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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.

Feminenglish Part IV: Pointing the Finger

Posted in Law firm practices, Legal Project Management

blameWe’re no sociologists, but it’s not hard to divine the root cause of asymmetrical communication between male and female lawyers: the perks, pleasures and pursuit of power.  Power both creates and reinforces inequality – that’s its purpose, after all.  So as between men and women, isn’t unequal power the inevitable consequence of the whole men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus thing? Have female lawyers simply chosen to play on a power-prejudiced playing field?

We can at least fathom the argument that misaligned gender power in group situations is not a matter of malicious, power-grabbing intent by males. Perhaps it really is the result, by both genders, of “gendered language socialization,” to borrow a phrase from linguistics professor Robin Tolmach Lakoff.

Perhaps, one argument goes, in their communication attitudes and style, a lot of males are simply mimicking the attitudes and behaviors of alpha colleagues who succeed, without conscious felonious motives.  But that takes us back to the issue raised in prior posts of why we should put up with so much communication-related waste and inefficiency. Put differently, in today’s competitive and cost-constrained legal environment, much more commitment must be made to rectifying the legal profession’s crippled communication.

Who’s to Blame?

We know and respect a lot of enlightened male lawyers who can justifiably claim the high road, who respect competency over power, who encourage, mentor, sponsor and champion female colleagues.  These are men who aren’t afraid to delegate power and responsibility to women and who can relate effectively to and collaborate effectively both with female colleagues and the increasing ranks of female general counsel.  These are men who can comfortably acknowledge gender as an evident but secondary characteristic.

So there is some good news, as Anny Tubbs, Chief Business Integrity Officer for Unilever (Belgium) and Unilever’s first general counsel, suggests:

There is more focus on gender balance these days.  We see male and female leaders who are very open about these issues and mindful of providing opportunities for women as well as men.  There are more inspiring female role models, and fewer derogatory comments about professional women – all of which makes our jobs more rewarding.”

At the other end of the spectrum are the male lawyers who are tone-deaf to the dysfunctional inter-gender communication climate in which they work daily, who dismiss the issue as an artifact of whining women having chosen to play where the Big Boys play – or who think that women have chosen to unempower themselves by introducing the tension between practicing law and having children into the male-female power equation.

This is not a group we can expect to respond to exhortations to be more inclusive and less domineering.  Experience suggests that they will not address underlying attitudes about gender and power, so not much is to be gained by simply banging on the unenlightened.

In the middle, however, there are legions of males who deny oppressive intent, who are offended at the suggestion that they are closet misogynists or power-mongers, and who want to be let off the hook.

The Words and the Music

For example, one of these male lawyers recently forwarded us an article from the AOL Men’s Netscape explaining why men don’t listen to women, with the tantalizing subheading, “He really isn’t listening to you! But you won’t believe the reason why.”  Okay, friends, here’s the article’s answer: “When men and women speak, the human brain processes the sounds of those voices differently…The female voice is actually more complex than the male voice…Men have to work hard deciphering what women are saying because they use the auditory part of the brain that processes music, not human voices.  Men’s brains are not designed to listen to women’s voices.  It’s not the pitch of the woman’s voice, but rather the vibration and number of sound waves that cause the problem.” [emphasis added]

Well, that explains everything: asymmetrical communication is simply due to “differences in the size and shape of the vocal cords and larynx between men and women.”  As Daffy Duck used to say, “Hah, hah, it is to laugh.”

When we read this article, we thought immediately of the discredited discipline of phrenology, which held that the shape of a person’s head correlated with various attributes, including intelligence and success.  Like the “words-as-music” article, this is a seductively simplistic explanation to a complex, multi-variable phenomenon.

While the research described in this article may in fact be valid, it is absurd to present it as the explanation for asymmetrical communication patterns. We have similar problems with pundits who suggest that poor inter-gender communication is simply a matter of differences in male-female cognitive style.  While such differences, and the stylistic preferences they engender, are well documented, ascribing Feminenglish solely to such differences dodges underlying issues about the dynamics of power.

