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Manterruption, Part II: The Quest for a Cure

Posted in Law firm practices

Don't InterruptIn our last post we discussed the widespread tendency of men to interrupt women in settings where the power stakes were high (manterruption) and their tendency to appropriate women’s comments and ideas as their own (bropropriation).

This Really Does Matter

We emphasized that this is not a minor impediment to women’s career advancement. As Dr. Arin Reeves states, “We cannot talk about women’s retention, advancement and leadership in the workplace without exploring what happens when women are constantly interrupted.  If women cannot even be heard, can they truly advance into leadership?”  We will leave to another day the question of whether asymmetrical communication correlates directly with the abysmal level of women partners and law firm leaders. But there is no doubt that women are seriously frustrated and disadvantaged by this all-too-common phenomenon.

What’s This Really All About?

Interruption may have many causes or represent a combination of ingredients. Some experts consider a lot of interrupting to be a conversational habit, a byproduct of men historically talking more and women being regarded as having less to say. Or maybe in part it’s a geographic or cultural artifact, not necessarily dismissive or unfriendly. Famed linguistics guru Deborah Tannen has pointed out, for example, that fast-talking New Yorkers interpret any pause as a sign that the speaker has finished.  Others say interruption may actually signal intimacy, kind of an ‘I interrupt because we’re such close friends’ theory.

But our concern should be with Intrusive Interruption intended to perpetuate power disparity. Since most men can sincerely deny malicious intent, what triggers this interruptive urge? Some experts suggest that the problem may not simply be a power thing, although certainly “interruptions can be used to display or gain dominance,” as George Washington University linguist Adrienne Hancock has said. At the more conscious level, interruption may be a behavioral artifact of the whole men-are-from-Mars-and-women-are-from-Venus thing. Communication scholar Stanley Deetz notes than men may be more likely to see conversation as “a competitive game, while women see discussions as being collaborative, hence expecting and giving space for interruption.”

Many researchers, especially experts in diversity, fasten firmly on the unconscious bias explanation, seeing interruption as a culturally learned response that provides the interrupter with some unexpressed but desirable advantage. Interestingly and ironically, research also has shown that when people believe they are not being biased, they frequently exhibit behaviors that are in fact more biased; whereas people who are willing to examine their behaviors for unintentional bias, become less and less biased.  Put differently, people who believe they are not sexist or racist are more likely to make biased decisions because they are not examining their decisions for bias.

How About Some Behavior Mod?

Since we work mostly in the world of law and lawyers, frankly we like the response of one high-powered female litigator: “Let’s cut out all the apologist BS about intentions and attitudes,” she says. “For both men and women, we need to focus on behavior change – on what must be expected, accepted, or rejected in a professional workplace.”

Behavior mod focuses on creating powerful incentives for appropriate social behavior (and disincentives for bad acts). Asking people to simply be something — more virtuous or less destructive – is, in our view, a totally ineffectual tactic. Grown people do not willingly undertake personality transplants, and men will not become less aggressive and self-aggrandizing simply because some “touchy-feely bleeding heart type” asks them to.

Similarly, we see little benefit from bland injunctions like “men need to talk less and listen more” or that women at the table need to “lean in” more, while men should somehow magically become more comfortable “leaning back.”  In our view, conversational parity is a matter of learned behaviors, that is, techniques that can either be learned and reinforced by incentives or extinguished by some form of pain.

In A list of practical things we can do to reduce gender bias at work, Elba Pareja-Gallagher cited a list of constructive actions – targeted to men – and developed by Terry Howard and Claire Brown and posted in Catalyst’s MARC (men advocating real change) site. Frankly, a few of these seem a bit naive and unrealistic: “Do not interrupt,”  “Take turns talking,” and (our favorite) “Incorporate more nonverbal behaviors that facilitate interpersonal communication, support, and interest.”  Oh yeah, that’s easy.

But other items on the list seem like perfectly practical action tactics: “Invite women to meetings that usually are ‘inner sanctum’ only.” “Introduce women into your network.” “Send women to represent the company at a conference.” “Reach out to women to discuss their career goals, instead of waiting for them to come to you.”

Researcher Sheryl Sandberg (see Post I in this series) has some eminently practical suggestions for slowing the cycle where men assert conversational dominance, women hold back, relinquish credit, let their ideas be poached or attributed to males…and then eventually shut down, become more passive and less creative, feel less engaged, and experience anxiety because they fear that somehow they are at fault.  Some of her ideas (listed below with a few added ingredients of our own):

For Everyone:

  1. Get Honest: Admit that unconscious bias and communication role stereotyping exists in both men and women. That is, set the stage for addressing the issue and rejecting the flawed communications status quo. We all need to own up to the problem.
  1. Ban Bad Behavior: Create a “no asshole” rule in your conversational circle or cohort (now sometimes called a “No-Kanye” rule) that explicitly addresses interruption. The idea is that where an explicitly articulated rule is being broken, the group has the authority to call foul. The group sanction is against the behavior, not the communicator’s intent.
  1. Intervene actively. Stop interrupters in the moment. Tap the table. Hold up your hands in a “stop!” gesture. Nudge interrupters or put your hand on their arm.  Better still, speak up: “Wait, please let her finish” or “Hold it, I really want to hear what Donna is saying.”  Rehearse some good interrupt-the-interrupter phrases – and have them locked and loaded.
  1. Applaud: As soon as a woman makes an insightful comment, jump in: “Yes! Good idea, Sandra.” (Don’t forgot to say her name; name recognition goes with respect)
  1. Support Virtue: Praise and support clients, companies, teams and groups that are led strongly by women. Highlight exemplars – and let them know you are supporting them publicly.

For Women in Particular:

  1. Enlist a Male Buddy: Find a sympathetic male who realizes how you’re being shut out and make a clandestine pact: ask him to backstop you in meetings – nodding, agreeing, and calling out male interrupters as needed.
  1. Defend Other Women: Women are shockingly unsupportive of other women publicly. Stand up for female colleagues; if they are going to label a woman as “difficult” or “aggressive,” make them label you that way, too. Let’s #staynoisy like Liz Dolan and identify situations when bias rears its head.
  1. Practice Power Postures: This does not mean acting like John Wayne. It means to study and practice gestures – “leaning in,” standing to speak (and standing firmly on both legs when you do), gesturing with your palms down, steepling your hands, keeping your hands and arms within your body frame – that convey confidence and authority. Develop a “hold that thought” hand gesture to stop interrupters before they gain momentum. This initially may be uncomfortable, but as confident-appearing trial lawyers would say, “fake it ‘til you make it.”
  1. Eschew Conditional Statements: Dispense with “Maybe I’m wrong, but…” or “Should we consider this?” Don’t use questions to make statements; make statements.  Minimize questions designed only to signal how consensus-oriented you are.
  1. Find Your Voice: Don’t try to talk like a man. Talk like a strong woman: No uptalk (interrogatory inflection).  Use short sentences. Practice a clear drop in pitch at the end of a thought to signal you’re done thinking/speaking (the Brits call this a “full stop). Give inspiring speeches to yourself in the car (including practicing being angry or offended). Join Toastmasters or take a public speaking course if your voice is soft or your manner demure.

