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5 posts from May 2012

May 30, 2012

How to improve communication on a small legal team

This guest post was written by Brent Timmons, an associate at Brazeau Seller who completed our Certified Legal Project Manager™ program last week.


B_TimmonsThe team I working on now has two lawyers, two secretaries and a corporate clerk.  It sounds simple to say, but the problem was that before we started focusing on legal project management, we did not consider ourselves a team.  We were a collection of individuals doing the jobs assigned to us.

But, as Eric Verzuh put it in the assigned reading in his Fast Forward MBA in Project Management we needed to understand that the “team has a whole product or service to produce rather than individual components.”  Unless everything fits together -- documents, reports and deliverables –activities may lead to little to no value for the client. 

Simply put, each team member must see each individual task as part of a whole.  This will create more efficiency and value for the client.

Doing the readings for the program helped me to fully recognize my culpability in this situation.  The readings provided some good advice to be a better leader, specifically:

  • Actually spend time building the team

  • Clearly and consistently set out the goals and scope of the project

  • Start regular and short team meetings to talk about goals and responsibilities.

This reading led me to develop this internal team communication plan, which we have started to use and adapt:

Who

With whom

What

When and How

 

Responsible Lawyer

 

 

 

 

Client Lead Lawyer

  • Routine Status Updates

  • Material Developments on events and negotiations

  • Schedule Updates
  • Weekly Status Email

  • Copy Lead Lawyer on material correspondence

  • Save correspondence to electronic files

 

Responsible Lawyer

 

Entire Team

  • Weekly Team Meetings

  • Review what has been done and what needs to be done that week

  • Clarify responsibility

  • Post Closing Review meeting
  • In Person

 

Junior Lawyer

 

 

 

Responsible Lawyer

  • Work in progress updates

  • New issues regarding documents and due diligence
  • Daily verbal report

 

Law Clerks

 

 

 

Responsible Lawyer and Junior Lawyer

  • Due Diligence Results

  • Document Drafts

  • Search reports

  • Draft closing documents

 

Assistants

 

 

Responsible Lawyer

  • Administrative Oversight

  • Book meetings and meeting rooms
  • Ensure proper ID

  • Update on budget status

The readings also led me to develop the following client communication planfor the responsible lawyer in a simple purchase transaction:

  • Initial communication calls and meetings leading up to the retainer letter;

  • During negotiation phase, copy client on key communication;

  • Report on delivery of final agreement (phone and email);

  • Weekly email reports on status (budget, accomplished, needs to be accomplished);

  • Due Diligence Report after completion (email, follow up by phone);

  • Confirm in writing waiver of conditions (phone and email);

  • Outline closing procedure at least one week in advance of execution of documents, flow of funds, etc.

  • Meet with client for closing; and

  • Report letter and account within 2 weeks of closing.

The procedures we are developing are continuing to evolve, but some very simple changes have already made a difference in the way we operate, and allowed us to provide greater value to our clients at a lower cost.

 

May 23, 2012

Twenty ways to use Outlook in legal project management

By Steve Barrett, LegalBizDev Principal

Steve_barrett

About two years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog entitled “How Should Law Firms ‘Gear Up’ to Manage Projects Better? – A 50,000-foot View” which argued that law firms could derive significant benefits simply by better using the software they already owned.  Since then, in teaching a number of workshops and coaching many individual lawyers, I’ve often heard of the difficulty in creating a master schedule for use with internal teams and clients.  My answer has always been, “You already have the software you need,” in the form of Outlook.  

Most law firms use Microsoft Office as their "wheelhouse" technology for creating and editing documents and use Outlook for e-mail, calendars, and meeting scheduling.  Most lawyers are familiar with basic Outlook features like group e-mails for addressing committees, practice groups, and others.  Likewise, many firms use Outlook calendar features for conference room scheduling, arranging group meetings, or sharing firm management calendars.  Some lawyers also keep dual calendars, one for their business lives and another for their personal lives.  While these features are useful, they only scratch the surface of Outlook’s ability to support the collaborative functions so important to legal project management (LPM).