Moreover, noted executive coach Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn might remind us that there are plenty of respected women leaders who seem to have no difficulty making themselves heard and understood by men. Here we might mention Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Indra Nooyi, Meg Whitman, Ginni Rometty, Mary Barra, and the (former and current) political heads of Australia, Brazil, Germany, Austria, Norway, Poland, Ireland, India, Israel,  Canada, Switzerland, The Philippines, South Korea, and New Zealand. Some of these women are strident, some are soft-spoken.  All command respect for their knowledge, judgment and wisdom. These women don’t just merit a place at the table, they own the table.

These accomplished women prove that it is certainly possible to project hard power in male-dominated environments, and that men’s brains can, in fact, hear women.  But the burning question remains: Must all women resort to hard power in order to be taken seriously?

Next: Tactics and techniques for better-balanced communication.

© 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 III: Causes and Consequences

Posted in Law firm practices, Legal Project Management

present but not heardOur current series of posts about Feminenglish, that peculiar deferential language female lawyers and business women have learned to speak in meetings with men, and last year’s related series about how men tend to grab the mike in meetings and “borrow” women’s ideas, are not intended as a feminist manifesto or a deep dive into diversity policy, gender politics or gender studies. Those worthy topics are the province of other authorities far more expert than we.

Our premise has been this: because of lawyers’ communication-related disconnects, discord, distrust and discouragement, particularly with respect to women, the legal profession is wasting a lot of horsepower. An unacceptable amount of horsepower.

What a Drag

In readers’ responses to these series, some have asked why we don’t confine our comments to our home field — the discipline of Legal Project Management (LPM) and its hallmark emphasis on systems, procedures and operations: good scoping, good planning, good budgeting, good monitoring and good post-project review. Here’s the answer:  as we continue to report on LPM trends and developments, we see all too clearly how often it is that human factors – lawyers’ behaviors, attitudes and particularly communication styles – produce the greatest “friction losses” in productivity, lawyer morale, and client satisfaction.

Pop leadership guru Jim Collins emphasizes that excellent organizational performance is a matter of “getting the right people on the bus.” But there’s a huge difference between having the right people on the bus and consigning half of them to the back of the bus.

A perfect example: a female partner in a major litigation firm tells us her firm has firmly embraced LPM, largely because their clients insisted they do so.  “Our processes and LPM technology are quite good,” she says. “But an interesting thing: when it comes to staffing our project teams, it’s always the men who do the frontline, client-facing lawyering, and it’s always female lawyers who are assigned the backroom LPM functions – the administrative functions, monitoring, budget tracking, the busy work.”

We’ve even given ourselves a name: ‘The LPM housewives.’ We do all the domestic work, but we seldom get the chance to show what we can do as lawyers  or interface with the client.”

So yes, we are on a crusade regarding a topic that falls squarely in our wheelhouse, that is, our longstanding war on waste – on anything that erodes productivity, service quality, and/or client satisfaction in the legal profession.  It has become accepted wisdom that the troubled state of inter-gender communications among lawyers creates huge inefficiencies, both in degraded collaboration between lawyers working together on project teams and in compromised communication between law firms and their clients.

When the Client is a She

On this latter point, the expanding ranks of female general counsel and senior in-house lawyers are particularly vocal in their criticism of firms that trot out diverse-appearing marketing teams, only to see the female and minority team members shushed in the marketing pitch and marginalized during subsequent legal service delivery.  Accordingly, in their RFPs and subsequent oversight of outside counsel, they take diversity particularly seriously – as a team effectiveness issue as much as a moral imperative.

But while diversity and gender-related communication asymmetry are certainly related, they are not identical: while the client can mandate the composition of marketing and service delivery teams, it is hard for them to create explicit performance standards for the quality of team communication. As we will discuss in our next post, maintaining effective communication must become a self-reinforcing and self-policing activity – for lawyers of both genders.