Bonus Tip:

Name the Frame:  Politely but firmly call out manterrupters and bropropriators as soon as they trespass, emphasizing their behavior but not impugning their intentions: “Gary, I’m being cut short here. Please let me complete my thought.” “Mel, I’m glad you like my idea. You’ve paraphrased my previous comments very succinctly.”

BTW, yelling STFU!, no matter how gratifying, is probably not a successful behavior modification tactic.


© 2015, Edge International US, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.

FLASH UPDATE: No Seat at the Table

Posted in Law firm practices

Life Imitates Blog

3d Office chair in spotlightOnly a few days ago we posted a blog post, Are You a Manterrupter?, in which we discussed how unconscious gender biases of men may compromise leadership communication and result in female colleagues being marginalized, shut out, interrupted and generally frustrated in the exercise of senior-level professional responsibility.  A second, related post about how to address the impact of unconscious bias is scheduled to be posted next week.

Wow, talk about timing: today’s headlines threw the spotlight on some extraordinary true-life breaking news. Fox International Channel’s CMO Liz Dolan published a scathing article entitled “Gender Bias Forced Me to Quit Quiksilver’s Board.”  It turns out that Quiksilver, an action sports and apparel company, had completely excluded board member Dolan from the decision-making process that led to firing its CEO. Dolan first learned about the change in management while on an airplane, when she opened an email containing documents for a clandestine board meeting taking place while she was in the air. The quickie board meeting was to ratify what was already a done deal following 10 days of secret conversations among the other – and entirely male – board members.

As former CMO of Nike and the OWN channel and hardly a junior-varsity talent, Dolan was proud to be one of the few women on the board of a publicly-traded company. She had earned her spurs as a heavy-hitter, and she had passed board interview muster as someone with the chops to make tough decisions.  Yet she was totally cut out of the loop of a 10-day discussion about terminating the CEO, who had been a senior executive colleague of Dolan’s when they both earlier worked at Nike. When Dolan left the board on May 28th in what lawyers call a “noisy resignation” (meaning that the company has to release the resignation letter), she said:

“I was given many explanations, but I think it boils down to a single answer: unconscious bias. And what I learned is that even when a woman earns a seat at the table, the men can put you in a soundproof booth.” (emphasis added, and much deserved)

“Because I had a previous professional relationship with the (now former) CEO at Nike, the board assumed they knew how I would have voted based on the biased assumption that I’d vote to keep my ‘friend.’ Because that’s what girls do, right? They make emotional decisions about friends instead of strategic decisions based on business facts. Girls can’t keep a secret. Girls are too emotional. Girls can’t make tough calls. And, thank goodness, girls won’t speak out when we marginalize them.”

This exemplar of male thinking, arrogance and dominance – which seems to us more evidence of conscious bias than unconscious bias — is bound to be embarrassing for Quiksilver. But they’ll survive, right?  They’ll duck their heads, decline comment, and elect a replacement board member.

How much do you bet it won’t be a woman?


© 2015, Edge International US, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.

Are You a Manterrupter? – Part I

Posted in Law firm practices

STOPThis is Doug, and I’m going to be flying the airplane in this post. Pam is standing by me, as usual contributing a wealth of valuable and timely information, but she’s going to hold her tongue. Why? Because research proves the likelihood that if she tried to make her ideas heard, she would learn the perils of “speaking while female,” as researcher Sheryl  Sandberg and Wharton professor  Adam Grant put it in a recent New York Times op-ed piece. The odds are that Pam would either be manterrupted, mansplained and bropropiated. If she held her ground and insisted on air time she would likely be labeled as “difficult” or “aggressive.” Either way, in the battle for leverage among powerful players, all too often women end up as losers.

On the other hand, as a guy, my provocations are more likely to earn full faith and credit from the professional power elite, just because I said ‘em.

Whazzat You Say?

“Manterruption,” “mansplaining” and “bropropriation” are neologisms that spell bad news both for women trying to make the most of their seat at the table and for men claiming to be equal opportunity communicators. All these terms represent characteristics of male communication – whether intentional or the result of unconscious biases and attitudes – used as displays of dominance and power:

  • Manterrupting: When a man interrupts a woman frequently and unnecessarily.
  • Intrusive Interrupting: When a person intentionally or unintentionally usurps a speakers’ turn at talk in order to derail their ability to complete their thought and make their point.
  • Mansplaining: When a man interrupts a woman to explain something to her she knows more about than he does, often including putting a “manly” spin on a “soft” or feminine mode of expression.
  • Bropropriating: When a man usurps a woman’s idea – often with the support of other men — and takes credit for it.

This new vocabulary is deliberately sarcastic, not simply to provoke confrontation, but to highlight the frustration that interruptive behavior causes competent, creative and articulate women.  Through these terms, women are trying to sound a wake-up call.  Can men listen?  Can they change?

As Dr. Arin Reeves, author of One Size Never Fits All (ABA 2014), puts it, “We cannot talk about women’s retention, advancement and leadership in the workplace without exploring what happens when women are constantly interrupted.  If women cannot even be heard, can they truly advance into leadership?”  A female senior partner at a large law firm put a blunter point on it: “Men’s communication styles are killing women’s careers.”

Interruptive Variations

Of course, not all interruption is disruptive or destructive.  Interruption can facilitate communication by helping to clarify (“Oh, I get it! You mean…”), amplify (“Yeah, yeah, yeah, and furthermore…”) or ratify (“Right! Right!).  Linguists speak of “back-channel listening responses” and “affiliative overlaps.” But a growing body of empirical research shows that men are more likely to interrupt to make their opinions heard, and women are more likely to interrupt to ask questions and seek clarification.

But let’s be clear: manterrupting is about power-tripping, marginalizing, demeaning or dismissing.  It turns collaboration into competition – competition in which women are put at peril. “We’ve seen it happen again and again,” Sandberg and Grant write. “When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard, or she’s judged as too aggressive.  When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation of his fine idea.”

Survey Says…

A variety of research shows that when it comes to workplace communication, women speak less, are interrupted more, and have their ideas criticized and nit-picked more than men. Male executives who speak more often than their peers are considered more competent (by 10%), while female executives who speak up are considered less so (14% less, in fact, according to research by Yale psychologist Victoria Brescoll).

Recent research by Dr. Reeves probed the question: Is there a gender difference in meetings, conferences and/or panel discussions…especially at the higher visibility leadership levels, in who is interrupted more, who interrupts more, who is more likely to interrupt whom, who is more likely to realize the interruption behaviors, and how interruptions are perceived and managed?

The answer? Oh, yeah. For example, in 2014, empirical linguist Kieran Snyder observed interactions in meetings where at least four people were communicating.  She found that men interrupted at twice the rate than women did and were three times more likely to interrupt women as to interrupt other men (and when women did interrupt, they interrupted other women 87% of the time).

Reeves listened to 41 hours of meetings, calls and panels where at least two women were communicating in a group of at least five people. She noted 859 interruptions, an average of almost 30 per group interaction.  582 of the interruptions were by men, and men proved far more likely to interrupt women than men. “An overwhelming majority (89+%) of men’s interruptions of women were intrusive, but only 42% of men’s interruptions of men were intrusive. Less than 20% of women’s interruptions of men or women were intrusive.”

