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