A Matter of Morale

In addition to the functional friction losses caused by current inter-gender communication patterns, we hear constantly about the enormous profession-wide decline in morale among female lawyers. In this regard, Feminenglish imposes huge social and emotional costs as well as operational inefficiencies, starving female lawyers of the human rewards of respect, acceptance, inclusion, and collegiality. Scores of women, in all legal settings and at all levels, tell us vivid war stories and horror stories about the humiliating frustrations of trying to navigate an uneven playing field, about unequal access to opportunity and the marketplace of ideas, about earning a place at the table only to be encouraged just to sit there and shut up.  They tell us about agonizing whether to give up on the profession altogether (and an increasing number are doing so).

This broad scale malaise and escalating exodus from the profession are of justifiable concern to managing partners and firm executive committees.  That’s because their band-aid attempts to address “failure to thrive” – women’s initiatives, female-to-female meet-ups, and diversity task forces – simply are not changing the climate.  The level of  female lawyers making equity partner has now remained stagnant for decades, the number of females ascending to law firm governance remains low, and the high attrition rate continues among both associates and partners.

Leverage at the Apex

Some august experts discount the importance of this loss of emotional sustenance by subscribing to what might be called the “Tough Darts Doctrine.” They suggest that because law and business have historically been male-dominated environments, a woman’s decision to abandon Venus to compete on Mars implies a willingness to weather an inevitable bunch of slings and arrows in order to succeed on men’s terms: “Hey, you say that in order to be a big dog equity partner you have to undergo a personality transplant?  Well, tough darts.”

For example, Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn, one of the nation’s foremost coaches for corporate C-suite executives and author of Destined to Lead, suggests that women who ascend to the highest rungs of corporate power learn to operate as if oblivious to the costs of asymmetrical communication; like the fierce Amazon warriors of legend, they suck it up, tough it out, and give as good as they get. In style, Dr. Wasylyshyn suggests, they are neither hyper-masculine nor hyper-feminine; they operate as if the world is gender-neutral, and their motivation is not diminished by suggestions that they are aggressive or “difficult.” To borrow a phrase from writer Simon Winchester, they become comfortable with “projecting hard power.”

Perhaps this damn-the-human-costs attitude produces individual rewards for apex performers atop the hierarchical corporate ladder, but we believe that overall it is dysfunctional in law firm settings supposedly defined by canons of partnership and professionalism, rather than raw power. We cannot expect all female lawyers to be apex Amazons willing to run roughshod over their colleagues – nor is it desirable to expect them to be. As a practical matter, and as we’ve suggested above, the costs of mediated communication get passed through to the client, and when this bias gets validated and reinforced, in the end, everybody – law firm, client, and individual lawyer – loses.

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

High Power, Low Volume: The Dynamics of Feminenglish, Part II

Posted in Law firm practices, Legal Project Management

Unplugged MicrophoneTypical of the way catchy neologisms leap into common currency, there’s a hot new compliment making the rounds these days: “So-and-so speaks truth to power.”  The connotations of this high-powered compliment are rich indeed, suggesting here’s a person who is confident, courageous, smart, principled, forceful, truthful, and outspoken.

The so-and-so receiving this compliment is almost invariably male. That’s because it’s difficult – and frequently risky – for women in the business and legal world to speak truth to power.  And when they do, suddenly it’s not praiseworthy behavior. It’s…aggressive, confrontive, rebellious, self-aggrandizing and somehow inappropriate. For example, Academy-Award winning actress Jennifer Lawrence (the world’s highest paid actress in 2015) recently wrote:

A few weeks ago at work, I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-bullshit way; No aggression, just blunt.  The man I was working with (actually he was working for me) said, ‘Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!’  As if I were yelling at him. I was so shocked, because nothing that I said was personal, offensive, or, to be honest, wrong. All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and when I give mine in the same exact manner, you would have thought I said something offensive.”

