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.
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.
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!”)
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.
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