At The
Intersection

Where General Counsel and Law Firms Connect

Breakthrough at Linklaters: A Major Strategic Pivot Point

Posted in Law Firm Profits

 

“We must, indeed, all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

                                                                Benjamin Franklin

Historically, few law firms have actively embraced Franklin’s formula for survival and success.  They paved the road to profitability by aggregating the revenue-producing activity of individuals lawyers, each operating as a discrete profit center and each driven to leverage personal achievement to maximize income.  By and large, interdependence has neither been much valued nor highly rewarded.  Younger lawyers are encouraged to become powerful rainmakers more than collaborative team players.  Legal service delivery remains locked in silos, and profitable firms are largely an assemblage of independently-profitable profit centers.

Win Some, Lose a Lot

This economic model has long economic legs, particularly when supercharged by scale effects in BigLaw firms that can afford to support scores of diverse practice groups.   But it creates no incentive to collaborate with other firm lawyers, spread legal talent across practice areas, leverage tightly-focused client relationships into a broader base of services and contributors, or develop the visibility and credibility of lawyers other than primary relationship partners.

Not So Super Market

We dined recently with the managing partner of a US AmLaw 200 firm who lamented his firm’s inability to get its strongest horses to pull in unison.  “We fight a constant war with our big hitters who just want to fish in their own pond and eat what they catch.  They will not cross-sell colleagues’ capabilities, they refuse to join in joint marketing efforts, and they will not provide access to their ‘private’ clients on behalf of partners who have distinctly different services to sell.  It’s like asking the store employee in your supermarket’s produce section where the fresh fish are and having him say, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you.’”

Entrenched Silos, Impatient Clients

The managing partner also complained of inefficiencies in leveraging legal talent. “As head of their closed fiefdoms, these big dogs may keep lots of worker bees busy – and of course that’s good – but this siloing also keeps those worker bees captive and unable to cross lines to support other practice disciplines.  At least in our shop, it’s a self-reinforcing culture, and its proponents are very resistant to change.”

Moreover, firms’ tolerance for large tracts of personal turf, internecine competition and personal “ownership” of high-buck clients has long annoyed the hell out of many clients who are put off by the lousy communication and limited collaboration caused by law firm politics.  They are concerned with their own legal needs, not with firms’ profits-per-partner.  Firms may not really like cross-selling and positioning the firm as broadly as possible, but clients tell us they welcome it and are surprised even top-drawer firms do such a poor job at it.

They Did What?

Now, a major change may be afoot, led by a bellwether event that could be a harbinger of cultural and operational shifts to come.  In a major strategy shift, Magic Circle member Linklaters, the 10th largest law firm in the world with annual revenues of over $2 billion, recently announced that it is phasing out individual partner metrics and annual assessments, and that it will henceforth focus on broader measures of team and firm performance.  Presumably they did not do this simply to foster a warm and affiliative team culture, but rather to respond better to client needs and, not incidentally, make a lot more money.

Let’s be clear: we think this is a huge — and courageous — development, a seismic, fist-pumping vindication for all of us who for years have been urging the global legal profession to see service delivery through client eyes, to foster team collaboration and improved law firm-client communication as fundamental operative priorities.

It’s important to emphasize that Linklater’s decision is not to eschew performance metrics altogether and default to subjective judgments – whether the firm’s or the clients — about partner performance and legal value added.  Indeed, we can applaud Linklaters’ decision and still cling to one of our most fundamental legal service axioms: If it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed.

What Linklaters is saying, bless their hearts, is that in the current legal competitive environment, most law firms are using the wrong metrics, thereby creating greater incentives for individual lawyer self-interest than for client satisfaction or the sustenance of collaborative law firm-client relationships.

Client-Centric Strategy that Goes Beyond Numbers

Linklaters’ former chief, Tony Angel, was a highly-respected numbers guy: under his leadership, revenue-related metrics were translated into numbers-driven assessment.  When introduced, Angel’s pioneering use of metrics was highly influential in the legal market worldwide, so obviously Linklaters did not make this seismic cultural shift away from individual partner numbers lightly.

But Angel’s approach had led to concerns that this approach to partner assessment was leading partners to game the metrics and focus on narrow origination and utilization benchmarks rather than broader business and client satisfaction goals.

The Big Picture, The Entrepreneurial Edge

Gideon Moore, Firmwide Managing Partner

To foster a more entrepreneurial firm culture, Angel’s successor, Gideon Moore, wanted to give greater weight to other dimensions of partner performance, including client development & relations, developing younger lawyers, collaborative team participation, and innovation.  Linklaters’ leadership concluded that this fundamental paradigm – and cultural — shift in assessment would allow the firm to focus more explicitly on cooperation, strategic practice development, and even its strengths as a lockstep-based firm that did not encourage its lawyers to claw and climb over one another.  Moore said, “We won’t have individual partner billings and other measures, but we are looking at other things such as client successes, regional and global practice performance…With individual metrics, people would be less likely to feel that their indirect contribution was appreciated.  We think this approach gives partnership back to the partners.”

A Linklaters spokesman said, “Our desire is to be an even more entrepreneurial firm, with teams and practices motivated and encouraged to present Linklaters’ whole offering to clients.  Removing the focus from individual partner metrics and placing it on the total value partners contribute, directly and indirectly, will significantly increase our ability to be agile, whilst giving clients confidence they are receiving the highest level of service.”

That roar you hear in the background is the many hands of clients applauding (in fact, the Firm surveyed over 100 clients before making the change).  Can it be that the time of the client-centric law firm is really upon us?  And that deeper rumble you hear is a shifting of law’s deeper tectonic plates, as the profession’s historical resistance to change and emphasis on individual achievement butts up against new cultural norms that see law firms as business partners supporting a broad range of client needs, rather than simply as providers of technical expertise and knowledge.

From our end, we hope Linklaters’ bold initiative takes hold, gains momentum and forms a contemporary template for measuring partner contributions and performance.  As the old saying goes, “What’s the difference between a fad and a trend?  Simple: trends matter.”

©2017 Legal Leadership LLC. All Rights Reserved

Where the Buck Stopped: Comments on a Unique Triumph

Posted in Law firm practices

“Stucco!”

When I was a kid, that’s what the surprise victor would yell when the worm turned and the underdog triumphed over long odds and greater forces. It was a corruption of “stuck it to you!”

And so to female senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins (and also, for the purposes of this post, to Honorary Female John McCain), we shout out a hearty “Stucco, Ladies, Stucco!”

Regardless of one’s particular political leanings, the steadfast refusal of these senators to buckle under to unrelenting pressure and belligerent bullying has resulted in one of the most striking political upsets of our time (and a lot of overconfident pols are indeed pretty upset), one that subordinated political expediency and preserved the healthcare coverage of millions and millions of Americans.  In our view, here was a triumph of courage, integrity, common sense – and perhaps most importantly, compassion.

Is it a coincidence that the successful resisters were female?  We don’t think so, and we also think there is a lesson here for female lawyers, who have long known that they have to work twice as hard to get half as far, who daily still have to scrabble at the edges of The Men’s Club, who are marginalized at every turn.