Women in a Meeting – and Elsewhere

In the first post in this series (“Battling Law’s Second Language,”) we coined a neologism of our own, describing Feminenglish as a distinct intergender communication dialect, “a language of self-defense, of frustrated communication, of lost and stolen ideas … of stymied career progression.” We noted that it is most observable in group meetings.

Feminenglish is a complex, shape-shifting phenomenon, an exercise in constant situational adaptation, of flying below the radar. Men often deny that it exists (or if it does, it’s not through their manipulative motives). High-powered women in law and business know it exists, that it represents the omnipresent backbeat in the rhythm of group communication. For women, Feminenglish represents an added layer of discourse, the simultaneous translation of what you want to say into a mode that does not make waves.  As Washington Post reporter Alexandra Petri puts it, “you start with your thought, then you figure out how to say it as though you were offering a groveling apology for an unspecified error.”

Signature Symptoms

Although infinitely nuanced, Feminenglish frequently has a number of common “tells.”  The first and most frequent is simmering silence, a rapid intake of breath through the nose and a forward-leaning shift in posture communicating that we wish to speak…sometimes followed by a silent, discouraged sigh: Better to sit down and shut up. Sullen silence often is accompanied by other adjustments in posture intended to communicate a sense of “what’s the use?”: shoulders rolled forward, eyes lowered or averted, hands and arms held close to the chest. Later, when someone else trots out the idea that the frustrated speaker decided not to articulate, we see a pained wince, a rolling of the eyes.

Sorry I’m So Stupid

Feminenglish also builds on frequently employing a self-effacing disclaimer or apology, meant to signal acknowledgement that it is presumptuous and inappropriate to try to break into the flow of conversation:

  • I’m sorry, Stan, but if I might venture a thought… “
  • I don’t mean to speak out of turn, but…”
  • “Maybe I’m off-base here, but…”
  • “I don’t know. This may seem like a dumb idea, but…”
  • “Of course I could be wrong, but…”
  • “Maybe this would be better brought up later, but I just want to suggest…”
  • “Forgive me if this seems out of line, but…”

Note that the classic disclaimer construction always sticks the word “but” after the initial ritual self-flagellation. In common English usage, sticking “but” in the middle of a sentence negates everything that goes before it (“That was a pretty good presentation, Ed, but…”).  Not so in Feminenglish, where the use of “but” is intended to open a little teensy-weensy door through which the speaker might presume to push through a smidgin’ of substantive content.

Con Permiso

Closely related to the disclaimer is a respectful request for permission to speak, utter an idea, state an opinion, or ask a clarifying question:

  • “Can I possibly raise a concern here?”
  • “May I suggest an approach that we might consider?”
  • “Could I take a moment to respond?”
  • “I’m sorry to break into your train of thought, but could you clarify …”

Sadly, this conversational gambit frequently fails.  All the parental figure who has been asked permission has to do is say, “Maybe we can get to that later,” or “Sue, why don’t you and I discuss that off line,” or even, “Well, let’s move on.”  Boom. Total power asymmetry. Big time denial of respect in front of the group.  Loss of face.  Feminenglish speakers have learned that asking permission is dangerous unless you know you will be accorded attention and consideration – and how often is that?

Asking a Question?

Uptalk, a lift in inflection at the end of a phrase, is how we ask questions in English.  We laugh when millennials and other lower-order life forms default to uptalk for declarative statements (“He’s, like, so awesome?”).  Yet Feminenglish contains uptalk all the time, because its speakers have learned that asking a question can serve as an oblique way to state an opinion:

  • “Would it make sense to run that idea past the client?”
  • “Why don’t we consider using associates in our Houston office for the preliminary discovery?”
  • “Does it make sense to explore early settlement, since the client has emphasized real cost constraints?”

