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At a growing number of law firms, the back office is getting pushed front and center.
Bryan Cave on Thursday launched a new consulting service staffed by data pros and software programmers who solve law department operational problems, becoming the latest firm to transition an existing team of internal professionals into a standalone, client-facing service.
Branded BCXponent, the new Bryan Cave initiative is a formal marketing effort designed around an existing 31-person team at the St. Louis-based firm that includes data analysts, software programmers and project management pros. The team has already helped legal departments develop software tools that help manage contracts, track legal spending or conduct and manage RFPs to hire law firms.
BCXponent joins a list that includes SeyfarthLean Consulting, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz’s LegalShift and Davis Wright Tremaine’s DWT DeNovo, all of which began as inward-focused groups that eventually shifted to offer its services directly to clients, including those the firm’s lawyers don’t serve.
“What’s happening in law firms is they create a team going after knowledge management, legal process management or data analytics, and they start off there to support the lawyer and enhance the service for the client,” said Andrew Baker, a consultant at Janders Dean and former head of Seyfarth Shaw’s technology team. “But gravity is pulling them more towards the buyer, and these players are becoming stars of the show to a certain extent.”
The shift shows that investing in nonlawyer talents can not only augment a law firm’s legal services, but also potentially lead to a new line of business. The simple premise is that law departments face problems that lawyers alone cannot solve.
Still, it’s difficult to gauge the success of these projects given the opaque nature of law firm finances. And they still face headwinds, including law departments that remain resistant to change and the potential for an awkward relationship with their own firm’s lawyers.
Bryan Cave began investing in legal technology solutions more than a decade ago, spurred largely by the vision of John Alber, a management committee member who retired last year. He helped the firm set up three groups that make up the guts of BCXponent: a client technology group, a practice economics group and the accelerated review team.
Alber was succeeded by Kathryn DeBord, who became chief innovation officer last year. She co-heads BCXponent with chief practice economics officer Chris Emerson. DeBord said the new service was a natural next step for the team after it had success working for the firm’s clients. The firm last year won an ACC Value Champion award for a contract management tech solution it built for restaurant group Red Robin.
“This is not a team that was just glued together overnight,” said DeBord, pictured right. “This is years of work and expertise coming together. And it’s rare for a law firm to make that long-term investment beyond the core of traditional services law firms provide.”
DeBord said the division’s professionals have their own billing rates, but that many engagements are billed on a project basis.
BCXponent is a division within Bryan Cave, which is a departure from the corporate structure of SeyfarthLean Consulting and Baker Donelson’s LegalShift. Those are separate entities from its law firms, with SeyfarthLean Consulting being a wholly owned subsidiary and LegalShift being a partnership with an existing consulting firm.
But all three have the same objective: to sell legal operations expertise they developed within the firm to outside clients.
One challenge for these groups will be to navigate their relationship with their own law firms, which have historically struggled with territorial behavior by partners. These products will also likely need their own salespeople to thrive as a stand-alone business, said Janders Dean’s Baker.
“It will be interesting to see how sales’ channels develop,” Baker said. “How much independence can they get? If they’re going to run with their own [balance sheet], they need their own ability to get business outside of the firm’s clients. That’s a tricky environment for a law firm.”
Contact the reporter at RStrom@alm.com.