The Shaft

Only this week, a new article came out with old news: women are getting screwed, figuratively speaking, by the legal profession. Although over 50% of current law school graduates are women, females make up under 35% of lawyers in law firms and about 20% of equity partners.

As Elizabeth Olson wrote in The New York Times, “even as more women add a law degree to their resumes, carving out a successful career at a law firm remains an uphill endeavor.”  As the 2017 Law 360 Glass Ceiling Report documents that in the legal profession, “progress by women is, at best, static.”  As Ann Urda, the Law360 Editor in Chief put it, “it’s a bleak picture, with a few bright spots.”

Despite numerous women lawyers initiatives, programs and conferences, female lawyers remain boxed in lower-ranking and lesser paying jobs, which, by the way, has triggered a rise in gender bias law suits against law firms (most recently against Chadbourne & Park, Proskauer Rose, LeClair Ryan and Sedgwick).

What’s the Point?

As we contemplate redress for this shameful and economically indefensible state of affairs, we must ask, “so what’s so special about female lawyers that their plight should be acknowledged and made the focus of a crusade for parity?” Is giving women lawyers a better break simply a matter of charity or pity?

We certainly think not.  Having worked with thousands of lawyers of various genders, we are comfortable making a relevant sweeping generalization: women collaborate better.

In a profession where intense competition (and competitiveness) promotes self-interest, aggression, and various types of covert and overt bullying, women’s tendency toward finding common interests and common ground often leads to better legal outcomes. This is particularly evident in those areas where the role of law and lawyers is in helping to build things, promote contracts and  agreements, and advance some ball or another, rather than parceling out blame for catastrophes that have already occurred.

The Future Tense

It is a most noteworthy trend that a dramatically increasing number of General Counsel are women. And we can report that they are demanding a more collaborative and more efficient approach to legal service delivery.  Is their emergence solely a result of organizational political perseverance or perhaps greater legal technical expertise? Not in our experience: our consulting work with scores of power figures on the client side shows that added leverage and better outcomes come through building bridges rather than fighting wars or indulging in perpetual arm-wrestling.  Moreover, the purchasers of legal services on the client side are imposing a constructive mandate (and often getting intense push-back) on the outside counsel: Work with us, not just for us.

Final Note and Bottom Line

We believe that the health care bill vote represents a triumph of another characteristic, another priority that warrants better expression in the legal profession: compassion.  We are aware that the very word makes a lot of testosterone-driven lawyers retch, but the fact remains that law is supposed to be a human endeavor charged with promoting human values, as well as corporate profitability and law firm profits per partner.  We do not blush when we say that part of lawyers’ responsibilities should be to give a damn about other people, to equalize opportunity, combat tyranny, and resist buckling under to the bullying of the powerful.

And so we say to Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, as well as to John McCain, whose confrontation with mortality seems to have only sharpened his long-recognized integrity, “Stucco!  You have done yourselves proud, you have preserved the integrity of the Senate, and you have created a model for rational, common-sense behavior. Now let’s all work harder to get Alice out of Wonderland.”

©2017 Legal Leadership LLC. All Rights Reserved

Lawyers Are Ignoring a Vital Business Development Tool

Posted in Business Development, Legal Project Management

refusing to eat vegetables

Eat your damned vegetables. What’s the matter with you?  Don’t you know what’s good for you?

 

 

 

When we teach and discuss Legal Project Management (LPM), we stress that the last of LPM’s five basic steps, Post Project Review, not only is every bit as essential as the first four steps, it can be an extraordinarily powerful business development lever, as well.  Sadly, this message falls mostly on deaf ears.

Frankly, lawyers tend to be resistant to all LPM methods and processes, but in today’s client-driven legal environment, most will at least acknowledge the evident benefits four basic LPM food groups: 1) better project scoping, 2) more comprehensive project planning, 3) more effective management and control of legal work, and 4) rigorous progress measurement and actual-to-budget monitoring.

With greater or lesser amounts of coercion from their firms’ management committees, many lawyers seem willing to at least sample these four food groups, because they are learning the hard way that clients want what LPM delivers:

  • more accurate budgeting,
  • cost management
  • predictability, and
  • freedom from unwelcome surprises.

Radio Silence

But the room goes silent when we ask how many present regularly and religiously engage in Post Project Review – that invaluable final step where lawyers take stock of their team’s performance and assay their clients’ satisfaction with the outcomes.

Simple show of hands, please: How many of you put two simple queries to your project team at the close of every matter: 1) What went well (and do we know why it went well)?  2) What can we do better next time?

Time and again, all hands stay in the laps.  So, we try a different tack, one that focuses on client satisfaction: Well all right, at the close of a matter, how many of you routinely reach out to the client – via personal conversation or some kind of written communication – and ask what they thought had gone well and what they thought might be improved in subsequent projects and engagements?

Time after time, all hands remain hidden beneath the table, even among lawyers regarded as ace rainmakers and powerful business development champions. In other words, almost no one builds Post Project Review into their legal service delivery or sees it as a vital tool in their BD efforts. In the rush to pack up the files and move on to the next billable event, almost no one takes the time to either debrief the team or take the client’s pulse.  This is opportunity wasted, big time.
powerful nourishment

Powerful Nourishment

Like eating your vegetables, Post Project Review – particularly the part that has you eliciting feedback from clients — is good for you. It nourishes your practice and feeds your firm, and routinely skipping it deprives your practice and your firm of a potentially invaluable food group. In our experience, Post Project Review with clients very seldom devolves into a gripe session.  On the contrary, we’ve heard tale after tale of how this simple bit of outreach results in more work and new engagements in different practice areas.

Beyond providing relationship-enhancing face time with clients, Post Project Review builds a collaborative bridge between client needs and your firm’s capabilities.  Think about it: when you ask “What went well this time?” you are consolidating the impact of your past delivery strengths.  When you ask, “What might be done better next time?” the tacit assumption is that there will be a next time.  This is a powerful marketing message.

Think Your Clients are Thrilled with You?

By ignoring Post Project Review, lawyers show how oblivious they are to the power of interpersonal contact and in-the-moment performance feedback. Historically, the assumption was “if the client pays the bill, they must be satisfied, right?”

That’s not what your clients (and every client attitude survey from every source) tell us. In short, they report that they want more. They want more interaction with you (including more face time), more attention paid to their needs and priorities, and more communication as matters progress. Post Project Review is an obvious answer to clients’ most common lament: “My lawyer doesn’t listen to me and doesn’t care about what I think or what I want.”

What’s Your Problem?

If we accept the obvious truth that feedback is the keystone to continuous improvement and acknowledge that we lawyers are not all perfect in all things and all times, why do we so strenuously resist the simple, if time-consuming, step of reality-checking the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of our legal work?  Why are we so reluctant to translate present outcomes into an exploration of future client needs? If vegetables are so obviously good for you, why won’t you eat your vegetables?

