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5 posts from March 2011

March 30, 2011

How to improve the management of legal teams (Part 3 of 4)

Part 1 of this series introduced Paul Dinsmore’s “Ten Rules of Team Building.”  This week, we will discuss Rules 4 – 7.   


Rule # 4:  Evaluate the competition

“I don't believe in team motivation. I believe in getting a team prepared so it knows it will have the necessary confidence when it steps on a field and be prepared to play a good game.” – Tom Landry

Evaluating the competition is second nature for litigators.  If opposing counsel have a reputation for scorched earth tactics, then litigators will be prepared to react accordingly.  But if the other side seems motivated to settle, litigation strategy will be quite different.

But some lawyers who are very good at evaluating the competition are very bad at communicating this knowledge to the rest of the team.  Providing legal services efficiently is a team sport, and everyone must be on the same page.

Understanding the competition is also important when a legal team bids for new work.  Late in 2009, I wrote in this blog about the price wars that were challenging many large firms.  According to the 2010 Law Firms in Transition survey, 89% of lawyers predict price competition will continue to increase in the future.   This will lead to some hard decisions about what work is worth bidding on, and what is not.  And it all begins with understanding your competition.

Rule #5:  Pick your players and adjust your team

“You put together the best team that you can with the players you've got, and replace those who aren't good enough.” – Robert Crandall

In many law firms, assembling a team for a large matter can be an interesting exercise these days, especially if the firm is filled with lawyers who do not have enough billable work to meet their quotas.

In their hearts, lawyers often know which partners and associates are most likely to perform a particular task efficiently, and which ones will take their time.  As the pressure to control costs increases, the competition to get efficient people on each team is going up.  In the long run, this should lead to larger numbers of more efficient lawyers, but in the short run it can lead to some awkward situations and difficult choices.

In this environment, it has become increasingly important that team leaders pick the best available person for each role, without playing favorites.  Trust has also become more critical.  Team members must believe that working together efficiently is in their own best interest.

On large teams, it also helps to have a cheerleader or two.  They can help counteract the effects of the lawyers who are experts at seeing the glass as half empty, and at explaining why every task will take a very long time.

Rule # 6:  Identify and develop inner group leaders

“Leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders.”  – Tom Peters

Great leaders constantly think about training and developing their replacements. Who can cover for you if you’re absent? Who can help you motivate and lead the rest of the team?  Who will the client trust?

Share your knowledge and spread it around to raise others up to your level. Remember, your goal is to make yourself obsolete.

As Dinsmore put it in his AMA Handbook of Project Management (p. 154):  “Delegating, mentoring and coaching must become part of your daily habit.”

Rule #7:  Get the team in shape

"The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say 'I.' And that's not because they have trained themselves not to say 'I.' They don't think 'I.' They think 'we'; they think 'team.' They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don't sidestep it, but 'we' gets the credit.... This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done." – Peter Drucker

Effective leaders do not do all the work; they delegate. They don’t micromanage, and they don’t try to do it all themselves or have others perform tasks exactly as they would.

They apply active listening and communicate regularly with team members.  They also focus on unifying the team to work towards shared goals, and don’t allow egos to get in the way of teamwork.  This means learning to deal with conflict more effectively, whether it is between two members, or the leader and someone else.  It all comes back to listening. 

In some cases, it may be useful to formally coach junior team members at the outset.  Ask them what they feel they need training in.  Compare the skills your team has with the skills they need to become more efficient.

If the learning curve looks steep, and the team is working on large matters, you might even consider formal training programs.  In large firms, the professional development department can provide quick guidance on what is available, and what has worked for other lawyers in the past.

Do you think training is particularly important for your team?  Are you looking for ideas that might apply in your situation?  If so, take a look at The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization, Peter Senge’s popular workbook on tactics to foster and support team learning.  It was not written for lawyers, but it may well give you ideas to help make your team more effective.

Part 4 of this series will appear in a few weeks.  Next Wednesday’s post will be the legal project management tip of the month.

March 23, 2011

How to improve the management of legal teams (Part 2 of 4)

Legal teams come in so many shapes and sizes that it is impossible to come up with a short list of rules that apply to every case.  But if you review all the ideas discussed in this series, you are sure to come up with a few action items that could help manage your legal team more efficiently.

Part 1 of this series listed Paul Dinsmore’s “Ten Rules of Team Building” from his chapter “Studies in Project Human Resources Management” (pages 154-5) in the AMA Handbook of Project Management.  Today, in Part 2, we will continue our 50,000 foot view of leadership with Dinsmore’s Rules number 2 and 3.


Rule # 2: Get your own act together

“You don't manage people, you manage things. You lead people.” - Admiral Grace Hopper

Being an effective leader starts with setting a good work example. Act like someone you would want to work for. I am sorry to report that there are lawyers out there – present company excluded, of course – who could benefit from brushing up on basic social skills. 

Mood is contagious. Avoid negativity. Act happy and positive even if you don’t feel that way. The people around you will definitely feel better, and you may too.

Don’t treat your team members as serfs or minions. Talk to them in the same way you would talk to your most important client or your managing partner.

Be proactive in identifying problems, and in solving them. Handle problems with respect, tact and common sense. Try to be rational about disagreements, and avoid emotion.

Challenge your team, but don’t work against them.


Rule # 3:  Understand the game

“With talent, we win games. With teamwork and intelligence we win championships.” -  Michael Jordan

Rule #3 is a hard one for lawyers, because the game is changing and no one is quite sure what the new rules are.  (For a series of thought provoking articles on how things are changing, see the ABA Journal’s “The New Normal” by Paul Lippe and Partick Lamb).

At this time of transition, legal team leaders must define the rules of the game for each engagement, and make them crystal clear to team members.  The rules may vary from one matter to another, even when team membership remains the same.  Associates working on a fixed price project must understand that the highest quality must be delivered within a limited number of hours.  Where possible, they must also be shown how they will personally benefit from this behavior.

(If your compensation system rewards putting in more hours, and this matter requires putting in fewer hours, you’ve got a problem. In the short-term, management can address this by adjusting hours on matters managed for efficiency.  However, longer-term adjustments to the compensation system may be called for, and changing compensation is never easy.)

In any case, efficient management begins with your personal understanding of the goals of each matter, and the players.  And this starts with getting the statement of work (SOW) right.  Then you have to think through the implications of the SOW for each member of your team.  And it wouldn’t hurt to talk to them about it.

The simple fact is that people work better when they understand the goals of a project.

I know from my own 25 years of experience leading projects how hard it can be to find time to communicate goals and expectations to the team. When you are trying to put out fires, it is easy to postpone talking to team members about their roles and responsibilities.  After all, they work for you, so they can wait. 

But I also know that if you skip this step, you may be sorry.

Next week’s post will discuss more rules from Dinsmore’s list.

March 16, 2011

How to improve the management of legal teams (Part 1 of 4)

When lawyers participate in our Certified Legal Project Manager™ program, one of the topics that they are most interested in discussing is how to manage teams.  What should you do with the associate who insists on turning over every rock?  Or with the partner who consistently fails to meet deadlines?  How often should teams meet?  How much supervision can and should the relationship partner provide?

There is a vast amount of literature on how to manage teams in other professions.  Business schools offer entire courses with names like Authentic Leadership Development (Harvard MBA) and Foundations of Teamwork and Leadership (Wharton MBA).

The literature on managing legal teams is much thinner, especially when you concentrate, as we do, on the kinds of teams that large law firms juggle to meet clients’ ever-shifting needs.  Until recently, many partners have given little thought to managing these teams more efficiently, in part because the billable hour model provided little incentive for efficiency.

But these days legal clients ARE demanding efficiency, and so lawyers have become more interested in improving the way they manage teams.

Participants in our certification program review several key readings from project management textbooks, then analyze the action items that could have the greatest impact on their personal teams.  One of the chapters they read was written by Paul Dinsmore for the third edition of his AMA Handbook of Project Management

Dinsmore’s chapter includes a very useful questionnaire to help assess whether a particular group needs to improve its teamwork.  Each member of a team rates themselves on a scale from 1 (low) to 5 (high) on 15 items including “Clarity of goals,” “Individuals’ concern for team responsibility as opposed to own personal interests,” and “Quality of listening abilities on part of team members” (p. 156). 

They then add up their 15 ratings, and consider the implications of a total score that falls between 15 and 75.  The lower the score, the more urgent it is to work on teamwork.  Indeed, according to Dinsmore, a score of 30 or less implies that “improving teamwork should be the absolute top priority for your group.”

In the same chapter, Dinsmore also outlines “Ten Rules of Team Building” to help people improve:

1. Identify what drives your team
2. Get your own act together
3. Understand the game
4. Evaluate the competition
5. Pick your players and adjust your team
6. Identify and develop inner group leaders
7. Get the team in shape
8. Motivate the players
9. Develop plans
10. Control, evaluate, and improve

This short series of posts will briefly discuss each of these ten rules, so you can consider which might be useful to you.

You have undoubtedly considered some of these concepts in the past.  But when you review Dinsmore’s list and ask yourself how it can help you increase efficiency, you may come up with some new ideas that will help you provide more value to clients.

