328 posts categorized "Tips for Lawyers"

May 13, 2015

How to solve delegation problems

A guest post by Gary Richards

 

Talented lawyers are sometimes bypassed for future assignments because they slipped a little on work that was delegated to them in the past. Partners may sometimes solve the problem by deciding to not put them on future assignments rather than giving them corrective feedback from which they could benefit.

For example, consider the following scenario: You have a competent set of lawyers and paralegals working with you on an important matter. However, one of the more legally talented members of the team has recently been coming in late with assigned tasks, or has not done it exactly as assigned, or both.

He always seems to understand exactly what you want when he accepts the task. After handing off a task, you always seek confirmation that he understands by asking questions like, “Do you have any questions?” or “Do you understand exactly what I want and when?” He always assures you that he has “got it.” Yet there is a recent pattern of incompleteness and lateness you would like to avoid in the future.

You are reluctant to complain to him because you know that he is quite busy working on other matters for other partners. By and large, his work quality is good and clients like him. You also don’t want to seem dictatorial when you hand off work for fear of insulting him or demotivating him, because you could really use his help if only he were accurate and timely.

However, unless this situation improves, you are considering not assigning him to any future work that is deadline-sensitive or has nuanced issues requiring significant attention to detail. That way you would save time dealing with his performance problem and wouldn’t have to waste your time coaching him on how to improve. You believe that any intelligent and experienced matter team members should do what he says he will do, on time. After all, you don’t recall anyone ever having to pressure you to correct your lack of detail or timeliness.

This is a fairly common situation. Unfortunately, deciding to save time by not assigning him to future matters is also fairly common. But it is a costly and shortsighted solution to deprive the offending lawyer of needed coaching. Furthermore, taking that approach would mean failing your responsibility as a partner to provide professional development of those working on your team.

The tension in this situation stems from your natural preference to avoid conflict, compounded by not knowing how to ensure clarity at the moment of handoff.

A better solution is grounded in two simple concepts: tactfully require people to repeat your instructions, and schedule a mid-point review.

 

Tactfully require people to repeat your instructions

When you encounter a performance problem like the one above, the best first step is not to ask “What is wrong with him?” Instead, ask “What can I do differently?” The truth is that getting work done on time, as expected, is usually much more dependent on how the work is handed off and monitored than it is affected by a flaw in the recipient.

The usual solution to this situation is to do a better job finding out exactly what he actually understands to be required and by when, no matter how well you think you have presented it. Simply asking a question like these will not uncover true understanding:

  • “Do you have any questions?”(Not really.)
  • “Is it clear what I need?”(I think so.)
  • “Do you understand exactly what I want and when?”(Sure, I’ll get right on it.)

Even if they are less than certain of the details, most people are not comfortable admitting that they are unclear or confused, especially if you outrank them. So those kinds of questions usually do not learn what it is they actually understand.

He may even demonstrate rapt listening and industrious note taking as you describe what you want, all creating the illusion of clear understanding even though some details may be missed. It is likely that the listener believes that he does understand it, because he is clear on what he thinks that he heard.

There is only one way to know for sure what he understand: Have him immediately repeat his understanding of your instructions so that you can compare what he says to your intended instructions. Such a request to repeat instructions received is rarely made because it could be taken as an insult to his ability or a veiled accusation of inattention. But there is a skillful way to request that instructions be repeated without being insulting or accusatory: Format the question as an “I” message, not as a “you” message.

Faulty way to request feedback of instructions (insulting and accusatory “you” message):

­Please repeat what I said so I can tell whether you got it all correctly.”

Effective way to request feedback of instructions (non-insulting and non-accusatory “I”):

“That was a lot of detail, Bob, and I described what I need pretty quickly. Would you mind repeating for me your understanding of those instructions and timing so that I can see if I said it clearly?”

As you listen to his repetition of your instructions, you can compare it with what you intended. In effect, this way you are comparing what is in his brain to what is in your brain. If you hear an omission or misunderstanding, you can immediately say, “What I meant to say was…” and provide the correction, possibly rephrasing it more clearly or in a different way to highlight its importance. It doesn't matter whether you did say it correctly the first time or not. What does matter instead is to correct the misunderstanding immediately, not to assign blame for the misunderstanding by saying something like, “No, you have it wrong.”