What We Asked and What We Heard

When we raise this question in LPM workshops and consulting engagements, the first thing we generally hear in response is…nothing. The room goes quiet and is pervaded by the sudden singed-hair smell that emanates from people who are simultaneously embarrassed and annoyed at being put on the spot. Finally, someone will speak up, and the first thing the first responder invariably says is, “we can’t waste our time on non-billable events.” Emboldened by this powerful argument, a second voice will chime in: “Yeah, and we don’t need some kumbaya show-and-tell to confirm how well we did.  We’re great lawyers, we do great work, and that’s why our clients hire us. We know how we did without a lot of ex post facto rehashing of past events.”

And now a third voice often speaks out: “And our clients are perfectly happy.  How do we know that?  Because they keep coming back!” (This to the background murmurs of, “yeah!” and “right on, brother!”)

wasteful - CopyStupid and Wasteful

We trust you see how sophomoric these common responses sound when committed to paper. All business development and professional development is non-billable. It’s an investment, after all.  Client relationships are not self-generating.  You have to work at keeping them.

As far as assessment of project team performance goes, most leaders’ opinions are tainted by confirmation bias, that is, by our natural tendency to see what we expect to see, hear what we want to hear, and interpret novel input in a way that confirms our existing points of view. The traditional “hub-and-spokes” management style favored by lawyers (“When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you”) may preserve a comfortable feeling of control, but it tends to stifle the kind of input that can produce huge gains in productivity or can identify percolating problems. Post Project Review, conducted routinely and receptively, is an unparalleled opportunity for collaborative communication with clients – and one of the best and most effective business development tools we have seen.

Silence is Not Golden

If you think clients will always voice their concerns openly to you, you are naïve. If you think that the benefits of being the current service provider will automatically assure continuing client patronage, you are wrong. And if you think there is no reason to bother listening to the various forms of client opinion polls and attitude surveys, you are unwise. If you think control is power, you are mistaken; information is power.

Finally…A Candid Answer

If all the rationalizations for skipping Post Project Review are bogus, then what is the real reason why lawyers won’t eat their Post Project Review vegetables?

At a recent LPM workshop, a major-league rainmaker rose and said,

I think that we tend to avoid Post Project Review because of both pride and fear – we are afraid of negative waves, we are afraid of being hurt.”

“Speaking for myself and every other lawyer I know, I do not want to hear that I can do better. I do not seek or relish criticism.  Sure, I welcome praise, if that’s what Post Project Review delivers, but I’m not about to risk criticism and shame to gather praise.  I like it when everybody – on the law firm side and on the client side – continues to pretend that everything is always hunky-dory and life can go on as usual.”

He paused.  “I don’t ‘eat my vegetables,’ as you put it, because sometimes they might taste bad.”

As we enter a new year and reset the BD deliverables, this is a good time to confront our resistance and resolve to “take a bite” of Post Project Review. Try it, you’ll like it.

©2016 Legal Leadership LLC. All Rights Reserved.

9 Awesome Articles – AI & The Law

Posted in Artificial Intelligence, Law firm practices
  1. How Artificial Intelligence is Transforming the Legal Profession
  2. Technology For Law Firm Leaders: Services as Products
  3. AI and the Law: The Paradigm Shift Hits the Fan
  4. Do Robots Make Better Lawyers? A Conversation About Law And Artificial Intelligence
  5. 5 Questions on Artificial Intelligence
  6. How AI and Crowdsourcing are Remaking the Legal Profession
  7. Is Artificial Intelligence the Key to Unlocking Innovation in Your Law Firm?
  8. How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform The Delivery Of Legal Services
  9. Artificial Intelligence Has BigLaw Rethinking Associate Hiring

AI

 

AI and the Law: The Paradigm Shift Hits the Fan

Posted in Law firm practices

Cyber worker

 

AI – artificial intelligence – and its relatives, digital research engines, “bots,” and other automatons, have made their beachhead in the legal profession, and it really looks like this is gonna change everything.

Yeah, yeah, we know this isn’t the first time we and other pundits have predicted that sudden and/or overwhelming forces or technologies – outsourcing, offshoring, legal project management, alternative fee arrangements, expert systems, for example — would demolish the legal profession’s historical foundations and fundamentally alter its face, processes and economics.  So far, however, the waves from all these tsunamis have only come up to our ankles.  For most lawyers, it’s business as usual.

But, as Monty Python might put it, “and now for something completely different.”

Wow, Check This Out

What would you think if you heard that a bunch of people had gone into one of the world’s greatest libraries, sliced the spines off all the books, physically cut the guts out of them, and then fed the loose pages into a machine?  If you’re a lawyer, what you should be thinking is the future is here, brought by some startling innovation and one of the world’s great law school heavyweights.

In a spectacular act of self-mutilation, Harvard Law School, whose library is unmatched except by the Library of Congress, has done just that.  In its astonishing “Free the Law” project, Harvard has teamed up with a California start-up called Ravel Law to digitize every state, federal, territorial and tribal judicial decision since colonial times by feeding over 40 million pages physically cut from the books shelved in the Harvard Law Library  into a high speed digital scanner.

Credit: Lorin Granger

Credit: Lorin Granger

Watching this incredible scanner is like watching one of those bank bill-counting machines riffle through a stack of Jacksons, except in this case what’s being riffled is the core and evolution of American legal knowledge, a searchable database of  case law that eventually will be offered free on the Internet, allowing instant retrieval of vital records that now often must be paid for (Ravel Law hopes to offer, for a fee, more advanced analytical tools).

What is emerging – at the cost of millions of dollars to create – is “data driven research” that provides case analytics, judge analytics and search visualization. Initially, this enormous database – and not just limited search results – will be shared with scholars and not-for-profits that want to develop specialized applications.  After eight years, the lid comes off, and the database will be available to anyone for any purpose.

The current big subscription companies such as Westlaw and LexisNexis that charge subscribers for digitized access to case law claim not to be alarmed by the Ravel/Harvard alliance, saying that they offer access to a wider range of relevant legal information and new ways to analyze it. “Core primary law is only the beginning,” said Andrew Martens, Westlaw’s chief of legal products. He says that Westlaw’s owner, Thomson Reuters, is developing new computer applications that can help, for example, draft arguments.

A Paradigm Shifts

In other words, technology is taking us beyond research to the applications of that research.  Indeed, there is a bloom in legal assistance technologies that create powerful legal “bots” that apply data-mining technology to publicly available legal documents.  One bot predicts how specific judges are likely to rule in certain kinds of cases, for example, and another analyzes thousands of state and federal cases using crowdsourcing.

All these super-efficient data harvesters can gather and organize data in more efficient ways, but imagine what would happen if they could provide insights about what information means, not just what it is.  That’s what AI does.

Elementary, My Dear Game Changer

By now, you’ve probably seen the TV ads for IBM’s Watson, perhaps wondering what all the shouting’s about. As IBM puts it, “Watson is a technology platform that uses natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data.”  Put differently, Watson is a “cognitive system” – a link between human decision-making and computers – that searches an entire field of inquiry at digital hyper-speed, analyzes and synthesizes all the data it finds, evaluates the quality of the evidence it has gathered, uses acquired information to understand and interpret complex questions,  reveals insights, patterns and relationships, and then ranks and prioritizes potential answers…all while also learning and teaching itself to expand its own capabilities.

