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4 posts from March 2017

March 22, 2017

Lessons learned reviews – Part 2 of 2

By Jim Hassett and Gary Richards

After action reviews

According to the ACC Value Challenge Briefing Package, law firms should “Conduct after action reviews at the end of each matter to help continuously improve performance” (p. 8).

The concepts are basically the same as the questions discussed above, but the details of the process and the term “after action review” originated in the US Army. This approach is organized around four key questions:

  • What was supposed to happen?
  • What actually happened?
  • What were the positive and negative factors?
  • What have we learned and how can we do better next time?

Jeff Carr has written and spoken extensively about how lawyers should adapt after action review concepts. (Jeff has worked with Valorem Law Group since retiring from his position as General Counsel at FMC Technologies in 2014.)

In an interview published on the ACC Value Challenge web page, he notes that:

It is important that the process focuses on continuous improvement as opposed to dwelling on the past. To do so, the team leader presents first and bases the comments on what they could have done better (as opposed to what other team members might have done differently). This helps avoid an accusatory and adversarial meeting that becomes a “blame game.”

One element of the approach is the “hot wash,” a simple brainstorming session that solicits comments at the end of a matter and classifies each under two columns: What went well, and Take a look at.

Ron Friedmann described in his blog how Carr used this approach in a conference several years ago at Georgetown Law School:

In a session lasting less than 10 minutes, Jeff led the audience in a review… He divided [a] flip chart vertically in two. On the left, he made a column for “What went well” and on the right for “Take a look at.” The idea is to get fast, brainstormed, uncensored audience comments on what worked well and what could be improved. He spent two minutes laying out simple ground rules (e.g., say what comes to mind, think of positives as well as negatives, as scribe he would write down whatever was said without judgment)… In just minutes Jeff filled several sheets with many helpful comments.

In a comment at the end of Friedmann’s blog post, Jeff Carr wrote:

The technique is called “The Hot Wash” and came from a brilliant podcast series known as Manager Tools. I highly recommend this podcast series to all managers—but especially to lawyers leading teams for, as we all know, most of us never had any training in project management, people management, or people development, upward management, shop floor management—or for that matter, playing nice in the sandbox.

We [also] do a more formal after action process as well at the conclusion of every legal matter. We call that L2A2 (“Lessons Learned/After Action”) where we examine procedural improvement (what could the team do better) and substantive improvement (how can the organization avoid similar problems, or continue to do what went well). The team leader always goes first and talks about what he/she could do better (not what others could do better). In theory and practice, this gives the group permission to focus on improvement as opposed to criticism of team members. It’s not about fame, not about shame, but rather how you play the game!

More questions to ask

The following list of questions was inspired by Jeff Carr’s ACES (Alliance Counsel Engagement System) Report Card, a system FMC Technologies developed to calculate performance fees awarded to outside counsel, based on their grades on six key factors:

  • Understands goals
  • Expertise
  • Efficiency
  • Responsiveness
  • Predictive accuracy
  • Effectiveness

If you plan a longer review, some or all of these questions could be adapted to your situation:

  • Would you ask us again to do this kind of work?
  • How likely is it that you would recommend that a colleague hire us?
  • How well did we understand and meet your legal objectives?
  • How well did we understand your business strategy and help you meet business objectives?
  • Did we provide practical real-world advice and solutions?
  • How would you describe our substantive legal knowledge and expertise?
  • Did we use the best team to meet your needs?
  • Were all deadlines met?
  • Did we handle changes in your needs promptly and effectively?
  • Were team members available when you needed them?
  • Did we proactively take the lead when needed?
  • How well did we communicate?
  • Did we do a good job of explaining risks?
  • Did we keep you informed and avoid surprises?
  • Did we manage fees and expenses well?
  • Were our original budgets and estimates as accurate as possible?
  • Was the total project cost fair and appropriate?
  • How could we do a better job of delivering value?
  • Did our work meet or exceed your expectations?
  • How would you rate our overall performance?

