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Scope-Blindness: Confusing Trees with Forests

Posted in Legal Project Management

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