You’re right if you think this sounds like the world’s smartest associate when these capabilities are applied to law, one who works at top speed 24/7, never gets tired, doesn’t require the input of pizza or caffeine, and doesn’t worry about making partner.  Watson is much more than just a giant search engine; above and beyond its simple information-gathering ability, its functioning exercises a form of judgment.  Think about that.

AIEEE

The implications for lawyer job security, at all levels, but particularly for younger lawyers, should be obvious. Today’s law students and associates are right to be alarmed at the prospect of entry level – and perhaps higher – legal work being Watsonized. Watson and its spawn threaten a similar paradigm shift in legal economics and law firm-client relationships, as clients flock to faster and more cost-effective approaches to basic legal issues and decisions. When and if the Watson Gang fully takes hold, clearly the whole human-based work allocation and economics of the legal profession are going to take a heavy shot to the head.

In May, The Washington Post wrote that one major law firm, Baker & Hostetler, had “hired” ROSS Intelligence, a “robot lawyer” and “the world’s first artificially intelligent attorney,” to serve as a “legal researcher” for the firm.”  ROSS, by the way, is powered by Watson.  Clearly something was trending here, with implications for the employment security of younger lawyers, even though BakerHotstetler hastened to assure the world that “ROSS is not a way to replace our attorneys – it is a supplemental tool to help them move faster, learn faster, and continually improve.”  Right.  And if you believe that…

And the Brits may be stealing the march, as such major firms as Linklaters, Pinsent Masons, Dentons, as well as smaller firms like Hodge, Jones & Allen, are either using AI or creating their own AI startups.

So far, in law ROSS has been pitched more as a high-speed search engine – fast but dumb — than as a decision-maker or solution engine, but as one former commercial litigator put it, “that’s just because the ROSS people want to scare us to death bit by bit, and not all at once.”

Oops, Not So Fast

Outside of law, Watson already has become an ecosystem of apps and iterations embraced enthusiastically in medicine, healthcare and patient care, travel, life planning, fashion, cooking, Sesame Street learning theory, flower delivery and all manner of statistical analysis.  After all, as Google’s success shows us, who wouldn’t want to know everything about everything in one’s field?

Well, lawyers, that’s who.  Or at least some lawyers.  The logic of applying something like Watson to a universe of statutes, regulations, cases, decisions, articles, legal history, comparison/conflict of laws, law firms, legal departments and legal compensation appears obvious.  Law should be fertile ground for Watson, right?

Until recently, however, the AI invasion of law had encountered a major barrier. Watson and its ilk require unfettered access to data to work their magic. But unlike medicine and other fields where all the data are there for the grabbing and disparate sources are happy to throw their data points into the stew, in law many of the reported decisions and information sources are controlled by those big subscription services. Though the primary legal documents are formally in the public domain, many presently are not digitized, and they contract with the subscription services to digitize emerging information.  Large law firms may pay millions of dollars a year to services like Westlaw and LexisNexis to research cases and trace intellectual pathways.

Understandably, these vendors are unwilling to provide all their data to Watson for free, on the apparent theory that if you can’t beat the enemy, maybe you can starve it to death.  So at least in the world of law, has technology been stymied?  If Ravel Law and the digitizing of the Harvard Law Library is any indication, not for long, brother.

A Hot Date, Indeed

That’s right, imagine this unprecedented meeting of the minds: Watson’s mind with Harvard’s library – or similar alliances or even marriages between their spawn and their relatives.  What more need we say? Expect rapid exponential gains in both the sophistication and the efficiency of legal analysis and legal decision-making. Expect ancient edifices crumbling.  The paradigm shift is upon us.

robots in love

 

©2016 Legal Leadership LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Bower and Wesemann: Missing Giants

Posted in Law firm practices

IMG_5917 copyThe legal landscape is a sadder and emptier place today, following the recent deaths of two giants in legal consulting, Ward Bower of Altman Weil and Ed Wesemann of Edge International.  Both succumbed to unexpected heart attacks.

We had the pleasure of working as partners with both of them, and the privileges and pleasures were ours.  God, what you could learn from these two men!  Clients have said the same: there was no trace of arrogance, pretentiousness or pomposity to mar their effectiveness.  Both were eminently user-friendly resources to clients of all shapes and sizes. Both were skilled and wise.

Many lawyers would characterize Ward and Ed as competitors, but although they probably went head-to-head in their efforts to win certain engagements, we doubt they would have characterized themselves as adversaries.  In fact, we know firsthand the mutual respect they enjoyed for one another.

Ward and Ed were alike in many ways.  Both had a low-key personal style that sometimes masked dazzling intellectual brilliance and superb strategic perspective.  Both could see the big picture and the granular view simultaneously, and both preferred crafting practical solutions to sitting around and talking smart. Both were adroit and practical troubleshooters. Both really knew what made law firms tick, and both were masterful at putting them together in mergers and, on occasion, helping firms extricate themselves from bad mergers.  Both could reconcile the profession’s traditions with its headlong rush into today’s change-every-minute chaotic professional maelstrom.  In all settings and situations, they remained consummate professionals.

On a personal level, both had huge hearts.  It is indeed ironic that for both men, it was their hearts that ultimately failed them and deprived us all of their wisdom.  It is very sad that two men so attuned to the heartbeat of the law now have had their own heartbeats stilled.

For all of us, from all of us, Thank you, Ward.  Thank you, Ed.

How to Fail at Collaboration

Posted in Law firm practices

Alone

We all know that many law firms send mixed messages to their lawyers (and often to their clients, too).   They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk, particularly when it comes to the informal norms and values that define “the way we do things around here.”  This opens them up to charges of hypocrisy – or at least insensitivity to the human factors that define law firm success in today’s market.

Consider, as a timely example, the legal profession’s continuing cry for better collaboration – both between law firm and client and among firm lawyers in a practice group or on a client team.  Also, consider clients that have converged their roster of outside firms to just a few in number, and who now want their firms to collaborate with each other – for the benefit of the client.

For firms or teams with historically non-collaborative cultures (and that describes 99.9% of them), this “whole collaboration thing” has become a huge annoyance, an attempted interference with “how we’ve always practiced law.”  For these folks the challenge is thorny: convince everyone that their culture is changing with the times while continuing to conduct business as usual.  When they fail, there is often a huge – and demoralizing — gap between the cup and the lip.

Lost in Translation — A Tragic Play in Four Bad Acts

To illustrate, let us cast a true tale in the form of a play, the players disguised, but the plot all too familiar.

Act I

In the course of a client survey conducted by a major firm’s marketing department, an important client expresses dissatisfaction with a particular practice group. The survey response complains, in no uncertain terms, that the client team is extremely hard to work with (actually “jerks” is the term used). Particularly noteworthy is the charge that they seem unable or unwilling to collaborate effectively with the client — aloof, unresponsive, arrogant and generally unhelpful.

This client’s clout (and, let’s be honest, the  threat of lost revenue from that client), plus this client team’s low marks, grabs the attention of the Managing Partner and the Executive Committee.   The Practice Group Leader is informed that he must fix this problem, pronto.

Act II

Scene I: Duly alarmed at the prospect of losing big-time revenue, the Practice Group Leader calls on the Professional Development staff to implement “intensive collaboration training” forthwith. To avoid inconveniencing senior lawyers with high billing rates, the PD folks are instructed to commence this “culture-shifting initiative” at only the associate and principal/non-equity partner levels; senior level lawyers need not attend. The PD staff, of course, does as it is told, but several of them are seen rolling their eyes.

Scene II: In a frontal PR assault, the firm next informs the complaining client that it has received the memo and that the whole practice group will be undertaking intensive collaboration skills training forthwith to improve its culture and make it a more collaborative, responsive and more relationship-oriented provider of legal services.

So the firm has attempted to send two messages here:

1) We’ve changed, really we have! 

2) We can instantly transform ourselves into a collaborative culture simply by subjecting our lawyers to a one-time training program.

By and large, the client response is favorable to this pronouncement, save for one brief, troubling response from a senior member of the client’s legal department: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the proof will be in the pudding.  I’m from Missouri.  Show me.”

Scene III: A consulting firm known for expertise in legal leadership and team effectiveness is retained to develop a bespoke collaboration skills workshop “to be used as a pilot for subsequent workshops in various firm practice groups.”

The consultants’ proposal calls for an initial cultural assessment of the group’s norms and operative values to create a “collaboration baseline.”  This will be the foundation for a highly interactive 1.5-day off-site workshop using realistic case studies, role plays and other hands-on exercises to teach practical collaboration, delegation, feedback and motivational skills. The consultants even suggest a module at the end where some client lawyers can sit in and interact with the firm lawyers in order to “cement” the new collaborative approach.

Scene IV: After a brief meeting in a dark cave, the firm’s Management Committee finds this approach too expensive and insists that the workshop be shortened and conducted with a “selected” group of associates – mandated to attend — and a couple of firm partners in a conference room at the firm. No client in-house lawyers are invited to attend.

It gets worse. Over the consultants’ objections, the final workshop design calls for a single 3-hour “Principles of Collaboration” workshop that includes only a few interactive group discussions, but no case studies, role-modeling or partner participation except for one practice group leader. It includes a “working lunch,” so that participants’ time away from their desks is minimized.  Oh, and to “optimize our investment,” the firm insists that the workshop be eligible for CLE credit

In short, the “intensive collaboration initiative” has morphed into a quickie, drive-by training seminar.

Several of the consultants are seen rolling their eyes.  When the associates are told to attend, they lower their eyes.

The Play is the Thing

Act III

Scene I: When the workshop begins, several associates ask about its objectives and how it connects up with their quality of life (laughs around the room) and their annual performance evaluations. A firm representative promises that “this is the first step in a cultural reboot” of the practice group and that the workshop has been designed as a professional development opportunity. Several associates are seen rolling their eyes.

Scene II: In a discussion of how to give performance feedback – both reinforcement (praise) and corrective (criticism) – as well as how to provide incentives for superior performance, one practice group leader describes the firm’s cultural climate and its feedback approach thus:

Practice Group Leader (PGL): Well, all this kindler-gentler stuff sounds well and good, but if you want to know the truth, I’ll tell you how we really do it around here. When a young lawyer screws up, we use the “blame and shame” method. We cut them out of the herd, let ‘em stew in shame, and stop assigning them work. Pretty soon they get the picture that they’re in trouble.

Workshop Leader (WL): Who gives them feedback and instruction about what they did wrong and can do better?  When do they get that feedback?

PGL: No one.  And never. That’s the point. Our view is that if they can’t figure out what they did wrong, they’re not going to make it here in the long run, and they’re not the kind of lawyers a firm of this caliber should spend a lot of effort trying to cultivate.

WL: Well, what effect does this isolate-and-shame approach have on team members’ willingness to collaborate, share information, and give constructive feedback?

PGL: It is not our culture to nurture the weak. We subscribe to what some call “social Darwinism:” we throw ‘em into the deep end of the pool, and a couple of years later we come back to see who is still afloat.

WL (agitated): In addition to destroying any incentive to collaborate, isn’t that approach to lawyer development pretty expensive at today’s salaries?

PGL: We are not a social services organization.  Lawyers who make it here survive a trial by fire, and they are all the tougher for it. This approach has long been the basis of our reputation, and we’re not going to change now. Law is not about kumbaya collaboration; it’s about excellent individual performance.

WL:  Have you asked your clients what they think about this approach?

PGL: What our clients want is the best legal advice from the smartest lawyers. Collaboration is just a trend that clients will abandon when the next “new thing” comes down the pike.

Act IV

Scene I: Nothing very much changes.  The stage remains dark, the actors sullen, the client silent.

Scene II: Seven months later, the client who had complained about the lack of collaboration announces a “convergence program” to reduce the number of firms it uses and to create a core panel of law firm providers.  The firm is asked to respond to a detailed Request for Proposal (RFP) that notes that the client will be using a “zero-based selection process” under which no existing service provider will be given preference.

Scene III: The firm’s marketing department writes a 35-page response to the RFP which claims, inter alia, that 1) “Effective client communication and collaboration are an historical hallmark of the firm’s approach to legal service delivery;” and 2) “The firm’s rigorous and newest approaches to professional development builds attorneys of unparalleled expertise, judgment and commitment, at all lawyer levels.”

Scene III: By subsequent letter, the firm is informed that it has not been selected as one of the client’s panel firms and is instructed to transfer all existing files to a certain medium-sized litigation firm in the deep south.  A deep cry of anguish is heard, stage right. As the curtain falls, paralegals are seen rolling their eyes as they pack up the boxes.

©2016 Legal Leadership LLC. All Rights Reserved.

How Lawyers Can “Get a GRIP” on Collaboration

Posted in Law firm practices

cropped istock-cliff-photoThis post is targeted to Leaders – to all you Practice Group Leaders, Project Leaders, Team Leaders, and even Firm Leaders – whose role is to get assorted performers to pull together effectively in harness.  But you followers and worker bees should feel free to listen in, because, after all, you are the object of your leaders’ efforts.

In our last post, we reviewed Google’s Project Aristotle, an intensive research project that identified factors that create excellent collaboration in teams. While Google’s People Analytics Division was able to spotlight some prerequisites for a climate of collaboration (“psychological safety,” empathy, and “equality in terms of conversational turn-taking”) it did not define practical action steps for implementing effective collaboration once these prerequisites are present.  So all across the landscape of the legal profession, frustrated leaders’ voices continue to cry out, “All right, already. I get it.  But what exactly do I do?”

In this post we want to provide you with a nuts-and-bolts template [See Below] of beguiling simplicity for getting those cats you’re trying to herd to work more constructively together. You Practice Group Leaders and Project Managers should laminate it, stick it in your desk drawer, and pull it out when planning, organizing and/or managing any activity that requires two or more people to work effectively together. Try it, you’ll like it.

Fundamental Collaboration Principles

For a start, disabuse yourself of the notion that legal teams are collective organisms, like colonies of coral. They are not affinity groups, geared to the satisfactions of membership, inclusion, acceptance and empathy. Legal teams are results-generating machines, built of many different moving parts whose purpose is to produce excellent outcomes, not reward relationships for their own sake.

You also must appreciate that while group productivity appears to be a “team” activity with “team” rewards, it’s inevitably built on the attitudes and behaviors (and, of course, fears) of a bunch of individuals. Only when we aggregate a bunch of individual behaviors do we see an outcome that appears to have a collective purpose (this is like summarizing millions of separate stock transactions and saying, “The stock market was bullish today”).

Skilled leaders know, implicitly or explicitly, that they should never move that dial from “radio station WIIFM,” whose mythical call letters stand for, “What’s In It For Me?” As one lawyer put it, “my antitrust litigation team is really a bunch of egos connected with central heat.”

Once you understand that collaboration depends on individual attitudes and motivations, you can see that an individual lawyer can and will collaborate only if three conditions are met:

1) s/he believes it is safe to collaborate;

2) s/he is motivated by the potential rewards of collaborating; and

3) s/he understands what to do in order to collaborate effectively.

We examined the first two of these conditions – factors that deal primarily with incentives, motivation, and team culture — in our prior post about Google’s Project Aristotle. Now it’s time for action.

Okay, Let’s Go Do Something

If a practice group leader or team leader can get past basic motivational issues and assemble a team of contributors willing and able to function collaboratively, will they automatically function together like a well-oiled machine?

Well, No. Not unless all players’ trust and commitment is supported with a clear and concise understanding of exactly what they are supposed to do.

In shaping and then managing a consistently high-performing team — of any kind, of any size — it is essential that the leader have a functional road map, a “team GPS,” so to speak, that assures that every team participant is fully informed regarding all relevant factors in the “collaboration equation.” [NB: the time-honored “hub-and-spokes” leadership style that legal leaders so love, with an omniscient leader at the hub surrounded by a bunch of ill-informed, “need-to-know” performers arrayed out there at the periphery, is a terribly inefficient and motivation-killing approach to management].

Getting a GRIP

Enter the GRIP model.

Below (and in a link to a downloadable pdf), you will find the GRIP template, which is simply a logical sequence of questions that elicit and communicate practical information crucial to planning and evaluating collaborative activity. It’s not rocket science, although we first discovered it being used by a team of rocket scientists at GE aerospace as a shorthand form of “critical path analysis.”

GRIP has four components:

Goal Clarity (G);

Role Clarity (R),

Quality of Interactions (I), and

Quality of Processes and Procedures (P).

It is better and easier for leaders to attempt to engineer GRIP into team collaboration from the beginning, rather than try to trouble-shoot it in after the team fails to jell, buy-in and collaborate. If all the GRIP questions have not been asked and answered before a project kicks off, implementation is likely to suffer gaps, redundancies, confused performers, turf wars, political jousting, and a tendency for things to stray off course.

In many cases, the answer to a particular GRIP question may be easy or self-evident. Ask all of the questions anyway; unexamined assumptions tend to bite hard and deep. Each of the GRIP questions is important, and any unasked question or untested assumption is a vulnerable spot waiting for Murphy’s Law to take hold.

In addition to the focus it brings to planning, the GRIP model also can serve as a point-by-point template for evaluating team performance at the end or trouble-shooting problems along the way.  How’d we do on each step to collaboration?  Did we have a GRIP?

The GRIP model of team collaboration “cascades.”  That is, without the first item – Goal Clarity – nothing else downstream will work worth a darn: no strategy = no direction and uneven results.  With good Goal Clarity but poor Role Clarity, failure and friction among performers are inevitable.  If both Goals and Roles are clear, but everyone is in the dark or bummed out — if the quality of Interactions has been neglected or communication suffers — morale will soon flag, and compliance or acquiescence is the best that can be hoped for.  Babel ensues. Finally, of course, absent clear Processes that map desired activity, define performance standards and measure progress objectively, all the other team virtues are just nice-sounding lip music.

Note that the GRIP collaboration does not prescribe specifically what to do in response to each question; its job is to flag what must be done. But none of the action steps illuminated by GRIP questioning falls outside the repertoire of any competent leader’s skills.  In other words, GRIP is an action-organizing model, reflecting the truth that more collaboration is eroded by lack of direction and poor delegation (and lawyers are notoriously lousy delegators) than by sub-par legal knowledge or experience.

The Costs of GRIP, the Benefits of GRIP

Performing a GRIP analysis – even on the fly – has some costs: it takes some time and runs counter to lawyers’ natural drive to dive in and begin billin’ them hours. But the benefits of even a quick-and-dirty GRIP analysis are worth the effort: the model is clear, it’s consistent, it’s logical, it eschews jargon, and it’s easy to remember.

So there you have it: if your team members don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, if they’re dropping the ball or stepping on each others’ toes, if they are talking trash or not talking at all, or if they don’t know either how they or their team are doing, there is a solution: Get a Grip.

========================================

Getting a GRIP on Collaboration Template

[And, here’s the Legal Leadership GRIP Template]

  1. G: Goal Clarity: Has the leader communicated and reinforced GOAL CLARITY?
    • Do all team members understand WHAT our objectives, outcomes and deliverables are?
    • Do all team members understand WHY we are pursuing them now?
    • Are the Goals and objectives communicated CONSISTENTLY?
    • Do we all AGREE on the team’s goals, objectives and priorities?
  1. R: Role Clarity: Has the leader assured that at all levels there is ROLE CLARITY?
    • Have we INVENTORIED our skills and experience to determine the capabilities at our disposal?
    • Do we all know what each of us is supposed TO DO at all stages of the team’s activity?
    • Do we all agree that we are the right person for our role? Do we “have the right people on the bus?”
    • Do we understand the CONNECTIONS and RELATIONSHIPS between our roles? Do we all know who is accountable to whom — both on the org chart and on specific tasks?
    • Do we all understand the BOUNDARIES of our authority, responsibility and accountability?
    • Do we know how we will allocate AUTHORITY, RESPONSIBILITY and ACCOUNTABILITY?
  1. I: INTERACTIONS: What about communication, morale, “buy-in” and trust?
    • Are the team’s COMMUNICATION CHANNELS & PATHWAYS clear and consistent? Do team members know when, how, how often and about what to communicate with each other?
    • Is the POWER STRUCTURE & PECKING ORDER clear, fair and enforced?
    • Does the leader DELEGATE tasks and responsibilities easily and effectively?
    • Is the leader assuring that ALL VOICES are being heard? Does the leader champion diversity and insist that all STYLES accepted and respected?
    • Can the leader articulate and enforce the group’s positive behavioral NORMS and VALUES?
    • How will DISAGREEMENTS be resolved?
    • Are individual performers’ motivational incentives supported?
    • How will the leader curb UNPRODUCTIVE BEHAVIOR, CONFRONTING CONFLICT DIMINISHING DISCORD?
    • How will the team on-board and ASSIMILATE new team members?
  1. P: PROCESSES: Does the leader understand and communicate what to do, how to do it, how we interact with others and how we’ll measure progress and performance?
    • Does the leader have clear and concrete plans, priorities, procedures and standards for EACH DELIVERABLE?
    • Does everyone one the team we have SUFFICIENT RESOURCES? (PTM = People, Time & Money)
    • Has the leader specified how the practice group will MONITOR and COORDINATE our efforts?
    • Does the leader — or his designates — provide frequent,  behavior-based FEEDBACK? (Form, formality, frequency, causes and consequences)
    • Does the leader have the courage and perspective to TEST OUR ASSUMPTIONS and REALITY-TEST progress?
    • Has the leader thought through CONTINGENCY PLANS if things go off course?
    • Does the team regularly perform POST PROJECT REVIEWS to support continuous process improvement?

 

©2016 Legal Leadership LLC. All Rights Reserved.

What Lawyers Can Learn from Google About Collaboration

Posted in Law firm practices

Close up of men's rowing teamProblem: These days productive lawyering, successful onboarding of lateral hires, and effective Legal Project Management (LPM) place a huge premium on effective collaboration, and a recent Harvard Business Review study found that “time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more over the last two decades.” But lawyers, because of their autonomous nature and persistent drive for personal achievement, are neither naturally collaborative nor comfortable as team players.

Not only that, to the extent good collaboration builds on positive emotional states – messy, abstract things like trust, motivation, respect, and supportive interpersonal relationships – you can count most lawyers out. They don’t want to mess with all that touchy-feely stuff, no sir.

Googling The Wisdom of Aristotle

But here’s some breaking news for lawyers: You have to come to grips with peoples’ emotional states and buy into constructs like ‘psychological safety’ – because Google says you have to.

Once again, Google set out to solve all our problems – including the challenge of how to foster effective team collaboration. So in its Project Aristotle initiative commenced in 2012, Google undertook to figure out why some of its hundreds of teams stumbled while others consistently out-performed their peers.

Google’s People Analytics Division spent millions of dollars measuring every aspect of its employees’ actions and interactions, looking at collaboration – and potential collaborators – from every possible angle. Project Aristotle reviewed 50 years (yes, 50!!!) of academic literature and it scrutinized both hard factors and soft factors, looking at everything from which traits are shared by the most highly-rated managers to how often particular team members ate or socialized together. It sought patterns of personality and performance, chased down canons of collaboration, strove to tease out group and individual incentives.  Drawing on input from  the company’s best statisticians, organizational psychologists, engineers and managers, these dudes took rational analysis to the extreme.

Whoa, Houston, We Have a Problem

To its very considerable surprise, in its exhaustive search for patterns of performance, Google found…nothing.

No matter how Aristotle researchers aligned the data, it was nearly impossible to discern patterns or, remarkably, any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference in collaboration and performance.  “There weren’t strong patterns here,” said Abeer Dubey, a manager in the People Analytics division.  “We looked at 180 teams from all over the company. We had lots of data, but nothing showed that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference.  The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.”

Aha: Culture Matters

Eventually, the Aristotle team did identify what appeared to be a core construct for constructive collaboration. They found that successful teams tend to evolve their own unique set of informal but powerful  “group norms” – traditions, unwritten rules and informal standards – that govern how people should behave when engaged in team activity. After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Project Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and influencing each team’s group norms was the key to improving team performance.  In other words, Culture Really Matters.

So How Do We Build a Collaborative Culture?

But here’s the rub in trying to develop universal and uniform collaboration: different teams tend to evolve dramatically different cultural norms, based on the disparate personality traits and motivational drivers of their members.  This means that developing a powerfully aligned culture can be messy on new teams where members are selected based solely on the knowledge and skills they bring to the party, and not on the basis of shared interests, incentives, and resulting behavioral norms. It also means that a whole lot of lateral hires are going to fail, because no one is attending to the emotional aspects of supporting new arrivals during transition, helping them fit in, and showing them the cultural ropes of their new milieu.

Fortunately, for the future of collaboration in low-trust environments like law, the Google researchers finally identified one factor that was absolutely instrumental to trust and collaboration with colleagues, regardless of team members’ personality types.

Google’s data suggested that “psychological safety,” more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

Psychological safety can be defined as a team’s capacity for empathy and its members’ ability to connect with each other on a personal level.  In order to be willing to collaborate, team members must feel confident that their team will not embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up and expressing their feelings openly. Put differently, effective  cultures are “empathy engines.”

The Punch Line

So there you have Google’s not-so-secret formula, the algorithm they think they can scale: Collaboration is a function of culture and constructive culture is a function of open communication and empathy.

And when the Google researchers dug deeper into the idea of open communication, they found that on “good” teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, which Google labeled “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.”  For you lawyers, that translates to “everyone gets to talk, everybody has to listen, and high-performing team members listen more than they talk.”

And empathy, that ultimate touchy-feely weasel word?  If you loathe the word, try substituting the word attuned, instead.  As in, “in highly collaborative teams, members are attuned both to each others’ emotional states and needs and to the ‘political’ currents that shape group dynamics.”  Or, to repeat ourselves, Culture Really Matters.

Today’s law firms have pretty much abandoned the clubby, collegial and resolutely male-dominated cultures of yore, substituting a relentlessly bottom-line driven, “everyone for themselves” mentality.  Perhaps that would not be all bad, if this shift left greater windows of opportunity for diverse performers.  But it doesn’t; today, it’s cold and hard for everybody.

That’s why, in many cases, law firms are not very nice places to work.  Perhaps more to the point, profitability may be up, but so are rates of attrition, the number of unhappy clients, and the percentage of lateral hiring failures.  Google’s message? The pursuit of optimal performance requires greater attention to human trust factors than most law firms currently exhibit or are willing to invest in.

© 2016, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.

Feminenglish Part V: Remedies for Lousy Communication

Posted in Law firm practices, Legal Project Management

GettyImages-162191192 (2)

In recent posts, we have been discussing the wasteful and demoralizing patterns of “asymmetrical communication” between male and female lawyers, particularly as it impacts team collaboration and effectiveness, as well as good Legal Project Management (LPM). But what, as a practical matter, can be done about it?

How Can We Tackle the Problem?

One school of thought is to yell at the women: Stand up!  Buck up! Speak up! Don’t apologize! Don’t ask for permission to speak! Another school suggests focusing corrective measures on the other gender, calling out the men in an unprecedented crusade of sensitivity training that says, in effect, Hey, don’t be such jerks.

Both of these approaches are defensible – but probably impracticable on a profession-wide scale. We all know that it is common for female lawyers who grab the mike or take the reins to be labelled aggressive, rather than assertive, to be derided and sanctioned for being “difficult.” It is equally unrealistic to expect men who learned power-acquisition techniques at the knees of successful mentors to undergo a spontaneous attitude shift , that is, to become collaborative rather than competitive.