Internal review meetings

In addition to your lessons learned discussion with clients, it can also be helpful to have a meeting strictly of your internal team to increase team efficiency and morale. For firms that have a formal knowledge management system in place, meetings like this can be especially helpful in capturing insights and experiences that can be of great value to the firm in the future.

Obviously, some of the questions you ask in an internal meeting will be different from those you would ask a client. In the book, Implementing Value Pricing, Ron Baker provided a long list of questions for such meetings (p. 317), including:

  • What could we do better next time?
  • Did we add value for this customer?
  • Did we have the right team on this engagement?
  • Did this engagement enhance our relationship with this customer?
  • What other needs does this customer have and are we addressing them?
  • Did we learn any new intellectual capital that we could leverage across other customers?
  • Should we communicate the lessons on this engagement to our colleagues and how?

The last two questions can yield important knowledge management results, including exhibit formats, checklists, briefs, innovative arguments, and more. And, as noted on the web page Knowledge Management Online:

Effective knowledge management should dramatically reduce costs. Most individuals, teams and organizations are today continually “reinventing the wheel.” This is often because they simply do not know… what is already known, or they do not know where to access the knowledge. Continually reinventing the wheel is… a costly and inefficient activity.… Knowledge management… should also dramatically increase our speed of response as a direct result of better knowledge access and application.

A final thought

Given the potential benefits of a lessons learned discussion at the end of every important matter and at critical junctures in large matters, why would anyone ever skip this step?

Because you are already too busy on the next matter? Because you hate to put time into non-billable activity? Because you feel awkward about discussions like this?

In the long run, these are terrible answers. As the legal profession becomes ever more competitive, lawyers who fail to find time to understand what clients want and need today may find themselves with a whole lot of free time tomorrow.

This post was adapted from LegalBizDev’s new LPM Tools and Templates.

March 15, 2017

Lessons learned reviews – Part 1 of 2

By Jim Hassett and Gary Richards

Some lawyers hold meetings at the end of every significant matter to review what worked, what didn’t, and what could be done better the next time. In large matters, they also conduct these “lessons learned” reviews after completing each significant milestone or phase.

These discussions are a learning opportunity and a marketing opportunity. Such a discussion can enhance your relationship, help you learn more about what an existing client values most, and enable you to provide more value. If a large matter is at a pivotal point, a mid-course review and redirection could be the difference between success and failure. Could you possibly think of a better way to develop new business?

The lessons learned review could be long or short. You could hold a formal group meeting and send the questions in advance, or you can simply ask your client some of the questions below. If you think of this as marketing, it will be obvious that it is better to have the discussion in person, maybe even over lunch. The phone can be a good second choice, but email is a distant third. You want to get people to open up and speak freely, and that is unlikely to happen via email.

The length and formality of the process should depend on the size and significance of the matter, your relationship with the client, and on how much work they are likely to have for you in the future. This section lists a number of different questions you might ask. In many cases, the first two will be enough.

The two most important questions

Unless there is a major open issue requiring an immediate joint review, or a client requests a lengthy discussion, we recommend that you assume that clients have little time to spare. This may mean limiting the debrief to two simple questions:

  1. What did you like about the way we handled this matter?
  2. What could we do better?

The first question is a classic “easy to answer” opening. Ask this one first, because it will get people talking freely.

The second question is the one you really care about, since you are likely to learn far more from criticism than from praise. No matter how much clients like your work, they can always like it more. And in today’s highly competitive environment, it is in your interest to turn every client into a raving fan.

If the second question opens the door to a laundry list of complaints, do not get defensive. Do not argue, disagree or explain your position. In fact, at most lessons learned meetings you should say very little and listen more than 90% of the time. Keep probing for more information. These meetings are designed not to understand reality, but rather to understand the client’s perception of reality. Because when it comes to client satisfaction and new business, perception is everything.

When clients raise problems, you need to reassure them that things will be better in the future. But in most cases you should not get into the details at the initial discussion. You need time to think about the best way to solve the problem, and to assure client satisfaction. So be prepared to say something like, “That is an important issue. Let me talk to a few people about the best way of preventing that from happening again, and then I will get back to you.”

