people in the class asked. "That might explain the high accounts receivable over 90 days old."

These were excellent examples of a diagnostic mind-set that we encourage Walker Clark clients to adopt: using data as diagnostic indicators of hidden issues, rather than merely as blunt-instrument boundaries between praise and shame.

If we can apply our lawyer skills -- such as healthy skepticism and relentless analysis -- to academic case studies, why don't we use those same skills in real life?

Norman Clark