Interestingly, Reeves notes that when a powerful woman is formally in charge of a meeting, she will tend to circle back to a manterrupted woman and place the microphone back in her hands. On the other hand, if a man is in charge of the meeting, interruptions of women are not only tolerated, they are perpetuated: the interrupted woman is seldom given a second chance to complete her thought. Sadly, women who attempt self-help by asserting their right to be heard often are “spoken to after the meeting” and warned that they are perceived as being “difficult” or “not team players.”

In addition, researchers find that when men grab the mike from women, they don’t give it back: the interruption becomes a usurpation of power, not simply a status gesture.  They tend to keep the floor, spin the communication toward mansplanation, or cede the floor to other men.  Once women are interrupted, they stay interrupted.  Any wonder that they are frustrated?

Oh, Not Me

Right now, a lot of you men are pleading innocent. To paraphrase the wonderful and repeated punch line from the long-running stage show Defending the Caveman, you are screaming out, “I am not an asshole!”

It may be that you do not consciously intend to be an asshole, but the evidence shows that the impact of your behavior is indistinguishable from if it were intentional. Reeves interviewed both men and women who had participated in the meetings, calls and plenaries she observed, and most of the men reported being unaware either of interrupting anyone or having been interrupted. Most of their interruptions were not conscious or deliberate.

Most likely, this obliviousness – if not outright denial – stems from unconscious biases about the relative power and authority of men and women, as well as about the competitive substrate that underpins much of professional and executive existence. In an incident that went gleefully viral (at least from the perspective of those who love to see the mighty brought low), Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson appeared at the 2015 South by Southwest Festival to discuss how to attract, develop and advance more women in the technology sector.  The two men repeatedly interrupted co-panelist Megan Smith, the Chief Technology Officer for the United States (and a former Google executive) as she tried to talk about the need for women to have a greater voice in technology.

In the audience Q&A, Judith Williams, head of Google’s global diversity and talent management program, asked, “Given that unconscious bias research tells us that women are interrupted a lot more than men, I’m wondering if you are aware that you have interrupted Megan many more times.” The audience burst into applause.

Megan Smith’s answer? “It’s an interesting thing, unconscious bias. It’s something we all have and something we really have to debug.”

Neither Schmidt nor Isaacson answered the question.

Next Post: Is there a cure for manterruption?

© 2015, Edge International US, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.

Curing Communication Babel, Part II

Posted in Legal Department Management, Legal Project Management


An Only Slightly Disguised True Story


Legal Department Head of Litigation:

“Sam, I swear I’m about to kill you guys, or at least fire you. You keep sending us these urgent demands for decisions and information with totally inadequate lead time. We get settlement requests, notices of hearings, pleadings and documents for review, and requests for interrogatory information with only a couple of days for turnaround.

“Do you have any idea how long it takes to go up and down the decision ladder around here?  You turn every routine communication into a pressure-prompted emergency. We’re sick and tired of getting the bum’s rush.”

Client Relationship Partner [clearly taken aback]:

“Laura, I had no idea we were causing you so much distress, but we will fix this communication problem, like right now. How much time do you need for turnaround?”

Legal Department Head of Litigation:

“For us, it’s usually pretty straightforward, Sam.

For pleadings, we gotta see ‘em 1 week in advance of the filing date.

For reviewing important letters, 1 week in advance of sending.

For settlement authority, we need 2 weeks at our end after we receive your case report, unless it’s a major matter; figure longer—3 weeks — for high-stakes decisions.

We need to see notices of mediation and arbitration at least 30 days in advance of the proceedings date.

For rogs and deps, we need to talk case-by-case, but you have to stop assuming that we all can jump through hoops at the snap of your fingers.  Our clock is not like your clock.”

The moral here is clear:  if the parties had taken the time to discuss communication pathways and timeframes early on, they could have avoided a lot of later pressure, stress and hard feelings in the law firm-client relationship.

Who’s to blame?  Everybody. The partner should have asked. The client should have taken the partner through a communications reality check at the get-go.  But nobody communicated, and now everybody suffers.

And On the Other Hand

Think not that imperious demands are the sole province of law firms marching to the beat of their own communication drums. Recently, a BigLaw partner told us that, “we were in the midst of an incredibly intense period of research and negotiation in a complicated dispute. Everybody on our team was working flat-out.  Out of the blue, the client emails me and says he needs an immediate report on the status of the budget, all WIP, and a forecast for the next 90 days.  For us, we were already stretched and this caused a major fire drill for my team.”

So what was the story here? Was the client just power trippin’ and jerking the law firm’s chain? Not a bit. It turns out that the client law department is required to report quarterly to upper management on all current legal expenses, and to forecast out for the next quarter.

This is a rather common occurrence in many legal departments, but the client had never informed its outside counsel of this recurring internal communications requirement.  The result was that the law firm was neither forewarned nor forearmed, a communications lapse that created real headaches for the firm in the midst of a major piece of litigation.

In Our Last Exciting Episode…

In our last post, we described how poor communication between law firm lawyers and in-house lawyers and general counsel contributes to misunderstandings, dropped balls, inefficiency, unpredictability, acrimony, and a generally adversarial cloud over the law firm-client relationship. Each side blames the other.

But stop: where does blame and shame get us? How does it improve things? How can the players light a collaborative candle rather than continually cursing the darkness? To do this, everybody has to take two basic steps: 1) resolve to communicate better because lousy communication is so costly, even in “minor” matters; and 2) consciously focus on up-front communication planning.

All those loops, all those levels!

As a first step, everyone has to stop being so sloppy when thinking and talking about client-law firm communication.  For example, consider this common phrase, uttered often in the throes of law firm damage control: “We’re gonna have to call the client.”

Hold it: just who is the client? Is the client the business or organization that has engaged the firm?  Is it that company’s CEO or CFO – they certainly call a lot of shots.  Is it a non-lawyer business unit head?  The general counsel?  The senior in-house lawyer handling this kind of matter or serving as liaison on this matter?  A lower-level member of the legal department charged with compiling the information the law firm needs to respond to interrogatories?

When lawyers speak of law firm-client communications, the picture that usually comes to mind has the firm’s client relationship partner exchanging views and information with (fairly rarely) the general counsel or, more often, with some senior level in-house lawyer.

However, as the diagram at the head of this post suggests, there’s a lot of communications pathways both within client and legal department teams and across the wall to the other guys. Just look at all the different types and levels of information flow, at all the people who are involved in decision-making in some way. Yet in the day-to-day pressures of practicing law, little thought is given to the best way to plan, control and conduct communication.  Everyone tends to make assumptions – all too frequently untested assumptions – about other lawyers’ level of understanding, sophistication and authority.  All too frequently, this leads people to overstep, underreport, and head off in the wrong direction.

Da plan, Boss, da plan!

In Legal Project Management (LPM) workshops, we routinely ask how many of the experienced partners in the room have ever prepared even a basic communications plan as part of overall project planning for a major matter.  We know what we are going to see: not a single raised hand.  If we ask how many participants have even seen a communications plan, maybe one or two hands will go up.  They generally describe a communications plan that is triggered by the client, as part of their project management.

If there’s one thing that LPM reveals, it’s that lawyers are loath to plan.  Too time-consuming.  Too…administrative. They prefer a “ready, fire, aim!” approach in which they charge into action, patching up problems and re-jiggering erroneous assumptions down the road.

Although creating detailed communications plans for significant or complex matters – plans that include input from both law firm lawyers and in-house counsel – probably is about as appealing as rubbing ground glass in your eyes, maybe we can cajole you into creating at least a simple template, basic checklist or discussion guide.

