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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.

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