 

Schedule a mid-point review

Once it is established that the instructions are understood, the next thing to help ensure performance is to schedule a follow-up midway through the duration of the task. You have a right, even an obligation, to follow up to ensure that the work is on schedule, especially if there have been past problems with timely performance. Get agreement at the time of hand-off as to when you will follow up midway, and why. Unscheduled follow-ups like, “How are you doing on….” will appear that you don’t trust him. Also, he may have work appropriately scheduled on the task at a time closer to the deadline than when your surprise follow-up occurs, causing your question to be an unfair irritation that results in no information.

Instead, it is much better at the time the task is handed off to schedule a time-certain mid-point follow up. For example, if you hand-off a task on Wednesday and the deadline for completion is the following Tuesday by noon, say something like this: “How about I touch base around 10:30 A.M. Friday to be sure that you have everything you need and see if there are any questions?”

When a mid-point follow-up time like that is agreed upon, several things are put into play:

  • It becomes more likely that the doer will be further along in their work on the task by the follow-up time of Friday at 10:30 than if no follow-up had been scheduled
  • With that stated reason for the follow-up, the doer understands that it is to be a helpful event, not a sign of mistrust
  • You avoid having to interrupt the doer with “How are you coming?” whenever your anxiety compels you. Instead, you can relax until Friday at 10:30, knowing that you have plenty of time afterward to get things back on track if needed.

These two simple tactics can solve delegation problems, save you time by avoiding performance problems, and fulfill your obligation to constructively develop the skills of those working on your teams.

May 06, 2015

Tip of the month: Improve the way you manage your team

To provide clients with the value they are demanding, you may need to devote more time to actively managing the members of your team.  Start with these questions:

  • Who will have primary responsibility for completing each task on time, within budget?
  • Do they agree with your estimated schedule and budget for the task?  If not, discuss any differences of opinion before they begin the work.
  • Will they need any special help or support to successfully complete their assignment?
  • Should the team set up a regular schedule of very short meetings to assess progress and overcome any obstacles?

 

The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. More information about this tip appears in the third edition of my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

April 01, 2015

Tip of the month: Improve the way you plan activities at the start of every matter

Clients are demanding greater efficiency these days, and efficiency should start before each matter begins.  Instead of jumping right in, set aside a little time for planning and ask such questions as:

  • What deadlines will best align the client’s needs with the firm’s interests?
  • How can this large matter be divided into smaller sub-tasks which a single individual on your team could be responsible for?
  • Which tasks are on the critical path? That is, which tasks must be completed before others can start?

The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. More information about this tip appears in the third edition of my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

 

March 04, 2015

Tip of the month: Improve the questions you ask when you start an engagement

When I interviewed chairs and managing partners of AmLaw 200 firms for my book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, they said that the single most important factor in LPM success was defining scope.  The simplest way to improve is by asking the right questions before an engagement begins, such as:

  • How do you define success or “a win”?
  • What business problem do you want to solve?
  • Are there strict budget limits?
  • What deadlines matter the most to you?

The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. More information about this tip appears in the third edition of my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

February 11, 2015

Business development best practices: Work with others

This is one of a series of occasional posts summarizing the most important best practices from my book the Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide which is now also available in a Kindle edition.

Business development is difficult, and it helps to work with other people who provide support through the losses, and help you celebrate the wins. One way to do this is to form a business development group. It could be your entire practice group, a formal committee including people from your marketing department, or just two or three lawyers who meet for breakfast once a month.

Keep the agenda simple. At the first meeting, each person should commit to action items for the next meeting. Then at every subsequent meeting, go around the table and have each person report what they accomplished since the last meeting and what they have planned before the next one.

Working with a group provides social support, increases accountability, and leads to steady progress. No one wants to go to a meeting and report that they have failed to follow up on all their action items. The simple fact that you know you have a meeting coming up will help spur you to action.

The results can be summarized in a simple report after each meeting. The fact that a report is being circulated will create a friendly competition and increase compliance. Nobody wants to be the person who has all zeros in their business development report.

The most reliable systems often put a staff person in charge of collecting the data (say, every Monday by noon), and publishing the results every week at the same time (such as Mondays at 5). The report should never be delayed to wait for an individual’s results. This week’s missing data can be filled in next week. And the phrase “missing data” in the report will help to ensure that the information will be supplied, sooner or later. Ideally, the reports should start with a clean slate every few months. Without this fresh start, once people fall behind, they are likely to stay behind and just give up.