For example, you can create and share calendars, both with in-house teams (e.g. the “XYZ Corp. Litigation Team” calendar) and with outside organizations (e.g. clients, consultants, and experts).  

One way I have demonstrated this feature to clients who may be sports fans starts by asking them to name their favorite professional team.  For example, when I worked recently with a Miami Heat fan, I asked him to go to the team's web page, open the current schedule, and click on the provided icon to download that schedule to his PC.  (All NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL teams have this calendar download feature.)

He opened the team’s schedule in Outlook on his PC, viewed it as a separate calendar screen, and tiled it next to his Outlook work calendar.  Then we used Outlook’s calendar overlay feature, which merged the sports schedule with his main calendar and displayed them as a single calendar.  The team’s game dates automatically showed up in a different color.  

Once that was done – “presto!” – the lawyer had just learned what it would take to create and share a matter/project calendar with his own internal and external teams.  Sharing can either be done by e-mail attachment or use of shared settings in Outlook for internal teams, just as many already share their calendars with their assistants.

That got us over to assigning tasks and scheduling meetings using Outlook, both processes that closely resemble inviting people to conference calls or conference room meetings, which he already knew how to do.  The whole discussion took about five minutes.

Below is a list of 20 Outlook features our clients have found useful for managing legal matters and streamlining collaboration with internal and external team members, a critical function within LPM.

Calendar features:

  • Can create multiple calendars, both shared and unshared
  • Can be shared both within the organization (via Exchange server) or outside the organization (via e-mail or Outlook sharing to public or secured websites like icalshare.com or MicrosoftOffice.com)
  • Can import any calendars from others in either html or the common .ics file format (e.g. either a private project calendar, or a public calendar, such as a junior soccer league schedule or NFL team schedule)
  • Multiple calendars can be easily viewed as tiled frames (vertical or horizontal), separate screens, or in overlay mode, in which two or more calendars are combined and appointments and events appear in different colors on one compiled calendar screen
  • Room Finder can be used to schedule conference rooms and, depending on your firm’s configuration, ancillary services such as catering, A/V, etc.
  • Planning calendars can be set up and shared for long-term projects, such as annual events, budget planning, or software roll-outs, as well as more transitory projects, such as a major litigation case, regulatory investigation, securities offering, etc.
  • Can be used to schedule one-time or recurring meetings for individuals or teams, to send invitations, enclosures (such as agendas), reserve and manage conference rooms, and track group RSVPs
  • When distributing and sharing calendars, senders can control permission levels for recipients to view-only, revise, re-circulate, etc.
  • Items can be moved or copied between multiple calendars in tiled views simply by dragging and dropping 

Assigning tasks and managing team members is another function in which Outlook can play a critical role, with little or no advanced coursework necessary.  

Tasks and to-do features:

  • Can enter and update personal tasks, set deadlines, reminders, and flags, enter time allocation/actual info, and certain mileage and expense categories
  • Can delegate/assign tasks to others, along with setting deadlines and priority levels, reminders, and flags, and can enter time allocation/actual info for billable tasks, plus certain mileage and expense categories, and completion check boxes
  • When assigning tasks to others, users can retain copies of the tasks on their own calendars in order to set reminders for assignees’ status check-ins
  • Notes and documents can be attached to any task
  • Daily, weekly and other task lists can readily be set up
  • Task lists can be shown in the bottom pane of a calendar view

E-mail features:

