A guest post by Ed Burke
5. Communications is a process not an art.
Unlike what many people think, communications is more of a process than an art. (The real art in communications is in forming the right questions and in the “active listening” discussed in Part 1). Like most things not directly related to the legal matter, communications is likely to get lost in the chaos. That’s why our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide includes so many process aids.
It may seem mechanistic, but mechanization is the soul of project management; what makes it successful. It’s not unlike those checklists that hospitals have imposed, which physicians thought were dopey and demeaning until they saw how many deaths, diseases, and injuries they eliminated. If someone who’s qualified to open your skull and root around in your brain for a few hours can benefit from a checklist, perhaps you can too.
One aid is a “RACI matrix,” a simple chart that will increase efficiency and communications by clarifying the roles of team members in completing tasks and deliverables. It establishes the level of communications they should receive. RACI is an acronym for who’s Responsible, who’s Accountable, who should be Consulted, and who should simply be Informed. It’s a simple chart with the names of members of your team listed across the top, and the tasks listed vertically on the side. An R, A, C, or I is assigned wherever the task and a name intersect.
Another aid is a communication plan. It’s another simple chart, with the following listed across the top: the task; who’s responsible for communications concerning it; to whom the communications concerning that task be directed as well as how often or when; and how (in person, by email, etc.).
6. The critical points of communications
To some lawyers, the perfect communications plan consists of taking the order and reporting back with a good result. But it’s not that simple. For one thing, just “taking the order” requires communications back and forth, perhaps a number of times, if you’re going to understand what the client wants and if you’re going to give him or her an accurate idea of how long it will take and of the cost.
The best communications plan unfurls throughout the life of the matter. But it’s particularly critical to communicate at three key points. The first, as indicated above, is when there’s bad news. The other two points ironically don’t occur during the matter, but before it starts and after it ends.
The seeds of many, if not most, problems that occur over the life of a matter are sown before it even begins, when the scope is being discussed. The client may have already been living with this problem for months and wants to offload it as quickly as possible and move on to the next problem. S/he may not be happy spending a lot of time answering the dozens of questions you’ll have – some of them, perhaps, uncomfortable for the client – after just parachuting in.
For your part, you’re loath to risk a bad start, or even a loss of this windfall, by quoting a time frame or cost that, whether or not it’s realistic and informed, is likely to jar the client. So the tough questions are swept under the rug on the theory that, when you bring in a good result, all will be righted.
If you’re in the business of building relationships rather than just taking orders and billing time, Square One is where a relationship of mutual trust is established or strengthened. You’ve got to take the time up front to find out what the client wants by asking a raft of questions. Some are obvious and others might not naturally occur to you.
For example, just in setting the scope of the matter, questions abound, such as:
- What business issue does the client want to address in the legal matter?
- Are any of several outcomes acceptable?
- What are the crucial deadlines along the way?
- Are there strict budget limits?
- Who is the ultimate decision-maker?
- What would a successful result look like to the client?
There are many other questions to ask along the way that will enable you to apply the best principles of project management. They involve:
- Identifying and scheduling specific activities
- Assigning tasks and managing the team
- Planning and managing the budget
- Assessing and preparing for likely risks to the budget and schedule
- Managing quality
- Negotiating changes in fees and expectations when the scope of the matter changes unpredictably
You have to go to the drawing board and divide the matter into its component parts so that you have an informed idea of whom you’ll need to do each component task, how many hours and at what rate, how long each task will take, and all those other uninteresting details that get in the way of having fun doing legal work. But such knowledge enables you to push back constructively when the client complains, with informed explanations for the cost, time, number of staff, etc.
7. The Post Mortem: turning the end into a new beginning
This practice has so many benefits that it’s hard to understand why it so often gets neglected. Undoubtedly, it has something to do with getting on to the next substantive legal issue and avoiding “administrative” matters that may bring up uncomfortable issues.
To put it simply, after virtually every matter – particularly with clients who could send you more work – ask the client to do a post-mortem with you so you can provide even better service in the future. These sessions are both learning and marketing opportunities.
In a large matter, you should suggest a “lessons learned” review after each significant milestone. If they regard it as an imposition on their time, they’ll tell you, and the only thing you’ll have lost is a little bit of perceived arrogance.
There are countless useful questions you can ask – questions about the client’s perceptions of value, bigger-picture business questions, active listening questions, and the like. The ACC even gives you questions in the section of its website, “How to talk with outside counsel (or clients).”
The process is simple enough, and can be accomplished with two questions. First, “What did you like about the way we handled this matter?” That’s an easy one for clients and, when they list a few favorable things, they feel less awkward about answering the more important question: “What could we do better?”
Don’t argue with the client. Resist the temptation to defend criticized practices or to explain why you did what you did, even if there’s a good reason why. It is not about understanding reality but understanding the client’s perception of reality. If an explanation is really necessary, it can wait for another time. Just listen and let them do most of the talking.
There are countless other good questions to choose from, depending on the specifics of the matter and the experience. Pick only about three key ones and see if they lead elsewhere as well. But let the clients go wherever they want to go. Whatever they say at this point is useful.
If you think your client will not be able to respond to open-ended questions (which are the most useful), you’ll need to list some areas and ask them to rate you 0-10 in each one. That makes it much easier for many people.
Lawyers pride themselves on their specialized knowledge. But a plumber is a specialist, too, and always subject to questions about how much time something took and whether someone else could have done it quicker, better, cheaper. Effective communications is your first step from fungible specialist to trusted advisor.
And trusted advisors seldom have fee disputes – or need to write proposals.
A slightly adapted version of this series was originally published in the July 2015 issue of Of Counsel: The Legal and Management Report by Aspen publishers. A pdf of that complete article can be downloaded from our web page.