But whether you decide to have written reports or not, the biggest challenge here is to simply make sure you keep meeting. Life is sure to intrude with your meeting schedule, and it is easy for these meetings to fade away after a few misses. Therefore, it can be extremely useful to include a non-lawyer (e.g. your marketing person) who takes responsibility for reminding everyone of the next meeting, and do everything possible to maintain a quorum. In a nice way.

For many lawyers, an even better way to proceed is to work with a professional legal business development coach.

On the other hand, working alone may not be as good as working with a coach or a group, but it’s a whole lot better than doing nothing. If you are one of those rare individuals who will continue to follow-up through sheer self-discipline, go for it. The important thing is to find a system that works for you, and to sustain it over the long term.

February 04, 2015

Tip of the month: Be cautious about sharing budgets

When some lawyers begin developing detailed budgets, they get so enthusiastic about their new approach to estimation that they immediately show these drafts to clients.  This can lead to problems.  Some clients immediately start challenging the hourly estimates line by line and use them to negotiate the total price downward.  Others treat this preliminary budget as a fee cap and refuse to pay bills that exceed the initial estimate.

The implication is obvious: Most budgets should be limited to internal circulation for as long as possible. This is especially true for lawyers who are just getting started on detailed budgets and are still learning how to increase their accuracy.   Share budgets voluntarily only after you have developed a track record of accurate predictions, and only when you have a trusting relationship with a particular client.

 

The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. This month’s tip was adapted from the third edition of my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

January 21, 2015

Sample Risk Analysis Template for a public M&A matter, advising the target

A guest post by Sverre Tyrhaug

 Background:  Sverre Tyrhaug is the Managing Partner of Thommessen, the largest law firm in Norway.  He is one of five individuals from the firm who are currently completing our Certified Legal Project Manager Program®.  This is the third of three blog posts based on his answers to essay questions from the program.

This analysis uses a form from page 106 of the third edition of our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.  Planning time would be focused on the items that have the highest degree of risk in column 4.

 

What can go wrong?

A. How likely is it? (1-5)

B. How serious? (1-5)

A x B = Degree of risk

Actions

Reduce in advance

Reduce during matter

Insufficient available internal resources at Thommessen

1

4

4

Plan and schedule

Keep people on team informed on progress and schedule

Client does not allocate sufficient resources

3

3

9

Plan and schedule. Inform client about likely input required and when it is required

 

Multiple bidders on M&A project

4

2

8

Prepare for mulitiple bidders with different timelines.  What should response be if timeline is accelerated or postponed?

Emphasize importance of timeline.

Material adverse event at client

2

4

8

Vendor due diligence.

Keep in close touch with client to address any concerns early on.

Process leaks

3

4

12

Inform on importance of confidentiality. Keep team tight. Prepare “holding/leak statement”

Ensure confidentiality. Be prepared for leak.

No bidder is offering good enough price

2

5

10

Do pre-sounding of the market/ potential bidders prior to launch. Structure the process. Prepare well on management presentations etc.

 

Diverging views among major shareholders

3

4

12

Seek to vet good support for decision to initiate process

 

Hostile takeover offer launched

3

5

15

Prepare for responses (available poison pills, white knights etc.).

Keep overview of available options.

January 07, 2015

Tip of the month: Hold a lessons learned meeting

Lawyers are increasingly holding meetings at the end of every significant matter to review what worked, what didn’t, and what could be done better the next time.  These discussions are not just a learning opportunity but also a marketing opportunity. A “lessons learned meeting” will 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.  

The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. For suggestions to increase the efficiency of “lessons learned meetings,” see the third edition of my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.  

December 31, 2014

One managing partner’s view of three critical issues in LPM

A guest post by Sverre Tyrhaug

Background:  Sverre Tyrhaug is the Managing Partner of Thommessen, the largest law firm in Norway.  He is also one of five individuals from the firm who are currently completing our Certified Legal Project Manager Program®.  This is the first of three blog posts based on his answers to essay questions from the program.

A personal plan to improve time management

What I do well now:

  • Clear picture/vision on what I want to achieve.
  • Using to-do lists (with brain map tool, giving good overview of all tasks)
  • Prioritizing and doing one thing at a time
  • Spending time to plan the week ahead
  • Maintaining “stop doing lists”
  • I often ask myself the questions:
    • What is the most productive thing I can do right now?
    • What is the best use of my time right now?
  • Trying to run efficient meetings with clear agendas
  • Keeping a clean desk and papers and documents  in organized fashion
  • Keeping track of time spent, categorized in 15 categories and evaluating it on a monthly basis.