Of course, if you do promise to get back to your client with a solution, you must put a high priority on completing follow-up as soon as possible.

If your time is limited, and your clients’ time is too, you can stop here. But if you want to consider more questions, read on.

Two more questions you could ask

If you have time to probe deeper, you can also add one or both of these optional questions:

  1. Working together, how can we improve the value you receive in the future on matters like this?
  2. On a scale from 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with our firm?

The first question is optional and focuses on the issue which is most likely to lead to new business: how to increase perceived value. This is a slight rephrasing of a key question suggested in the ACC Value Challenge Briefing Package (p. 7). Note the phrase “working together,” which stresses the need to align interests and collaborate more closely.

The second question is also optional. There are many ways to phrase effective questions about client satisfaction, but the best way is to ask for a numerical rating, because it forces clarity and frankness.

We ask our own clients this question at the end of every program we deliver, and to be honest, many shy away from giving a number. The client is always right, so if they don’t want to be pinned down with a number, we go with the flow. The important thing is to begin a genuine conversation about satisfaction, and to encourage clients to talk about the things you really need to hear, rather than more comfortable vague praise.

If clients do give you a number, there’s a good chance it will be lower than you expected. The reason is that most people overrate themselves. Psychologists call this the Lake Wobegon effect, named after Garrison Keillor’s fictional community in which “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

The best place to see this effect in the legal community is in a series of surveys published in Inside Counsel magazine comparing ratings of satisfaction from clients and the law firms who serve them. In one such survey, 43% of lawyers thought they were earning an A for their work, but only 17% of their clients agreed. So if you think you deserve an A, you’re probably wrong.

Another way to get at this fundamental issue is to ask, “On a scale from 1 to 10, how likely is it that you would recommend us to a friend or colleague?”

In his business bestseller, The Ultimate Question, Fred Reichheld argues that companies should focus more attention on loyalty by measuring the response to this one simple question. Reichheld and his colleagues at Bain have published several books and many studies showing that companies with high customer loyalty rates grow revenues twice as fast as their competitors. They have also shown that companies can increase profits by 25% to 100% simply by increasing customer retention by 5%.

Clients who rate the likelihood at 9 or 10 out of 10 are called “promoters” and are responsible for generating sustainable growth. You might think 7 or 8 on this 10-point scale would also be pretty good, but Reichheld has found that these people are motivated more by inertia than by enthusiasm. He calls this middle group “passives” and notes that they will often jump to another company at the first sign of a better deal.

The most serious business risk comes from “detractors,” people who rate the likelihood of referrals at 0 to 6 on that 10-point scale. From a strict financial view, many of these detractors may be profitable in the short term, but Reichheld notes that, “Customers who feel ignored or mistreated find ways to get even. They drive up service costs by reporting numerous problems. They demoralize frontline employees with their complaints and demands” (p. 6). 

Eighty percent of negative comments come from this detractor group, and in this age of email and internet ratings, a single complaint can reach hundreds of potential clients in the time it takes to hit the send button. In short, detractors “suck the life out of a firm” (p. 30).

This post was adapted from LegalBizDev’s new LPM Tools and Templates.

March 08, 2017

Value questions to ask top clients

Improved communication can strengthen relationships with top clients. From a project management perspective, this may include not just communicating about the details of a particular matter, but also asking general questions about a client’s perception of value. The questions in this list will be helpful in preparing for these discussions. The idea is to pick a few key questions that fit this situation, schedule a meeting, and let the client talk 80% of the time. Do not argue or object to criticism, just listen.

Direct questions about value

  • How could we increase the value of the services we provide?
  • How satisfied are you with our services, on a scale from 1 to 10?
  • What could we do to increase our rating?
  • What do other firms do that you really like that we don’t do?

Questions from the ACC Value Challenge

Background: The ACC Value Challenge is an initiative of the Association of Corporate Counsel, “The world’s largest community of in-house counsel, with more than 30,000 members in over 75 countries.” Its goal is to promote “value-driven, high quality legal services that deliver solutions for a reasonable cost.” The questions below were reproduced from ACC’s web page discussion of “How to talk with outside counsel (or clients).”

