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2 posts from July 2019

July 24, 2019

How to Improve the Management of Legal Teams (Part 3 of 3)

By Jim Hassett and Tim Batdorf

In this final part of our series, we discuss rules #7 through #10 and conclude the discussion of Paul Dinsmore’s “Ten Rules of Team Building” from the AMA Handbook of Project Management (p. 411).

Rule #7: Get the team in shape

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 they 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 between 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 where they feel they need training. 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.

Rule #8: Motivate the players

Rule #1 was to identify what drives your team: the inherent intellectual challenge of legal matters, the relationships and collaboration, competitiveness, or the simple need to pile up billable hours.

Of course, the answer is likely to be all of the above and more, and in different proportions for different people. On large matters, your job as a leader is to develop a sense of what motivates each key individual and then to incorporate these motivators into your feedback and interactions with team members.

Make sure key team members understand the deliverables in the SOW, and then give them ownership of the process. Let them tell you how to meet your goals, on time and within budget.

Motivating some team members may be as simple as recognizing and praising their accomplishments.

If you expect the best from your team, you are more likely to get it.

Rule #9: Develop plans

Lawyers are good at convincing clients to invest time and money in planning. Clients are told to plan their taxes, plan their estates, and plan the best way to structure their contracts.

But when a new matter begins, many lawyers would rather jump right in than step back and plan their approach. Jumping right in can be a great way to be inefficient, and the traditional billable hour model rewards inefficiency.

However, as one consultant put it, “Being too busy to plan is a lot like running alongside your bicycle because you are too busy to get on.” Now that clients are pressuring legal counsel to become more efficient, there is a new emphasis on developing a plan before beginning a matter.

Planning starts with a solid SOW so that it is clear that the client and the lawyer agree on what is to be done. Then the lawyer in charge can map out the necessary tasks and assign them to different team members, using the Matter planning template in this Guide or other tools.

Better yet, don’t just create a plan by yourself. Get your team so involved in the project and decision making that they say, “This is our plan.”

Rule #10: Control, evaluate, and improve

When many people start managing projects, the biggest mistake they make is to trust their staff too much. “I hired extremely talented people,” they reason, “so they will figure things out.”

Most learn the hard way that effective managers control the work process, evaluate the results, and use the results to improve performance. This can be valuable even if a project is so small that you are working alone. But when you work on projects with large teams, “control, evaluate, and improve” is absolutely vital.

If you want to rely on software for this, our opinion is that the best software solution is the one you already own and know how to use. Whether your team uses Outlook or something else, it’s worth learning about the features that can help you manage your team, including email groups, meeting invitations and scheduling, and creating and tracking team “To Do” lists.

Tracking the budget is especially important these days, and we often hear about how law firm accounting systems are becoming more sophisticated in their ability to support periodic work-in-progress updates. How often do you need these updates? The answer varies from one matter to another. Many firms seem to be headed toward real-time reporting and requiring lawyers to update their time records daily.

Finally, at the end of each important matter, it is vital to conduct some sort of “lessons learned” review. Poll your team members on what they thought worked well and what they thought needed improvement. However, ultimately, there is only one results assessment that counts, and that comes from the client. So you need to make sure that you have an accurate reading from the client as close to the end of the matter as possible.

In the good old days when clients rarely complained about the efficiency of legal teams and hourly rates went up every year, it was not necessary to think about better ways to manage legal teams. Now it is.

This blog series was adapted from the fifth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, a frequently updated online library of LPM tools and templates.

July 10, 2019

How to Improve the Management of Legal Teams (Part 2 of 3)

By Jim Hassett and Tim Batdorf

In this part of our series, we cover rules #3 through #6 of Paul Dinsmore’s “Ten Rules of Team Building" from the AMA Handbook of Project Management (p. 411).

Rule #3: Understand the game

Rule #3 is a hard one for lawyers, because the game is changing and no one is quite sure what the new rules are. In 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 involved; this starts with getting the statement of work 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.

Rule #4: Evaluate the competition

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. According to the 2019 Law Firms in Transition survey, 93% 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 work is not. And it all begins with understanding your competition.

Rule #5: Pick your players and adjust your team

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

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 (Fourth Edition, p. 411), “Delegating, mentoring and coaching must become part of your daily habit.”

We will discuss Dinsmore's rules of team building #7 through #10 and conclude this series in our next blog post.

This blog series was adapted from the fifth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, a frequently updated online library of LPM tools and templates.