  • Can establish custom distribution lists for internal distribution (using firm’s global address list), or external (using outside e-mail addresses) or combined usage
  • Can establish e-mail group addresses (e.g. the “Jones Company Acquisition” group), to simplify group addressing for communications, meeting scheduling, and task assignments
  • Can use “group/case” folders to collect e-mail messages in one location (e.g. “Jones Co. Acq.” e-mail folder)
  • Users can post their status for others to see (e.g. busy, available, away, not logged in), to ensure that messages or tasks are sent only to those in a position to respond or undertake the task
  • Can set up rules such that any e-mails sent to or received from a particular individual or group can be copied or directed to a specific e-mail folder

Permission and proxy features:

  • Users can grant permission for others to view your calendar and schedule and commit you to appointments.  This is typically assigned to one’s assistant or a case paralegal, to ease administration and access.
  • “Level of calendar detail” can vary as well, from full details to busy/free only, with no detailed information
  • Users can mark personal appointments “private,” so that only their non-availability is visible
  • In order for full exploitation of the calendar features within a firm, all users must allow their calendars to be seen over the Exchange server.  Some firms have found it frustrating to commit to using Outlook calendaring for scheduling meetings when even a few key people do not let their calendars be viewed by their colleagues.

Note:  For additional features and more details, see Microsoft Outlook 2010’s help function, guides on the Microsoft web site, or in one of the many books on the topic, such as “Microsoft Outlook 2010 Step by Step” by Joan Lambert and Joyce Cox, which includes an online edition, templates and practice files, and exercises.  The same authors have also published similar guides for Outlook 2003 and Outlook 2007.

 

May 16, 2012

How to improve legal team meetings (Part 2 of 2)

During the meeting - continued from Part 1

  • Whenever possible, start exactly on time
  • Starting at the announced time would be a novelty at most law firms.  One lawyer I know swears that he was taught in law school to show up ten minutes late for every meeting, because nothing important would ever start on time.

    But if you always start and end on time, after a few meetings, the vast majority of lawyers will get with the program.

    (A digression:  Perhaps I should admit here that I have been accused of being a time fanatic.  When coaches are certified at LegalBizDev, they are given a digital timer/clock to help ensure that all sessions start and end on schedule.)   

    The reason that this piece of advice starts with “whenever possible” is that the client is always right.  If the managing partner or the practice group leader or the visiting general counsel wants to start ten minutes late, do that.

  • Follow the agenda.

    If there are 3 topics to be covered, finish #1 before you begin #2.  If the conversation drifts, refer to the agenda and get back on track.

    Drive topics to resolution.  Summarize comments and bring the group to a decision or ask them to confirm that what you’ve said is a fair summary.

  • Never end late.

    No matter what time you start, the meeting should end at the announced time.  People have other commitments, and meeting leaders should honor them. Unless of course the boss disagrees.

    If a topic turns out to require more discussion than you expected, table it for an outside meeting or propose a quick action plan on how to resolve it.

    You need a system in place to deal with people who will inevitably be inclined to go beyond any time limit.  The meeting leader must prevent that.

  • End early if you can.

    Once you have met the objective of the meeting, declare the end.  Make sure everyone knows that you ended early, the meeting met its objective, and you put a few extra minutes back into everyone’s lives.

  • If your meeting objective includes building team efficiency and/or morale, make an effort to get everyone involved
    • Ask team members to report project status.

    • Ask the team for feedback on discussion points.

    • Develop buy-in on the issues and solutions.

    • If one or two people are doing most of the talking, make a point of including others and asking for their input.

    • Observe the body language of attendees. If necessary, announce a quick break, bring the conversation back to the topic, or make sure someone new speaks.

  • Handle problems promptly but diplomatically:
    • “It looks like we've drifted a bit, can we come back and focus on the agenda item.”

    • Acknowledge the person's experience with a subject but suggest the issue be raised at a later time.

    • Say: “We’ve heard from X, does anyone have a different view?”

    • If the conversation is important, but time is running out, assign a smaller group to either gather more information or move the process along once the meeting is over. Find the owner of the problem and assign it to that person.

    • If two people are dominating the conversation, send them off to figure it out.

  • Record all decisions.