  • “How can we re-establish trust and improve our relationship, on both sides?
  • How can we assure an adequate flow of work so that outside lawyers understand the client better and can be more efficient in what they do?
  • How can we get junior lawyers better trained, priced at more reasonable levels, practicing law more on the front line, and less likely to leave?
  • How can we better budget and manage costs and staffing?
  • How can we better institutionalize the relationship?
  • How can we evaluate progress and performance?
  • How can we create a culture of continuous improvement, on both sides?”

More questions about client satisfaction

  • What do you like about working with our firm?
  • What could we do better?
  • What could we do to make your life easier?
  • Can you think of any ways we could help clients like you, or new services we could offer?
  • Could we better use technology to be of service to you?
  • What type of status reporting do you like? Weekly? Monthly? Email or phone?
  • Would you recommend our firm to others? Why or why not?
  • If you managed a firm like ours, what would you do differently?
  • How would you rate the quality of our legal product?
  • How well do we listen to your concerns?
  • How well do we understand your goals?
  • How well do we understand your industry?
  • Do we do a good job keeping you informed?
  • Do we explain legal issues in terms that are easy for decision makers to understand?
  • Do you perceive us as genuinely committed to your business success?
  • Do you perceive our lawyers as prompt, responsive, and accessible on short notice?
  • Are our billing statements accurate and complete?
  • Do our invoices include an appropriate level of detail?
  • Do you think our fees are fair and reasonable?

Note: Many of these questions address your service and could easily be reworded to ask how clients perceive other law firms they have worked with in the past. That can be an excellent way to get insights into where competitors are vulnerable.

Questions about client satisfaction

  • In the past, what are some of the things that you’ve liked most about working with law firms, both our firm and others?
  • What have you liked least about working with law firms?
  • When you select outside counsel, what factors are most important to you?
  • When you rate lawyers’ performance, what factors are most important to you?
  • How do you decide when to do work in-house, and when to use outside counsel?
  • What future trends in your business or industry will affect the need for legal services?
  • What are your biggest legal concerns?
  • How would you describe your overall impression of our firm?
  • What mistakes can be made when lawyers don’t understand your business and/or industry?

Big picture business questions

  • What are the biggest challenges that you face in your job?
  • What keeps you up at night?
  • Where do you see your industry going in the next few years?
  • What does your ideal customer look like?
  • What works best in finding new customers?
  • Who are your biggest customers?
  • What is it like to work for your company?
  • Who are the key people you work with?

Active listening questions

These simple prompts can help assure that you let your client talk at least 80% of the time:

  • Tell me more about ____.
  • Would you elaborate on ____?
  • Give me an example of ____.
  • What else should I know about ____?
  • How does ____ fit the picture?
  • Talk to me about your experience with _____.
  • How do you handle _____?
  • What makes this urgent?
  • Why is this important right now?
  • What bothers you most?
  • How tough a position does this put you in?
  • How does this affect you?
  • Why is this important to you?
  • How does that sound?
  • Do I have it right?
  • If you were to go ahead with ____, when would you ____?
  • What else should I ask about?

For a more open-ended discussion of current trends

If you would like to create more specific questions to fit your client’s precise interests, begin by reviewing Paul Lippe’s influential article, “Welcome to the Future: Embracing the New Normal.” Then use your background knowledge of the client to create specific questions about one or more of the trends Lippe discusses: alternate staffing, predictable pricing, defined quality, client intimacy, technology, and process innovation.


This post was adapted from LegalBizDev’s new LPM Tools and Templates.

March 01, 2017

Tip of the month: Fit your reporting style to each client

Make sure you report results regularly to each client in their preferred style, whether that means by email, by phone, or in person. And be sure to determine what level of information each client wants. If you are perceived as reporting too little, clients will see you as secretive, but if you report more than they want, you may be perceived as needy or even incompetent.