Rule #1: Identify what drives your team

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed. It is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

What motivates your team to work together?  Is it a deadline, the inherent challenge of the legal matter, the relationship partner’s inspiration, the rewarding feeling of collaborating with people you enjoy working with, a chance to set a new legal precedent, the desire to beat a competitor, insecurities about one’s job, the prospect of piling up billable hours to meet an annual quota, another factor, or a combination of some or all of the above? Knowing what is driving your team can help you manage its members.  If you talk to people about this, you may be surprised to learn what is driving different team members.

Ultimately, team members must motivate and empower themselves – the leader can inspire, but not motivate them. Your job is to create an environment to help team members motivate and empower themselves.

In the planning stages, brainstorm with your team members to come up with common goals to build a sense of community and ownership in the project. Set up ground rules for your team and for meetings, and try to get buy-in to the common goals from all members.

In the project scoping document, you (and others) should specify the scope and the constraints of the project as clearly as possible. This will help team members track milestones and check-ins along the way.

Encourage team members to share their ideas and opinions. When you use people’s ideas, give them credit.  Remember: the best ideas usually arise from diverse teams interacting and brainstorming together.  Conversely, few new slants or approaches arise from leaders who fail to harvest the richness of different personalities and perspectives. 

It is very important for your team to know that you are listening to them.

Next week’s post will discuss more rules from Dinsmore’s list.

March 09, 2011

Case study: Legal project management at Williams Mullen

Many law firms are talking about project management these days, and some have even begun training their lawyers on its general principles.  But only a few firms have taken the next step of converting thought into action by introducing new tools and techniques to serve their clients better.

Williams Mullen, a 300-lawyer firm based primarily in Virginia and North Carolina, believes that the first firms to actually apply project management will have an enormous competitive advantage.  So they have begun implementing a plan to make Williams Mullen the legal project management leader in their region.

Their first major step was to sign up six of their most influential senior partners for an in-house just-in-time training program.  In all honesty, they saw this as an experiment.  Their hope was that these six leaders would quickly begin to identify specific real-world changes that could improve efficiency and client service.  But if the experiment failed, and the six senior partners did not see results, the program could have ended there.

I led a two-hour webinar last November with three litigators and three transactional lawyers, including the section chairs of three key practice groups: litigation, corporate, and financial services and real estate. In this brainstorming session, lawyers used our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, and quickly identified a number of action items that could have an immediate impact on efficiency and client service.

But thinking about project management was the easy part.  The hard part was doing it.  So for the next 30 days, LegalBizDev Principal Mike Egnatchik worked with each of these six partners to follow up on their action items.  In late December, we had a review meeting to discuss what had been accomplished, and what had not.

Although it was only six lawyers and only thirty days, they saw immediate results, especially in the area of new checklists, templates and forms for client intake and matter management.  Some of the elements came straight from our book, and other elements were developed by Williams Mullen to meet their unique needs.  My favorite was the basic budget template one lawyer developed for estimating new matters.  The firm has started using these tools for training, for quality assurance, and to begin standardizing the management process. 

That is not to say that any of these tools are 100% complete.  The world has a nasty habit of changing, and tools like these need to change too.  But this experience enabled Williams Mullen to complete the hardest step: the first one.  And it has led their lawyers to talk more about project management issues in their internal meetings, including at a recent leadership retreat.

More importantly, they have begun discussing legal project management with clients.  Program manager John Paris recently met with a potential client who was interviewing three law firms and wanted details about how Williams Mullen would handle a particular matter.  John answered by reviewing details of the eight key issues discussed in our just-in-time training and explained in our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide:

  1. Set objectives and define scope
  2. Identify and schedule activities
  3. Assign tasks and manage the team
  4. Plan and manage the budget
  5. Assess risks
  6. Manage quality
  7. Manage client communication and expectations
  8. Negotiate changes of scope

The client was convinced, and a few days later Williams Mullen got the business.

Since then, the firm has made a commitment to aggressively pursue project management.  Their Innovation Committee now operates under a plan derived from the eight issues in our book, and so do five of their subcommittees: Alternative Fee Arrangements, Legal Outsourcing, Knowledge Management, Social Media, and Vision 2020.  They have also scheduled another just-in-time training program which begins next week.

March 02, 2011

Legal project management tip of the month: Talk to your team about the budget

Communicate the budget and hourly expectations for each task to your team.  Then ask the person who is responsible for each task to estimate how long they think it will take.  If there is a large gap between their estimate and yours, discuss why and consider revising the estimate.

This is the first in a new series of posts, which will appear on the first Wednesday of every month.  Each tip will summarize a very simple tactic to improve project management.