    Keep simple meeting minutes, including all conclusions reached, who is assigned to do what and by when, and any items tabled for later.

    If it would help, assign someone else as the note-taker who will be responsible for keeping the meeting minutes.

    If a followup meeting is needed, ideally the minutes should include the time and place for next meeting and an initial agenda including any outstanding or tabled items.

 

After the meeting

  • As soon as possible after the meeting, distribute a written report of what was decided, and any action items.  Like the agenda, this can be a one sentence email or a fancy report, but it must be done.

  • Monitor follow-up on action items.

  • Give recognition and appreciation to excellent and timely progress.

  • If any high-level problems came up, discuss them with decision makers.

  • Consider evaluating this meeting to help you improve the next one. What worked and what didn’t? Most important, did the meeting achieve your objective? 

 

 

May 09, 2012

How to improve legal team meetings (Part 1 of 2)

I don’t think there is a single lawyer on the planet who has not spent many hours sitting through time consuming, wasteful and boring meetings.  

But these days legal clients are demanding greater efficiency, and firms are looking for ways to save time and money while continuing to deliver the same level of quality that their clients have come to expect.  One way that many lawyers can quickly increase efficiency is to improve the way they conduct team meetings.

Before you can hold an effective meeting, you must define a clear and achievable objective.

In most cases, the faster you meet that objective and get back to your office, the better the meeting.  Of course if part of the objective is to build relationships and understanding within a team, the need for speed goes down, and the need to give everyone a chance to contribute to the discussion goes up.  This is especially true if the meeting includes clients.

Inefficient meetings are not just a law firm problem, they are a human problem.   We live in a world filled with books, articles and web posts on how to run better meetings.  But most people don’t have time to read them, because they have too many meetings.

The bullet points below summarize the points that are most likely to help improve legal meetings.  You may want to keep them handy, because different points will apply to different meetings.  


Before the meeting

  • Clearly define the meeting objectives.  Exactly what would have to happen for the meeting to be a success?  

    The objectives may or may not be explicitly stated in the agenda, but you need to know what they are before you make any other decisions.

  • If you are aiming for a clearly defined work product, keep the meeting as small as possible.

  • If you need to build team relationships or consensus, invite everyone who needs to feel involved.

  • Assess how long it will take to realistically complete the most important items on the agenda with the people you have invited, and keep the meeting as short as possible.

  • Distribute an agenda in advance.  This can be a one sentence email or an impressively formatted document based on one of the many templates in Word help and elsewhere on the web.

  • The agenda should include:
    • The start and end time
    • The location
    • Participants
    • The topics or decisions to be made or discussed, in order of importance

During the meeting

  • Be crystal clear about who is running the meeting.

    That’s probably you. But maybe it should be someone else if they have skills that will enable them to better meet a particular objective.

    If the meeting goal is simply to communicate decisions that have been made, anyone in authority can do it.

    But if a meeting requires joint decision-making or consensus building, you will need a facilitator with good communication skills who can keep the discussion on track without bruising feelings.  For meetings of this sort, it may be useful to start by reviewing the process and ground rules about how decisions will be made, and how you will deal with items that cannot be resolved in this meeting.

    In any case, the meeting leader must be a good role model:  on time, organized, fully engaged, and focused on the topic and on what people are saying.


    Next week, we will conclude this post with a discussion of how to run the meeting, and how to follow up after it ends.

May 02, 2012

Business development tip of the month: Assess the importance of relationships vs. value

At one time, legal marketing was all about building relationships.  These days, there’s a lot more emphasis on “what have you done for me lately.”  A general counsel may still prefer to emphasize relationships and work with people she’s known and trusted since law school.  But she may not have that choice when management pressures her to obtain more value at a lower cost.  In today’s evolving legal marketplace, every rainmaker must pay more attention than ever to the differences between clients, understand exactly what each individual needs today, and make sure they get it.

The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a very short and simple tip like this to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business.