What I could improve:

  • Limit unnecessary internal meetings
  • Establish routines and business process improvements on repetitive tasks including yearly budgeting, partner performance meetings, strategic review, and salary/bonus assessment
  • Limit interruptions (emails, drop-in visitors)
  • Block out time in calendar for my own project work
  • Ask questions and challenge the way I work:
    • What is the value added from this task?
    • Is there an easier way to do this?
    • What three to five things can I accomplish today/this week/this month that will make a big difference to the bottom line?
  • Delegate better and more
  • Learn to say no.

Thirteen ways to improve team performance

  1. Communicate: inform and listen
  2. Allocate enough time to team building.
  3. Involve the team early. Present them with the scoping of the matter and the draft work breakdown structure for brainstorming, buy in, commitment, assignment of tasks, and assignment of individuals responsible for each task. Communicate clearly on client goals and scope.
  4. Communicate “ground rules” for the team early in the process, including respect for each other, productive use of time in meetings, active listening, focus on solutions, and being prepared for meetings.
  5. Have regular efficient team meetings with clear objectives, an agenda in advance, the right people attending (small to get things done, large to build relationships or brainstorm). Provide minutes with decisions reached and follow up actions.
  6. Update the work breakdown structure and the planned schedule.
  7. Watch out for scope creep. Remind the team about the project scope and goals.
  8. Find out what motivates the team (deadline, challenge/difficulties, bonus)?
  9. Motivate team members, along the way and at the end. Make each member of the team aware of the importance of their contribution to the team.
  10. Act as a good example.  Be positive and provide feedback. Be available to discuss problems.
  11. Let people be responsible.  Hold them responsible for the result, but do not micro-manage. Be demanding in terms of performance, but provide clear goals and be supportive. Treat the team members as “winners” and part of our unique firm.
  12. Involve the team members in decisions. Listen to their views, show that you appreciate their input.
  13. Evaluate, gather feedback and take actions based on the feedback.

How to improve delegation

Delegation is an important part of the business model for a successful law firm. We need to delegate to manage profitability, we need to delegate to train our associates, we need to delegate to keep our associates happy in terms of understanding that they are valued and involved, and we need to delegate to free up time to do business development and other firm building work.

To improve delegation: 

  • Delegate early in the project. Think delegation immediately. Do not wait!
  • Think carefully, from the client’s perspective, on what tasks should be delegated. Delegation is not always efficient, but all or most of our projects have activities that should be delegated.
  • Discuss with the client why parts of the project are delegated, and explain why it is in the client’s interest.
  • Be a good coach when delegating.  Be clear on expectations (e.g. deadlines and  feedback) and priorities vs. other projects. Be available to help. Put the activity that is delegated in context. Why is the task important for the project (and what is the project?). Upon a new assignment, provide clear goals and objectives (WHAT).  Spend little time on HOW, but ask for their input on how they propose to perform the task (do not dictate how to perform the work in detail), and spend time on WHY (give the task meaning).
  • Learn from your experience when delegating. If you are not happy with the result or get a lot of questions from the associate on how to perform the work, think about whether you could be clearer on expectations etc. when delegating.
  • Try to delegate entire projects or work-activities as that generally helps the associates’ motivation, commitment and sense of responsibility for the end result.
  • If you lack confidence or delegate to new associates, start with delegating smaller tasks and provide structure and guidance.
  • Think carefully about the skills required and who to delegate to. Also think about the workload of the people and avoid delegating to someone who is already busy if there are other resources available.
  • Evaluate completed assignments and provide feedback. This is an extremely important point, as it is an investment in the associate that will provide the associate the tools and learning to perform even better on the next task delegated.

December 03, 2014

Tip of the month: Tie compensation to results

In 2011, I quoted managing partner Joe Morford about Tucker Ellis’ philosophy of compensation “If you pay for hours you get hours, and if you pay for results you get results.”  Since then, the vast majority of firms have done little or nothing to adapt their compensation to client demands for better results in fewer hours.  But a major step was taken a few weeks ago when Jackson Lewis announced that associates will no longer be compensated for billing more hours, and will instead be rewarded based on factors tied to results such as efficiency and client service.  Other firms are sure to follow.

 

The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. The relationship between compensation and profitability is discussed in my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability