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Legal Project Management: The Communications Component

Posted in General Counsel, Law firm practices, Legal Project Management, Legal Spend, Outside Counsel

In this post I collaborate with my Edge colleague, Doug Richardson, who has decades of experience as a communications guru. Doug and I often teach Legal Project Management Workshops together for law firms and legal departments.

© 2011, Edge International US, LLC

True Tales

Let’s start with a few true-life wake-up calls. 

First, the bad news:

  • A swamped Assistant General Counsel repeatedly asked his outside counsel contact, a junior associate handling discovery for a complex case, if the law firm would handle some tasks originally supposed to be handled by the client. The associate, naturally assuming the AGC had authority to request additional work, said yes and ran up over $100,000 of additional time. When the partner reviewed the pre-bill at month’s end, he asked the associate about the extra time and was satisfied that the client had requested the additional work. But when the General Counsel received the bill, he went ballistic and flatly refused to “pay a dime for this outrageous scope creep.”  Informed that his own AGC had asked for the additional work, the GC said, “I’ll take care of him. But your associate should never have undertaken this amount of work without first alerting you (the billing partner), and you should have contacted me before the firm did the work.”  To keep a major client, the firm ate the entire amount.

Next, a snake bite:

  • In contracting with a firm to handle a bet-the-company government investigation, the General Counsel never mentioned that Management Committee approval would be needed if billings exceeded a certain amount, and that for this matter bills needed to be presented in a particular format. When billings promptly raced through the unmentioned threshold, the firm found itself called harshly to account and forced to defend its billings, not to the General Counsel, but to the Management Committee. The firm was forced to spend months justifying, debating, and reworking its bills, resulting in a payment delay of a huge receivable for almost a year.

Now, some good news:

  • Told of the enormous business development benefits of Post Project Review in his Legal Project Management training, a partner resolved to debrief every engagement with the client immediately upon completion. To his pleasant surprise, the first client he contacted for comments and suggestions said, “Glad you asked. We’ve been meaning to mention that we think our communication with your firm has gotten pretty perfunctory. Mainly it consists of bills.  What would you think about flying out to the coast to meet with us a couple of times a year to talk with us about your perspectives on litigation trends in all the matters you are handling for us?”

The Front End Load

In the last At the Intersection post we urged that Legal Project Management (LPM) planning include considerable up-front effort mapping the communications pathways between all players and stakeholders on both the law firm and client sides. As a core component of project planning activity, there should be a collaborative focus on making sure all players are kept in the loop, on the same page, and fully informed as events unfold.

When we raise this point in LPM training workshops, lawyers usually give us that “Well, duh! That is sooo obvious” look. Yet when we ask how many lawyers have even seen a communications plan, much less created one, the room falls silent. When we prod, participants tell us they tend to communicate with clients the way they always have (which frequently means a limited number of sporadic peer-to-peer interactions based on what the partner assumes the client might want to know).

As the three anecdotes described above illustrate, this rather laissez-faire approach creates frequent disconnects. The path to effective communication is not always obvious, and it is changing dramatically under the pressure of current economic pressures in the legal profession. It doesn’t happen by default or accident. All too often, lawyers don’t ask the right questions, and they almost always give communication planning short shrift. In every matter, lawyers need to give serious thought to:

a)   The identities and interests of stakeholders at all levels

b)   What each party really needs or wants to know

c)   Who should be included in each communication ‘event’

d)   When they need to get certain information

e)  The best method for information-sharing in each interaction (i.e., phone calls, meetings, emails, extranets, electronic report updates, etc.), and

f)    How to promptly flag changes, urgencies or emergencies.

Ignore any of these pieces, and you can quickly find yourself in deep sludge.

The Boundaries of Authority

A related communication problem is lawyers’ tendency to take authority for granted – surprising, given how important status, power and pecking order are in their profession.  Beyond knowing whose job it is to communicate with whom about what, everyone needs to be absolutely clear about who has the power to make certain kinds of decisions, to commit resources, to change a project plan or sound alarms.

As our first anecdote illustrates, unless the scope of every communicator’s authority is clearly understood by all, team members may either overreach or leave dangerous communication gaps while pointing the I-thought-that-was-your-responsibility finger.

The Key to Communications Planning

We’re not sure what people mean when they speak of a “strategic communications plan.” “Strategy” seems to suggest a top-down planning process keyed to abstract goals and objectives.  As a strategy, merely saying, “we all must communicate better” does not give anyone clear instructions about what they should do.  What team members need are succinct behavioral guidelines geared to here-and-now realities.

We think good communications planning should be bottom-up.  It starts by identifying all the pieces and then assembles them into a matrix of communication roles and responsibilities. It charts the variety of interfaces between people and the specific conditions under which client and law firm stakeholders communicate.  It’s a map, and maps start by looking at the ground, not at the sky.

Before the lawyers dive into legal work, they should build and share some sort of communications planning template. A model.  A diagram.  A list. It can be simple or complex, depending on the project and number of moving pieces. It can be jotted on the back of an envelope, plotted on an Excel spreadsheet, mapped out in a venn diagram with colored circles and arrows. Regardless of form, what that template should do is address the questions we all were taught in Legal Writing 101:  Who? What? Why? When? How? 

Once the players, content, mode and timing of communication have been roughed in, planning discussions should then turn to one more important question: What are our likely barriers to communication?  Too little time? Too many things on the plate?  Inadequate/incomplete information? Status and role tensions? Denial? Untested assumptions?

All this planning may seem like a hassle to lawyers eager to get a-goin’ and practice some law.  But as we suggested in our last post, front-end planning effort minimizes disconnects and misunderstandings down the road, Big Time.

Taking the Initiative

Our second and third anecdotes vividly illustrate the power of proactive communication. All too many lawyers operate on the “don’t ask, don’t tell principle,” figuring that the best time to provide information is when someone else asks you a question. Lawyers who diligently reach out to clients for Post Project Review (or “during project review,” for that matter) report many interesting and wondrous things.

First they learn that clients almost never see things the way they do and that active inquiry promotes clearer alignment of objectives and actions.

Second, they learn that client silence does not necessarily imply acceptance or approval; it may simply reflect inertia or conflict aversion. Those two great questions, “What did we do well?” and “What can we do better next time?” often elicit invaluable feedback a client may have hesitated to bring up.

Finally, they learn that if they make a sincere and persistent effort to climb over the client-law firm communications wall, on the other side they’ll find a receptive human being eager to build a more personalized relationship. In today’s hotly-competitive legal market, such relationships frequently are the difference between being an “also ran” and an “always in.”

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