How simple?  As simple as practically possible, because complex plans take time both to create and monitor.  And let’s face it: the majority of law firm-client communications do not relate to huge engagements with scores of contributors and boatloads of moving parts.  They involve the simpler, quicker interactions of a couple of lawyers who have worked with each other a lot, know each other well, and have done this sort of thing often before.

Do such workaday communications really warrant protracted scoping and planning?  Obviously not. But even simple communications warrant some basic framing and reality-testing.  Lawyers working in familiar territory are even more prone to making untested assumptions and therefore getting sucker-punched by inarticulate communication than lawyers project-managing sophisticated matters. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say.

For simple communications or complex, the following guidelines will help improve the overall quality of communication.

Try it, you’ll like it

When thinking about who should be in the communications loop and what form of information is appropriate for each stakeholder, non-lawyer project managers often trot out the acronym RACI.  RACI reminds you that frequently a lot of different players want to get their hands on a decision in one way or another.  RACI reminds you to ask four communications framing questions:

  1. Who is responsible for performing the various tasks involved in the matter, and what information does that person need to do the work?
  2. Who is accountable for (i.e., who “owns”) the matter and what type/level of information does that person need to stay on top of things?
  3. Who needs to be consulted before a decision is made or an activity commenced?
  4. Who else needs to be at least informed of where and how things are going?

Regardless of which side of the law firm-client wall you’re on, for complicated multi-party communications, you’ll do well to create some kind of BCP – that’s a “Basic Communication Protocol“ – which may be no more than a set of scribbled notes describing:

  • WHO: The names and titles of everyone who needs to be somewhere in the communications loop (even lower level worker bees).
  • WHY: The reasons and rationales for why each player is communicating with other players.
  • WHAT: The kinds of information that need to be shared, and what kind of response is required.
  • WHEN that information is best shared and when a response is needed.
  • HOW that information is best shared: email? Phone?  Written report? Meeting? (meetings are costly, but they actually go a long way toward minimizing communication babel)

The best way to end-run lawyers’ natural tendency to avoid discord and conflict is to minimize situations that trigger discord and conflict.  And the best way to avoid damage control mode is to think more seriously and respectfully about your modes, methods and style of communication – even for simple matters — at the outset.  A problem averted is not a problem.  Babel be damned.

© 2015, Edge International US, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.

Memo to In-House Counsel: Minimizing Communications Babel, Part I

Posted in Legal Department Management, Legal Project Management

HiResIf it did not depict so much dysfunction, the incessant mud-slinging between in-house counsel and law firm lawyers about abysmal communication would be almost laughable. Instead it reveals a continuing and unresolved component in the law firm-client relationship, a serious and costly barrier to effective collaboration.

Bad Communication:  Who’s to Blame?

For years, every client attitude survey has flagged “poor communication” as the number one gripe in-house counsel have about law firm service delivery.  Over and again, in-house folks report that outside counsel:

  • Are unresponsive
  • Aren’t attuned to client needs and priorities
  • Talk too much and listen too little
  • Communicate only when they want to
  • Focus on narrow legal issues and not broader client business issues
  • Don’t keep the client in the loop about changes in scope and pricing
  • Are slow to report problems, crises and busted budgets
  • Are reluctant to talk about budgets, billing and money in general

But, in-housers, you are not above reproach.  In the course of working for years to help align and untangle communications between in-house lawyers and outside counsel, we’ve heard constant complaints about shortcomings at your end. When the ball is dropped, the message garbled, the instructions vague or the expectations left unarticulated…all too frequently, law firms say, it’s your fault.

Shots to the Jaw

Specifically, here are the shots you frequently take from outside counsel:

  • You’re the ones who are unresponsive. You fail to respond timely to questions, requests for information and documents, and – particularly – demands for important decisions.
  • You’re unclear about how you define value. You’re vague about what goals and outcomes will define success for a particular matter or for you.
  • You don’t put enough time and effort to project scoping.
  • You’re not specific enough about timing, internal calendars, schedules and deadlines, and then you blame us when things aren’t done when you want them.
  • You aren’t particularly helpful when it comes to allocating roles, responsibilities and accountability between in-house lawyers and outside counsel. In addition, roles often seem to  change — without notice — when it comes time for the work to be done, with many tasks suddenly dropping on to our shoulders.
  • There’s a lot of communication Babel on your side of the wall: your legal staff, compliance people, business units and corporate management all weigh in with their own opinions, demands and political agendas. We not sure what or who to listen to.
  • Similarly, your organization’s decision-making loop is unclear and inconsistent. It’s hard for outside counsel to tell how long it will take for a decision to go up and back down the corporate chain of command.
  • You’re both conflict-averse and risk-averse. You often avoid or withdraw from those “hard conversations.” You often pull your punches, mask your impatience, and keep underperformers underinformed.
  • And finally, you often do not specify how you want to be communicated with: in what form, how frequently, about what content, in what detail. We remember the general counsel of a public financial services company once saying, “before you ask me out to lunch, first find out if I take lunch.”

Memo to In-house Counsel

It may surprise you to learn that law firm lawyers do not know that your hair is on fire.  They really don’t understand how busy you are, how many competing demands there are on your time, and they don’t know how often you are forced to communicate on the fly, make snap judgments, defer decisions, delegate and procrastinate.  They brand you as unresponsive because they think in-house life is calm, quiet and manageable, and that it ends each day at 5:00 PM.

As we’ll discuss in our next post, better communication planning is the way to transform the longstanding communication problems into more effective and more efficient communication solutions.

Grubby Money

Meanwhile, we need to reserve a special communication booby prize, on both sides, for discussions involving money – anything relating to rates, costs, pricing, budgets, and problems therewith.  As one lawyer in a Legal Project Management training workshop described many lawyers’ aversion to talking about bucks, “no one wants to talk about grubby money.”

The historical reluctance of outside counsel to talk money matters – rates, prices, costs and budgets – is well-established and frequently criticized.  But at a time when almost every general counsel reports draconian budget pressures and a pressing need to control outside legal spend, it is astonishing how coy in-house counsel can be about their budget expectations and constraints.

Frequently, their vagueness during scoping and pricing negotiations can make money matters sound like a guessing game to outside counsel, communicating, in effect,

I have a figure in mind, but I’m not going to tell you what it is.”

When we asked one assistant general counsel why she was not more candid and straightforward in budgeting discussions, she replied: “Simple.  The person who talks first about money usually loses.”  In other words, communication about money is inherently adversarial.

When a client does not articulate succinct and clear performance standards (including cost expectations), it makes it nearly impossible for outside counsel to monitor and manage matters to meet client expectations.

By way of example, partners often report that clients ask them for budgets, but that no one on the client side seems to care about them once a matter is underway.  They may even be required to update those budgets periodically, but it appears that the client is just ticking off some check-box (“Budget Update:  √”), and does not really care about the accuracy of the information.  What message does that send?

It’s far better, no matter how uncomfortable for the parties, to talk about money as well as about when, how, to whom and what should be communicated during a matter.

In the next post, we will address how to achieve clear communications.


© 2015, Edge International US, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.

Scope-Blindness: Confusing Trees with Forests

Posted in Legal Project Management

tree forest resized (1)

As one of its core principles, Legal Project Management (LPM) emphasizes the need for effective project scoping as a crucial first step for delivering legal services efficiently, predictably, on time and on budget.

