It’s All in the Game: Managing Partners Come to Grips with “Gamification”

by Pamela Woldow
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Many managing partners tell us they are struggling to get their arms around new tools and techniques for driving more efficiency and cost-effectiveness into legal service delivery. Firms are seeing more and more RFPs in which clients make increasingly draconian demands for better management and control of legal work. AFAs (alternative fee arrangements) are reshaping not just pricing and profitability, but the whole way in which matters are staffed and billed.

LPM (legal project management) and LPI (legal process improvement) map out prescriptive approaches for scoping, budgeting, performing and monitoring engagements. And, in a threat to traditional law firm turf, LPOs (legal process outsourcers) and other alternative forms of service delivery threaten to take over huge amounts of commodity tasks that were historically handled by law firms.

Game On

Now another neologism has popped up to bedevil law firm leaders:  “Gamification.”  In plain English, this describes approaching work as if one were playing a videogame. Gamification is not the same as game theory, which describes the study of strategic decision-making using mathematical models. Gamification, which first took hold in Silicon Valley and has since gone viral, involves translating the features that motivate players in video games into non-game settings – settings like litigation, transactional work, business development and other high-stakes legal activities.

When applied to law, gamification is not about making legal service delivery into a game, or even about having fun. It’s about knowing the score. A fundamental axiom of legal project management is that “if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed,” and let’s be clear: today’s legal services need to be driven by effective performance metrics. New generations of legal software are popping up that, if embraced actively by law firms, can help lawyers budget, track costs, and measure productivity in unprecedented detail. The bottom line of all this measuring, of course, is the goal of providing clear, consistent, and cost-effective value to the client.  Unfortunately, however, most law firms have an abysmal record for adopting even the most basic metrics and tools. 

But all is not lost, because we know one thing for certain:  in any setting, and particularly in law firms, employees do what is measured, incented, and celebrated.  So what do law firms do?  They measure billable hours, they incent billable hours, and they celebrate (that is, give bonuses for) billable hours.  So, guess what clients get?  You got it  — billable hours, lots and lots of them (and as we’ve often said, there is no direct correlation between the number of billable hours and the amount of value conferred).

Conversely, what do law firms fail to do?  They fail to measure, incent or celebrate the types of behaviors that clients value — like efficiency, creative ways of resolving matters faster, cost predictability, adhering to realistic budgets, and effective monitoring of legal activity and legal spend in order to avoid surprises.

Getting Lawyers into the Game

So here’s where gamification comes in. As Frank Strong, communications director with the Business of Law Software Solutions division of LexisNexis puts it, “gamification is a novel idea, and while the label itself may not endear itself to the nature of law, the concept is spot on: using the concept of games to drive user engagement and solve problems…If we as an industry can tap into [lawyers’] competitive nature to drive change…then we’ll be in a better place.”

We all know that lawyers are challenge junkies: they love personal success experiences where excellence is clearly established by objectively-measurable outcomes. If and when it evolves more broadly within law firms, gamification will engender a work environment where – just like videogames:

  • Every action is meticulously tracked and scored
  • Everyone aspires to progress upward through discrete levels of achievement  
  • Points and awards are given  
  • Work processes are structured to keep performers engaged and focused on producing the highest level of performance.

What You Want is What You Get

Theoretically, gamification incentives can be engineered either to spark greater  individual initiative or to foster better collaboration among disparate team roles and functions. In either case, the idea is to drive a powerful sense of engagement into tasks that performers find inherently tedious or repetitive.

Ray Bayley, CEO of Novus Law, a global legal services firm that boasts “measurably faster, more accurate and less expensive” ways of handling document-related discovery, contract management and corporate governance functions, is a self-professed metrics freak. The former head of North American business process outsourcing (BPO) for PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ray is high on the motivational value of gamification.

We have long used analysis of metrics to improve work processes, but the challenge in dealing with complex work that requires a high degree of focus is to keep our performers’ heads in the game. Using gamification practices, we are moving beyond ‘Total Quality Management’ to ‘Total Engagement.’

“To do this,” says Bayley, “we are now focusing more on the human aspect, repurposing process metrics so our performers can use them to assess and measure their own progress – to see how they are doing and how they stack up against their prior performance. We can do this both individually and collectively, asking ‘How are we doing both as a group and as members of the team?’” 

Can Law Firms Do It?

As a firm built around metrics and the efficient, accurate handling of high volume and increasingly sophisticated tasks, Novus Law obviously represents an ideal platform for gamification.  But can law firms, accustomed to seeing all matters and all lawyers as unique, motivate project task teams to collaborate better by turning to gamification?

“Some firms really get it,” says Bayley, speaking of law firm responses to escalating client demands for cost control and efficiency. “Some have no problem partnering with us – with our enormous emphasis on efficient processes and measurable quality management. But for most firms it’s still a stretch to be metrics-driven.  They just aren’t ready to rethink how to keep their lawyers consistently engaged, and they aren’t yet ready to retool.”

Yet as Frank Strong suggests, despite all the concerns of the doubters and scoffers, the whole legal landscape would appear to be a fertile ground for gamification techniques, particularly where different types of service providers collaborate to optimize value rather than compete for the same business. 

For example, the article “Who’s Eating Law Firms’ Lunch?,” describes how Deanna Johnston, General Counsel of Fireman’s Fund, required her outside firms to collaborate with Novus Law in handling various litigation tasks. This hybrid service delivery approach has saved Fireman’s Fund between 15% and 30% per case on outside counsel fees, and Ms. Johnston is, of course, very pleased.

On the Other Hand

Not everyone thinks gamification is such a hot idea. In a recent column entitled “The ‘Gamification’ of the Office Approaches,” Wall Street Journal columnist Farhad Manjoo acknowledges gamification’s momentum: “If you work the information business; if you sell, market, create, track or are involved in any other endeavor that can be quantified, gamification is coming for you.”

But, he adds, “I, for one, am dreading it.” Manjoo questions whether the translation of every work action into winning or losing “as part of a system engineered to keep you addicted” won’t result in performers who are “crushed by metrics, constantly watched over, and infantilized by your boss’s attempt to turn you into an automaton.”

Skeptics like Manjoo are worried about what they see as manipulative tactics to  turn the unmotivated aspects of performers’ jobs into a more highly motivated competition. Manjoo notes that “what we can’t tell is whether these measures are worth the psychic cost.  What worries me is the potential for stifling creativity and flexibility in the workplace, and the growing sensation of being watched, and measured, in everything we do.”

As the legal profession as a whole becomes increasingly metrics-driven, the successor generation of lawyers and other types of legal service providers all will grow up in an environment where various forms of points and scorecards are the norm, from “competency-based performance evaluation” to partnership decisions made exclusively on the basis of quantitative measures.

Even Manjoo senses that the tipping point is upon us: “I’m not asking you these questions as if your opinion matters. In fact, it does not. All evidence suggests that your work one day will operate like a videogame to be conquered, rather than a craft to be perfected.”

So is gamification a passing fad or a performance enhancement technique destined to be an integral part of the legal profession’s “New Normal?” Stay tuned for late-breaking developments, but you’d better be prepared to play along.

Written by:

Pamela Woldow
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