Okay, we grant that there is no simple solution to what clearly is a deep-seated and complex social problem.  But, we can suggest a couple of basic strategies that can reorient inter-gender communication toward doing what works, rather than simply warring over who has the most power.

First, Think Alliance

The LPM perspective on legal activity places the highest importance on building operational, not gender, alliances. The emphasis should be on working relationships that can be effectively planned and managed – alliances which focus on identifying and pursuing all the determinants of client satisfaction.  This perspective suggests that communication barriers among any stakeholders creates “friction losses” that risk frustrating the client – that source of all that is good in legal revenue and profits.

As we noted in a prior post, law firm initiatives that emphasize woman-to-woman empowerment efforts are  a good, but not sufficient, starting point.  Ida Abbott, long recognized as the foremost champion of effective mentoring and inter-gender power alignments, and author of The Woman’s Guide to Leadership and Power in Law Firms, acknowledges that communications misery among women loves company. But she also looks at the practical challenges of alliance-building in terms of learning to fraternize with the enemy (and thereby to learn that they are not necessarily the enemy):

Building a strong network is challenging for women in a male-dominated field like law. So many women focus on building business relations with other women because it’s easier and more comfortable. But these relationships don’t tap into the generally more valuable and immediate opportunities that men can offer because men still control most firms, clients and opportunities.  So women also need to develop relationships and build networks with men, even if it’s harder and feels awkward.”

In our view, the most practical way to enlist others in collaborative alliances – in a meeting, in a client engagement, in business development and client relations – is to focus on the gender-neutral activities of effective project scoping, planning, team selection, and team management – under the circumstances. In all cases and all settings, it is always appropriate to ask, “What will work best here and now?”  For example, pre-meeting alliance-building is a particularly effective way to ensure that a woman receives appropriate air time in important conversations; it involves having a respected supporter intercede if the female lawyer is being ignored or interrupted: “Hold it a second, guys.  Ellen has discussed an issue with me that really bears consideration.”

Yes, alliance-building requires a shift in mind-set from “I-think” to “we-think,” and from being an individual contributor to a team collaborator. We  realize that this is an upstream swim. However, this is a shift that, done right, always all voices to be heard, and invariably improves both performance and morale.

Second, In the Moment, Name the Frame

On the freeway, when everyone in the car hears that ugly thwap, thwap, thwap sound, someone is bound to say, “Sounds like we have a flat tire.”  The driver pulls over and the flat is fixed.  Lawyers don’t do that. Often they will continue on and on in dysfunction, none wanting to be the person who signals a problem, cries foul, or calls bullshit. This is especially true of women, who have been schooled not to make waves.

By declining to name the dysfunction – including ineffective communication – as an operational inefficiency, lawyers, being notoriously conflict-averse as a whole, tend to construct all manner of work-arounds. Workarounds are invariably costly and wasteful.

This may sound ludicrously elementary, but all team members, at all times, should be encouraged to “Name the Frame,” that is, to articulate, in value-neutral terms, any communication-related factor or force that impacts individual or team performance:

  • “We are not getting full and candid input from all project levels and performers.”
  • “We haven’t heard from Ellen.”
  • “Our communication with all levels on the client side is being bottle-necked by insisting that all communication be run through the client relationship partner to the General Counsel.”
  • “We seem to be confusing motion with action.”
  • “As a group, we seem to be reluctant to advance innovative ideas.”
  • “It’s clear from flagging performance that we do not have the right people on the bus.”

“Naming the Frame” only works if it is validated as a constructive behavior and couched in non-personalized, non-judgmental terms. Done well, it’s a technique for flagging operational needs in the performance system, not murdering or silencing messengers.

Third, Start with the Punch Line

Finally, on the personal communications level, there is one strategy that every lawyer should practice: Say what you need, first and foremost.

Speakers of Feminenglish, that deferential language of the unempowered, tend to wind up a lot before making the pitch: “Bill, if I may take just a moment here, and maybe this is a crazy idea, and forgive me if I overstep, but there may be an approach to budgeting this engagement that might help us avoid overbilling and write-downs.”  This disclaim-apologize-defer approach both personalizes what should be an operational comment and waters down the communication. The better technique is to state your premise or request first, and then elaborate (or disclaim) only as necessary to assure others’ comprehension and acceptance.

It is faster and more efficient (and more empowering!) to start with the punch line, without apology or a request for permission, using what the touchy-feeler types call an “I phrase”:

  • “Bill, I want to make a suggestion about an alternative approach to budgeting this case.”
  • “Sue, I’d like you to go over with the team your idea for scheduling the depos.”
  • “Folks, before we move on, I would like to be heard on one important point.”

Well, It’s a Start

These three strategies are neither cure-all nostrums nor quick fixes for asymmetrical communication. However, practiced consciously and consistently, each can be effective in altering unrecognized gender biases and unequal distribution of communication power.  You have to start somewhere.

We want to thank the numerous readers from around the world who have responded to our posts with stories and examples of gender bias in the law firms where they practice. The examples came from Sweden, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Brazil, the UK, France, Spain, India, New Zealand and the United States, and there were remarkable commonalities in all the stories. We also noted a marked determination to address the bias issues in productive ways, armed with research, facts and figures.  Below is a sampling of the articles that readers sent to us that have inspired, and sometimes enraged, them.  We are so grateful to each and everyone of the readers for the heartfelt and amazingly helpful information.

The Legal Profession’s Gender Imbalance in a Chart

Only 7 BigLaw Firms Have Women Running The Show

Large Law Firms are Failing Women Lawyers

To Hold Women Back, Keep Treating Them Like Men

Proof That Women Get Less Credit for Teamwork

Mentors, Sponsors, and Dismissing the “Mean Girl” Mentality: Finding Success as a Woman in IP

Minority Women are Disappearing from BigLaw–and Here’s Why

Big Law’s Intractable Problem: Implicit Bias

How In-House Counsel Are Raising The Bar For Law Firm Diversity 

What’s Holding Women Back in the Workplace?

Gender Equality and Quotas: What’s the Best Way Forward? (United Kingdom)

Pay Like You’re Hiring Your Own Daughter – Merit, Not Manhood, Should Be the Only Guiding Principle in Pay

Big Law Gender Parity Initiative Picks Up Momentum

Legal First as Rival Firms Unite to Tackle Gender Bias (Australia)

Law Fails Gender Bias Test (Australia)

Women Face Significant Discrimination, Research Shows (New Zealand)

Law Firms Try Female Leadership (United Kingdom)

Combating Women’s Initiative Fatigue (United Kingdom)

Seven Lessons in Gender Diversity (France)

Indian Women Legal Lawyers Face Many Challenges (India)

Female Lawyers Still Battle Gender Bias

Nearly Half of Female Top Execs Say Being a Woman Has Held Them Back

The Time-Consuming Activities That Stall Women’s Careers

Report: Companies with Women Leaders are More Profitable

The Secret To Keeping Women Happy At Work Is Painfully Obvious

Corporate America Still Isn’t Making Progress on Gender Equality

© 2016, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.