Our motto: Effective front-end planning beats damage control any day. Most experienced lawyers tell us they scope engagements quite well. In our experience, many of them don’t.

Hands-on, Perspective Off

In LPM training, for example, we always do a hands-on scoping exercise, a role play using a realistic case hypothetical. Every participant gets the opportunity to propound constructive engagement framing questions to a “General Counsel” we have previously coached and provided a crib sheet describing a variety of germane facts and factors — some legal, some not.

The idea is not just to stick this fact scenario into some traditional category of legal service, but to draw out the strategic and tactical questions that:

  •  Flesh out the client’s business strategy and the interests (and stakeholders) impacted by this matter.
  • Define the stakes and risks in this situation, including whether it is unique and novel or a “commoditized” piece of work similar to prior engagements.
  • Clarify the client’s specific goals, needs and priorities in this matter.

In other words, the exercise emphasizes the importance of developing a big picture business perspective before diving in to legalistic minutiae. In workshop after workshop, however, the lawyers do what lawyers always do: they immediately start practicing law. Ignoring the fact that the LPM workshop is process training, they fly by the big framing questions – even many of the questions most important to the client – and dive headlong into a thicket of the case study’s legal details. After the participants have exhausted their scoping questions, we ask our shill General Counsel, “Is there anything these lawyers should have asked but didn’t ask?” The answer is invariably yes, the scoping efforts had left important facts undiscovered and fundamental questions unasked and unanswered.

Good at Trees, Bad at Forest

 Even when shown a rigorous method for eliciting deeper and better information about their clients’ needs and perspectives, many experienced lawyers retain significant blind spots about their scoping skills. Despite getting a clear signal from “the client” that the scopers dropped the ball, when at the end of the exercise we ask the participants to grade themselves on the quality of their scoping, they tend to give themselves uniformly high marks. In fact, they often suggest that they would like the LPM workshop to move on to more “substantive topics,” because, well, they already know how to talk to clients about new matters.

In this exercise, as well as in numerous scoping discussions we have facilitated in real life, undeniably brilliant lawyers often fail to address critical business issues and thus can neither articulate a rigorous engagement action plan nor outline realistic pricing parameters. This leaves client in the dark. It also leave the lawyers to their most beloved modus operandi: punch that ol’ billing clock, dive in, focus on the details, practice law, and see where fate and momentum take things.

Clients remain astonished by how haphazardly lawyers inquire about which “critical success factors” matter to their them and by how deaf they often are to clients’ answers. Instead, they make untested assumptions, they talk before they listen, they interrupt constantly, and they focus resolutely on The Small Picture.

Yeah, I’m Unhappy

 Subpar scoping is cited frequently by clients in what might well be described as “client dissatisfaction surveys.” Here are some real-life comments:

  •  “The firm just did not understand our goals, timeframes or budget constraints.”
  • “They kept pitching what they wanted to do, not what we needed.”
  • “We are demanding that huge amounts of time be written off because the firm spent too much time on routine matters, used the wrong level of timekeepers, constantly reinvented the wheel, and performed a lot of unnecessary activity.”
  • “All too often, outside counsel both treat unique cases as if they are routine and routine cases as if they are unique.”
  • “Poor scoping leads to scope creep. It’s not our fault if project scope is not spelled out in detail in the first place, but we are expected to pay the bill without complaint.”
  • “Law firm lawyers have been trained to, and rewarded for, looking at the trees. They should spend more time showing us that they can see the forest.”


© 2015, Edge International US, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.

The Human Barrier to LPM Technology: Will Lawyers Get to the Future?

Posted in Legal Project Management, Legal Project Management tools

iStock_000047970864Medium (2)

We have just returned from the World Masters of Law Firm Management Conference in Sydney, Australia, where we had the opportunity to compare notes with a lot of folks deeply invested — literally and figuratively – in the future of legal technology. By and large, we agree that when it comes to Legal Project Management (LPM), the platforms, tools, templates and technology are evolving at the speed of…frustration.

Law firm and law department IT heads and CTOs (Chief Technology Officers) are pained to admit this, but somewhere out back behind every one of their workshops is a pile of magnificent junk – prototypes of self-populating dashboards, first generation automated Gantt charts, comprehensive budget and pricing tools, automated process flow chart generators and even entire LPM suites that are elegant, efficient, elaborate, and exhaustive. Yet they have either been consigned to oblivion or doomed to chronic non-use.

Golly, That Sounds Swell!

Some of these “failures” are awe-inspiring in their capability and complexity: they see all, do all, tell all. When demonstrated to a receptive executive committee by an IT-savvy stunt pilot, they can awe the audience with their acrobatics, sophistication, versatility, comprehensive metrics, and ability to support efficient legal services. The sales pitches are compelling: once implemented throughout the firm, these tools can reshape – even revolutionize — the way lawyers, at all levels and in all disciplines, practice law day to day. These systems will pay for themselves in increased productivity and efficiency in no time!

Only frequently they won’t. Because the people who are supposed to use them…won’t. The record is clear and discouraging: many of the lawyers who need to use these tools – adopt them, learn them, and master them…simply won’t. They may attend the mandated training sessions, tolerate the installation of the new software on their computers and smart phones, even pay lip service to the need for better tools for logging their hours, prioritizing their tasks, managing their work, and sharing crucial information with colleagues. But then they avoid using these super-tools as if touching their firms’ new technologies exposes them to the Ebola virus.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

This resistance occurs not because the current generation of tools and software is too simple, accomplishes too little, or doesn’t work. On the contrary, many failed law firm technology launches (and yes, there have been a bunch of expensive disappointments) stem from the fact that the technology is too much. Like the deeply-troubled F-35 fighter prototype that is supposed to do everything (win dogfights, drop bombs, shoot recon photos, take off vertically, serve military branches that have distinctly different needs), much current legal technology is disdained by lawyers because it has too many bells and whistles, takes too long to learn and is seen as too hard to use. Their gripes focus on utility and usability.

Experts Rejecting Experts?

In one sense, this gulf between the firm’s lawyers and its IT people is ironic: in some ways lawyers and IT experts are similar animals, and one might expect more mutual respect from people whose roles are predicated on mastery of various types of subject-matter expertise and who all supposedly are concerned with optimizing the performance of the firm.

Actually, there may be a strain of the “not-invented-here” syndrome at play here. Many lawyers tell us that efforts to superimpose – indeed, to press-fit — work process software upon their professional wisdom and legal judgment is kind of insulting. “Those people don’t really understand what we do,” they say. “They want to digitize and commoditize and quantify everything.”

This tension between technologists and end-users might seem a little like a Dilbert cartoon if the stakes were not so high. The evolution of LPM and process improvement tools has developed due to the inexorable client-driven economic pressures. Management and IT committees that buy into expensive software “solutions” have valid and substantial concerns about what efficiency-enhancing measures are necessary to keep their firms competitive.

What Will It Take?

What will it take to get the firm’s practicing attorneys to get on board, adopt new technologies, and ultimately build them into their fabric of their legal work? The most common answer we hear is “greater user-friendliness.” But what does that really mean? What will that look like in real life? A flatter learning curve before one becomes proficient? Faster modes of either entering or extracting information? Technology that “speaks legal” rather than cascading menu IT-speak?

