Value Drivers: Google’s Patent Counsel, Sylvia Chen, Fosters Transparent Law Firm Relationships to Improve Performance

Value Drivers: Google’s Patent Counsel, Sylvia Chen, Fosters Transparent Law Firm Relationships to Improve Performance

Behind every corporate legal team or law firm inspired to deliver exceptional value to their corporate clients is a leader who recognizes the need for new levels of clarity and transparency in performance.

In this series, I interview legal industry leaders and innovators that are bringing transparency to legal performance in their own unique way. In this interview, I speak with Sylvia Chen, patent counsel, and head of patent operations at Google.

Google is constantly pushing the envelope to create new ways for people and businesses to interact with technology. It’s no surprise that they also bring innovation to legal processes. An excellent example is the process they’ve developed to assess the value that Google’s many outside counsel patent firms provide.

RP:
What led you to develop an evaluation and feedback process for your patent law firms?

Sylvia:
We had a lot of firms working with us and wanted to comprehensively determine which firms were producing the best work.

RP:
Why did you decide to build a system internally vs. using an existing tool?

Sylvia:
At the time I did not know there were off-the-shelf products. The closest thing I had seen was a Lexis Diversity Profiles product that reported diversity stats.

It wasn’t until much later that I met Jim Beckett and heard about Qualmet’s cloud-based report card and analytics platform.

The Evaluation Process

RP:
What are your key criteria for evaluation?

Sylvia:
Our key metrics are based on the “management triangle” – quantity, cost and quality. Because the Google Patents Team mostly uses flat-fee billing, cost is not necessarily a cost per unit, but includes accuracy and timeliness of billing – which are additional objective metrics related to cost. Quality is measured using more subjective metrics, which we seek to define more tightly every year.

RP:
What tools do you use to collect and analyze the information?

Sylvia:
We use our docketing tool, our billing tool and our in-house survey tool (Google Forms). There are no custom tools. Everything is off-the-shelf, but we do have data scientists (analysts) embedded in our team who have helped refine some of the metrics. For example: when should completion of a task be considered timely versus tardy? Our outside counsel were considering that an activity completed on the date when they made a submission. Based on thoughts about Google’s goals, we decided instead to measure  completion as the date when we received an accurate submission.

RP:
How much time and resources does your team spend on the evaluation process?

Sylvia:
A lot. We have an entire program that addresses how to improve communications, relations, expectations and feedback with our firms, and our annual score card is an important piece of that program. It takes 2.5 person-months a year to support the process. Other than people’s time, there are no additional costs.

Performance Discussions with Law Firms

RP:
What was the initial reaction of the law firms when they learned they were being evaluated?

Sylvia:
There was some trepidation. Firms asked a lot of questions about the scorecard process. We asked firms how they felt about the process and even asked them what they thought our metrics meant.

RP:
How much of the results data did you share with the law firms?

Sylvia:
Our assessments are available to all our firms through our department’s website for outside counsel. Results for all firms are visible but individual firms are not disclosed; instead, each row has a unique identity code. Each firm receives complete details on its own performance, providing perspective on strengths and areas for improvement.

Firms are given their identity codes so they can look at their various rankings in relation to other firms. While the firms only know of their respective performance, they can see their performance compared to other firms anonymously.

RP:
What were the reactions of law firms to the assessments?

Sylvia:
For the 2015 report card, a small percentage of firms were defensive. The most positive reactions were from firms that really wanted to know what we thought, were eager to improve and were appreciative of the insight. One firm was grateful to have their results to share internally, enabling them to make a stronger case to their colleagues and to the firm’s leadership. For the 2016 report cards that came out early this year, only one firm didn’t really agree with their assessment.

RP:
How did the discussions happen?

Sylvia:
We sent scores to the law firms one month in advance of our discussion to give them time to digest the information and prepare their thoughts and ideas before we got together. We also spent considerable time preparing ourselves. Not surprisingly, our law firms also wanted to share their feedback with us. It was very important for us not to be defensive or dismissive of their perspectives. This requires approaching the discussions with the right attitude, which does not happen without thorough preparation.

RP:
What do you think is the key to effective performance discussions with law firms?

Sylvia:
Preparation on both sides, the willingness to get better, openness and a lack of defensiveness.

Impact of Discussions on Law Firms

RP:
How did this process change law firm behavior?

Sylvia:
The firms basically paid attention to their key internal processes that affected our key performance metrics and became very disciplined on timeliness, quality and cost. Our median scores have continued to increase in all three dimensions, so clearly the behavior and results have changed for the better.

RP:
Did you see any similar patterns in those firms that continued to do better?

Sylvia:
Willingness to learn and improve.

RP:
Were there law firms that grew their business with you significantly and why?

Sylvia:
Yes. As the bar has been raised, we have reduced the number of firms we work with, and so those that stay have had the opportunity to get more of the work.

RP:
Were there firms that did not improve?

Sylvia:
Yes. They really didn’t embrace the concept of continuous improvement.

Process Benefits

RP:
Can you quantify productivity or improvements from this process?

Sylvia:
The firms that we work with have excellent lawyers, so even if criticisms of quality were anomalies, they were good reminders to firms regarding quality issues.

I would say the predictability of firms improved. We hardly ever get last-minute emergencies due to a firm delaying communications. Now emergencies are real emergencies. Consistency also allows us to consolidate or move work among attorneys without having to worry about different standards and processes.

RP:
Are there any other improvements? Could you provide any examples such as satisfaction, innovation or strategic value?

Sylvia:
Yes, our law firms are much more aligned with our overall patent strategy and are better positioned to support our corporate goals in this area.

RP:
What would you say to in-house counsel who are hesitant to follow your path?

Sylvia:
The most important thing is to start. Start measuring and start collecting data. As soon as you start, you begin to learn and can continue to improve the process and the performance of outside counsel. Just beginning to have the dialogue is already an improvement.

RP:
Thank you.

While the task of building your own internal process may seem daunting, Sylvia Chen’s experience at Google shows that any process like this evolves over time. The key is to embark on the journey, don’t overcomplicate it and refine as you go.

 

Read our interview with Google’s outside counsel, Michelle Knight, as she describes how openness to change improved client relationships.

Know a Value Driver or would like to be included in the series? Please recommend an executive for my next interview: rolf.provan@qualmetlegal.com

Rolf Provan is VP Marketing & Operations at Qualmet.
Follow Qualmet on Twitter: @qualmetlegal

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