Several years ago we saw a demo of a first-generation self-populating dashboard that integrated information about the full spectrum of LPM variables: who the client was, what the matter was, what work had been scoped, the members of the project team (and their billing rates), prioritized phases and tasks, budget plans and budget-to-actual metrics, overall progress against plan. We thought it looked wonderful. Six months later we saw the dashboard’s architect, and he said that when beta-tested, the dashboard had been criticized as too complicated and too time-consuming to use. His second, far more simplified iteration also was vetoed by a panel of the firm’s practicing lawyers. As was the third another six months later.

Finally, he sought out the most sympathetic member of the technology review committee and asked, “what is it going to take to get these people to use this tool?” The man paused. “I could say that what’s needed is a simple point-and-click interface, but even that’s probably too much tech-speak. What our lawyers tell me is that the whole thing has to be really simple and really intuitive to use. One keystroke, maximum two. Anything more than that, and you’ve lost them.”


© 2015, Edge International US, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.

LPM for Associates: The View from Ground Level

Posted in Legal Project Management

We’ve all heard the time-worn joke that associates share with each other: We’re just like mushrooms — kept in the dark and buried in…fertilizer.

To reality-test whether today’s associates really see their work that way, we recently  conducted several Legal Project Management and collaboration skills training workshops targeted specifically to associates. This was a novel approach, because most LPM training focuses heavily on the roles and responsibilities of partner-level participants: client-relationship partners, project managers, practice group leaders, client team leaders, etc. By and large, we’ve found that associates attending mixed-level LPM skill-building tend to be pretty cautious and reserved, speaking only when spoken to and contributing only when cajoled to do so. We wanted to walk a mile in their shoes.

Different Folks, Different Strokes

In training with senior-level lawyers, we typically define LPM as:

A systematic approach for efficiently scoping, planning, managing and controlling legal work within agreed time, budget and mandatory performance requirements.

This entirely accurate but rather abstract definition doesn’t say anything about how things look to a living, breathing associate. For the people who actually perform much of the heavy lifting, a better LPM definition might be:

LPM is an approach to assigning me tasks, delegating responsibility to me, managing my work, giving me reliable feedback, and planning team communication,  that:

 a)    Connects me with the whole team and loops me into the whole engagement.

b)    Diminishes the differences among how various partners do things (and want me to do things).

c)    Provides me with a clear sense of what I’m supposed to do and when I’m supposed to do it.

d)    Helps me keep my work on time and on budget.

e)    Seeks my input about better ways of doing things, as well as identifying barriers, bottlenecks, and budget-busters.

Six Easy Pieces

The associate-specific workshops produced some solid learning moments, all relevant to project managers who are selecting teams, assigning tasks and supervising work done by more junior lawyers or performers. Here are six particularly notable insights:

  1.  360° Perspective: Associates resent the hub-and-spokes approach that characterizes so many partners’ management style – the one where the partner at the hub knows and controls everything and none of the team members sees the big picture, knows the overall project budget, or collaborates with all the other worker bees out there on the rim. Associates want the big picture, not just the micro view; they say they feel more involved in projects where the strategic objectives are explained and more committed to projects whose sweep and scope they understand,
  2.  Do It My Way: A corollary to the inefficient and non-communicative hub-and-spokes management style is the need for every partner to have things done in his or her own unique way.  In the workshops, associates reported frequent false starts, do-overs, write-downs and dressing-downs resulting from a lack of consistency in how their work is assigned, managed and measured.  They loved the uniformity (of even some of the basic steps) that LPM can offer.
  3. Basic LPM Education: Associates really liked LPM training that demonstrated the basic LPM building blocks [scoping, project planning, managing work, monitoring/measuring progress, and post project review], but that looked at these functions from the associates’ perspective. In the workshops, associates were taught that they were not just passive performers, but that they bear “contributory responsibility” for making sure they fully understand their assignments, are receiving objective and timely feedback, and can manage their own work effectively. In short, associates learned that they too have to communicate better and collaborate more.
  4. You’re Never Too Junior to Think About the Client: For many junior-level mushrooms and worker bees, the “client” is a distant abstraction.  Associates are taught that they are not responsible for understanding the client’s business, needs and priorities, that client relationships live out there in partner country. This perspective is profoundly misguided, and associates report a real hunger for information about all aspects of the law firm-client relationship.  Client-centric thinking is the wave of law’s future; it cannot be introduced too soon.
  5. Early Warning System: Similarly, as ground-level performers, associates are often the first to see early signs of scope creep, redundant assignments, work process inefficiencies, communication babel, performance bottlenecks, road blocks, or other budget-busters. Associates suggested that the main reason their uniquely pragmatic insights are not appreciated is because they are seldom sought: “We see things that more senior lawyers don’t see, but no one ever asks us — or wants to know — how things look from our end.”
  6. Proactive Perspective: The associates’ performance in the workshops showed that if given the opportunity, they are energetic, highly-motivated  can-do kids.  Unfettered by slavish adherence to traditional thinking, they are stimulated by change, innovate more readily than their elders, think more comfortably outside the box, and embrace rather than resist technology.  For them, law’s “New Normal” is a fascinating new challenge, rather than a mine field.

Let Me In, Coach

Motivational consultants often cite two basic axioms: 1) participation fosters engagement, and, conversely, that engagement fosters participation; and 2) motivation does indeed correlate with work quality.

Yet partners seldom ask associates for their perspectives and suggestions, defaulting to the “when-I-want-your-opinion-I’ll-give-it-to-you” style. Imagine, then, how gratified we were to receive the following email following one of the associates’ workshops:

As a younger associate, I thought the training today was great – an informative, helpful and in-depth overview of practice management that will help me for a long time to come. I especially enjoyed the overview of practice management from both the partners’ and clients’ perspectives. This will help me think of ways to add value to my case team, as well as during client development – for current clients and for my own business development down the line. Thanks for the engaging and thoughtful time!


© 2015, Edge International US, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.

The LPM Maturity Model: 5 Steps for Transforming into a Client Focused Business

Posted in Legal Project Management, Legal Project Management tools

In this guest post, we are pleased to have Keith Lipman, Esq., President and Founder of Prosperoware, share his practical insights about implementing Legal Project Management.

Unless you are deaf to the present realities in today’s legal marketplace, you now hear the persistent drumbeat of client-focused legal service delivery: a persistent rhythm driving you toward Legal Project Management (LPM). Clients are insisting that firms price and deliver services that fit their tolerance for risk, produce excellent results and keep the work within budget — all in the most efficient manner.

Maybe you’re ready to dance to the beat — you accept that LPM is critical to the future of your law firm — but you don’t know where to start or how far to go.

The challenge to adopting LPM and its first cousin, Legal Process Improvement (LPI) is further complicated by inherent differences among your firm’s practice areas.  Some will require a serious foray into LPM and LPI, others much less so. The depth of your immersion will depend on the amount of client pricing pressure being applied in each practice area.

Fee Pressure Territory

Why does pricing pressure exist for one practice group and not another? The reason has less to do with the type of service being delivered than with the client’s experience in purchasing a particular service. When clients buy the same kind of service over and again, they learn empirically how much a given matter should cost and how much effort (that is, billable time) it should take.

For example, for years, employment law practice and patent prosecution groups  have faced client pressure for lower fees. As that pressure continues to mount, these practice disciplines will be forced to adopt effective project management (i.e., LPM and LPI) principles.   The reason that employment and patent prosecution groups experience such pressure is that most clients have been purchasing the same services year after year, and they have become savvy shoppers.

Merger and acquisition (M&A) work has received less pressure across the industry.  However, there are some large technology companies that have been making 30 to 60 acquisitions per year.  These tech companies have gained tremendous experience purchasing M&A work and are applying significantly more pricing pressure than a client who makes an occasional acquisition.

A client who has less experience in purchasing a particular service may use RFPs to get competitive quotes (no different than getting multiple quotes to remodel a kitchen) or develop an historical database to get better pricing intelligence.

A Framework for Changing Gears

Making the transition to a state where a practice area consistently and effectively uses project management and process improvement is not something that happens overnight. It is simply too large of a cultural shift. Firms need to understand that lawyers need to make incremental steps to reach the ultimate full and complete LPM adopion.  The following LPM maturity model provides a framework to work with your individual practice group and help you to think through the transition.

Step 1: Budget & Monitor at the Matter Level

Understand Effort-to-Cost.  Do you really know what your work costs to perform? With the billing process traditionally occurring weeks after the work has been performed, there can be a huge disconnect between the effort and cost.  A timekeeper may have spent scores or even hundreds of hours on activity that adds no value to the matter and must be written off.  The effort of building even simple budgets and then monitoring “budget-to-actual” will help billing lawyers develop greater familiarity with costs and the effort required for certain work.  Constant monitoring also gives lawyers the opportunity to stop duplicative work or tasks that the client considers of little value.

Budget 101

For many lawyers, creating even a simple budget can be intimidating.  A useful starting place is with the amount the client is willing to pay for the matter.  The budget is then built by identifying the people or timekeeper classes who will work on the matter.  Based on these inputs, the number of hours can be calculated.  If a lawyer believes that too few hours have been allocated, he or she can:

  • Change the resources to cheaper ones ( e.g. 5th-year to 3rd-year associates) who can bill more hours to cover the same ground;
  • Make the decision that a certain number of hours need to be written off;
  • Discount the billing rate; or
  • Increase the amount of time to be spent on the task.

Another option is to build budget from the bottom up, using hours and resources.  This is a more daunting task for many.

Once a budget is established, the lawyers working on the matter should be sent at least weekly reports that indicate their progress against the budget.

Key Performance Indicators

With either approach, the goal is to get lawyers to quickly begin to look at matters through key performance indicators (KPIs).  The minimum set of KPIs at a matter level should focus on leverage (e.g. non-partner hours versus partner hours) and realization (achieved or target revenue ÷ hours at current rate).  Ideally, the lawyer managing an engagement should also look at matter profitability (cost per hour ÷ revenue per hour).  Matter profitability provides a more accurate representation of the profit achieved from a matter.  Looking only at realization can be very misleading.  In fact, a matter where the realization is low but the leverage is high will likely be quite profitable.

Step 2: Service Deliveries & Phase Development

Going Deeper for Monitoring and Pricing. This challenge of breaking down your processes into matter types and phases is the most important step in your LPM journey.  The goal is to have more granular budget and monitoring while enabling the firm to leverage past experience for pricing future matters. The two critical tasks are defining the services the firm delivers (mergers & acquisitions, etc.) and then defining the discrete phases that occur within each of these matter types.

Are Your Data Clean?

Developing clean data is the key to coming up with metrics that will guide your decisions moving forward, so it is important to get this part right. In describing its deliverables, the firm should look at using a couple of different fields to describe a matter.

The first is matter type (typically litigation, transaction, advisory, and regulatory). The second is area of law which describes the subject matter (employment, finance, etc.). The matter sub-type is the actual service delivery or what service is the client purchasing from the firms (employment discrimination litigation). The final field should be a tag field that describes the unique elements of the particular matter (age, sex, timely filing).  The advantage of this model is that you can start benchmarking shared phases between the matter types.

Step 3: Monitor & Identify Obvious Inefficiencies

Paying attention pays off. It is amazing what you find out when you really start looking at who is performing work on matters. From the “stupid stuff” or low-hanging fruit – is it really cost-effective to have a partner schedule that deposition instead of a secretary? – to the more complex issues that drive up the cost of a matter, simply tracking and monitoring will reveal a wealth of information.

What are some complex factors that can drive up the cost of a matter? Here’s just a couple:

  • Partner expansion – A partner is asked to handle a small item for a case and it gets expanded far beyond the scope originally contemplated,  a “creep” that often goes unnoticed until all the hours are entered and the matter is found to be over budget.
  • Bad delegation and failure to assign or explain a task properly – When a task is misunderstood and carried out incorrectly, it can lead to expensive re-work.

The process of budgeting and monitoring builds a learning loop that starts creating a linkage between the task and the effort.  Through the process of bringing the lawyers closer to the data, they will learn more about the true effort of the work, which positions them for the next step.

Step 4: Identify Common Tasks Across Matter Types & Build a Budget Using Tasks

Standardize your verbs. Across different types of matters we see a host of repetitive “verbs” or tasks. Regardless of the type of matter you’re working on, the process you follow to answer a complaint, for example, should always be the same. You follow the same steps when it is time to take a deposition.

Once you have identified the steps in the task, the next step is defining the base amount of work.  In the “take deposition” example, you would want to determine the base length of the deposition that you want to take (e.g. one-hour deposition testimony) and the increment (e.g. each additional hour of deposition).  In order to take a one-hour deposition, what would be the amount of time spent in preparing for it and who would be doing the work (e.g. 3rd year, 4th year, partner, etc.)? Once you have defined the base amount work, you need to determine how much more work would be required for the increment (each additional hour of deposition testimony).

Once you identify these common tasks, you can easily build a matter budget from the bottom up. The work of defining the tasks for different matter type and sub-types is an advanced task. The investment in developing these tasks can be significant.  However, the payoff is more effective budgets based on more detailed matter planning.  How fast a particular practice area embraces this approach will be depend a whole lot on pricing pressure: as a matter of human nature, more pressure = faster trip up the learning curve. Once this step has been taken, matters can be managed to a checklist.

 Step 5:  Manage Matters With Checklists

Build a Plan. Deliver to Plan. This is the sweet spot in your LPM process. You know what your work costs to perform. You have broken down the phases and tasks. You have weeded out the obvious inefficiencies and built templates that allow you to craft a matter budget in a snap.  The next step is to develop task templates to actually drive the work process.  The team will now work from a checklist of tasks and activities.  This presents full visibility of the expectation of time for a particular activity and drives rapid understanding when there is a mismatch between the allotted time a for a task and the actual work.  There is now a greater visibility as to the current status of the matter by simply reviewing the checklist.

This level of detail now gives the practice area the ability to truly hone and improve its processes to gain greater and more consistent efficiency.  For most firms, the evolution to this stage of maturity will be a multi-year process. However, LPM and LPI experience clearly show that the benefits of this effort will result in true competitive advantage.

To contact Keith Lipman:

© 2014, Edge International US, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.


Taking the Plunge: Do You Want to Be Managing Partner?

Posted in Law firm practices

UPDATE: This article won the BigLaw Pick of the Week award!

So you’re thinking about diving into the election for Managing Partner, eh?





You think your chances are good: you enjoy the respect of your partners, your business judgment is on a par with your legal judgment, and during your term on the Executive Committee, you came up with strategies that helped the firm navigate some rocky shoals and weather some serious storms. You’re seen as a problem-solver who can think outside the box and eschew tradition when necessary to respond to change.

Yet some close friends, your significant other and probably your family are asking, “Why in the world would you want to do that?” What will be the rewards and satisfactions of trying to herd a bunch of self-interested cats fiercely protective of their turf? Why would you back away from, or at least throttle back on, a thriving practice with some solid client relationships? How big a kick in the butt will your take-home pay take, given your firm’s history of undervaluing and undercompensating its leaders? And after your leadership tenure, how hard will it be to ramp your practice back up to the point where it can fund your Gold Years? Why invite frustration and pain?

Push the Pause Button

Before you throw your hat into the firm’s MP selection process, now is the time to pause and reflect on your motivations and incentives for what is bound to be a significant shift in role, responsibility, stature, and quality of life for at least a few years.

First of all, do not fall victim to all the vague reasons people often cite for deciding to become Managing Partner:

  • Larry asked me and I said yes.
  • It seemed like the thing to do at the time.
  • This would represent a triumph in the firm’s internecine power struggles.
  • We sort of rotate the MP role, and now it’s my turn.
  • I’m a little bored with my practice, so this might be an interesting change of scene for awhile.
  • It’s the next logical step up the high-achievers’ career ladder.
  • No one else wants to do it.

Leadership and Management

Although the position carries the title of Managing Partner, to a significant degree it is in fact a leadership role. What’s the difference?  In a nutshell, management is exercising influence and control over present activity and near-term objectives. Management focuses on maximizing here-and-now performance variables and overseeing performers engaged in current activity. It’s about implementation.

Leadership, on the other hand, is resolutely future-oriented: it’s based on the premise that the present is never good enough and that the highest priority should be to guide the troops toward some improved future state. Leadership is about shaping and communicating vision.

Are You a Natural?

Research by Marcus Buckingham has suggested that while there are great natural leaders and great natural managers, very few people are both. Lest you aspire to a position for which you are not well-suited, now is a good time to ask yourself some hard questions about your leadership aptitudes and motivations.

In a landmark piece of social research some years back, emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman identified six predominant patterns in which people exercise influence over others. Two could be characterized as leadership styles:

  • Visionary: “Follow me, I will show the path to the promised land.”
  • Democratic/Participative: “Tell me what you think, and I’ll tell you what I think. Communication is king. Everyone has a voice.”

 The other four really are management styles:

  • Command and Control/Coercive: “I have formal authority.  Do what I tell you.”
  • Charismatic/Affiliative: “People come first. I inspire the devotion of people by caring about them.”
  • Coaching:Let me give you everything you need to perform at your best.”
  • Exemplar: “Want to see it done right?  Just watch me.  I’m the expert.”

Among lawyers, the exemplar style is most common, because lawyers are trained to be subject-matter experts who command respect by the display of their expertise. It is noteworthy that Goleman’s research showed that this style has the most negative impact on organizational culture and morale because the exemplar tends to remain so distant from the troops. In short, if you are naturally a “be reasonable, do it my way” kind of manager, you should think twice about that run for Managing Partner.

An important finding in Goleman’s research belabors the obvious: one size does not fit all. Different settings and challenges call for different styles of leadership, as well as the ability to adjust one’s style as needed.  Unfortunately, most of us have a tendency to default to a single, most-comfortable style, which implies that there are likely to be some situations where we are out of our element.

Some Serious Navel-Staring

The best way to reality-test your leadership mettle is not simply to try to catalog a bunch of abstract leadership qualities (e.g., vision, ability to inspire others, resiliency, etc.). Instead, try to construct a vivid template of what your leadership capabilities are likely to look like in action as translated into the Managing Partner position — in your firm under present circumstances.

You can do this by answering the following ten questions (and it helps to write your answers down, so that moments of fleeting insight or inspiration don’t escape working memory):

 If I realize my full potential as a Managing Partner…

1.    What will I be leading or managing?

  • A respected firm trying to preserve market share and status?
  • A firm committed to changing its brand and market identity?
  • A growth-driven firm undertaking geographic expansion and practice diversification?
  • A powerful cohesive culture marked by share goals, values and norms?
  • A firm in distress or caught in the cross-hairs of change?
  • A Swiss verein assemblage of basically autonomous entities?

2.    Whom will I lead? Who are my most important constituents?

  • External constituents – like maybe clients, or perhaps the firm’s banks?
  • The established power elite of the firm?
  • The heavy-hitting rainmakers and business developers?
  • Office managing partners, practice group leaders and/or client team leaders?
  • Equity partners eager for increased PPEP?
  • The successor generation hungry to ascend to power and control?
  • Directors of your administrative and operational infrastructure?
  • The soup-to-nuts rank and file performers central to legal service delivery?

3.    What will be the source of my leadership authority or clout?

  • The powers of your office and title?
  • A power base of influential partners?
  • My “ownership” of powerful clients and relationships?
  • My proven strategic and tactical vision?
  • My thought leadership and powers of rational persuasions?
  • Moral or ethical leadership?
  • My legal experience or subject matter expertise?
  • My charisma, personality, personal charm or irrational attractiveness?
  • My interpersonal and collaboration skills and ability to build trust and support?
  • My political savvy?
  • My ability to keep my head when those about me are losing theirs?
  • Other: _____________________________?

4.    What will be the effect, result or benefit of my leadership excellence?

  • Clear strategic direction for my firm, coupled with effective tactical implementation?
  • Acquisitions, affiliations, mergers or other forms of non-organic growth?
  • More effective organization, structure, policies, procedures, methods and standards?
  • Financial stability and sustainable profitability?
  • Resolution of short-term crises or threats to firm viability?
  • An improved firm reputation for exceptional innovation and creativity?
  • Exponentially strengthened client relationships?
  • Enhancement of your personal reputation and/or power?
  • Creating a platform from which to leverage personal wealth in the long term?
  • Other: _______________________

 5.    What form or style will my leadership take?

  • The inspired and inspiring visionary?
  • The break-the-mold change catalyst?
  • The general commanding the troops?
  • The financial wizard and nuts-and-bolts attender to detail?
  • The great communicator and bridge-builder?
  • The dearly-beloved team builder?
  • The transformative implementer of technology and innovation?
  • The talent recognizer and talent builder?
  • Other: ____________________________

6.    What 3 strengths, abilities, or “differentiators” will be most instrumental in my leadership success?

7.    How will others characterize my leadership?  What will they say about me?

 8.    What personal  rewards and satisfactions will enjoy, near-term and long term?

 9.    What kind of learning, training, support, resources or mentoring will I need to realize my full potential and overcome barriers?

Important Bonus Question

As you contemplate firm leadership, you may have a tendency toward first-things-first: getting elected, buying new furniture for your office, establishing your management/ leadership team, laying the foundations for your span of control.  At this point, it may be hard to envision the future, especially the long-term consequences of your leadership tenure.  However, in order to chart all the coordinates of your motivational map, now is the time to stop and ask yourself a final, utterly essential question: At the end of my day, what will be my legacy?  What will I be known for? How will firm history record my stewardship? What foundations or edifices will we have erected?

And finally, but for me, what would have happened?


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