Hiding in the Tall Grass

In an effort to avoid the personal body shots that often come when they presume to speak for themselves or take a personal stand, Feminenglish speakers frequently use the nominative “we” rather than “I” to invoke the spirit of collaboration, consensus and team play. They have learned a basic rule of Feminenglish grammar: “I behind we, except after thee.”

Petri suggests, for example, that a Feminenglish translation of:

“I came. I saw. I conquered” would be:

“I don’t want to toot my own horn here at all, but I definitely have been to those places and was just honored to be part of it as our team did such a wonder job of conquering them.”

Who You Callin’ Passive?

The safest tactic, of course, is to eschew all reference to oneself (as part of a team or not) and hide behind the grammatical anonymity of the passive voice.  Thus, “I can’t do that” becomes “It will be impossible for that brief to be completed by Tuesday.”  Similarly, “I think that’s a really stupid approach” can be expressed passively as, “there is a significant likelihood that that approach might not succeed.”  The subjunctive voice is helpful too: it’s a lot less confrontive to say, “might” and “could,” than to assert “shall” and “will.”

Join the Discussion…Please

In our next post, we will discuss where Feminenglish comes from and where it is likely to lead.  As lawyers would put it, the issue will be joined. We hope for an active debate.  Meanwhile, please add your fuel to the Feminenglish fire – on one side or the other — by taking us up on our previous request to send us your own experiences, examples and, yes, opinions.

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

Battling Law’s Second Language

Posted in Law firm practices

Chalkboard FeminenglishAmericans are derided in foreign cultures because so few of us speak a “foreign” language. We simply figure that in light of America’s overwhelming economic, political and cultural power, we are entitled to demand that everyone around the world – particularly lawyers, business people and airline pilots — speak to us Americans in the way that is most convenient to us.  “Be reasonable,” we insist. “Say it our way.” And we marginalize those who don’t, consigning them to the realm of subtitles.

Yet a huge percentage of Americans do speak – actually are forced to speak — a second language, and the irony is that they are both compelled to speak it and yet are ridiculed for speaking it. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

What’s That You Say?

We speak, of course, of a language we might call Deferential English. Actually, because our national second language is so predominately expressed in the dialects and manners expected of the gentle sex, let us propose a more honest designation: Feminenglish.

This is the language imposed by men – with a wink, a steel fist (whether in a velvet glove or not) and feigned innocence – mostly on women, at least in the legal and business world.  While it may sound a lot like “regular” English, Feminenglish has a distinct and distinctive vocabulary, grammar, syntax, volume, gestures, mannerisms, timbre, and intonation. It is the dialect spoken by the legal and business world’s women. Often most notable in group meetings (The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri describes “Women in a Meeting” as a “language of its own”), Feminenglish is no less common, and no less damaging in one-on-one male-female interactions.

Feminenglish is mediated discourse, a dialect that requires women to worry about dodging a bullet even as they try to make a point. It is the language of self-defense, of frustrated communication, of lost and stolen ideas, of stymied career progression…of resentment. It is a language that both reflects and perpetuates a profound socio-cultural imbalance of power – both in the legal profession and elsewhere.

Tellin’ It Like It Isn’t

If business English – essentially masculine English — is the language of power and dominance, the language spoken at the table by those who have won a seat at the table, Feminenglish is the language of deference to power; it is the dialect of circumscribed authority, of the overwhelming importance of not giving offense, lest one be humiliated, criticized, marginalized, ostracized or simply ignored in the course of important communications.

Let’s be clear: Feminenglish is a seriously compromised mode of communication. The effect of Feminenglish is to suck the energy out of communication content. To dilute the force of ideas in a fog of understatement and a veneer of apology. To compel oblique circumlocution and discourage a powerful thinker from claiming individual ownership of their intellectual currency. It’s not hard to understand why, by and large, even Feminenglish’s most adroit speakers don’t like Feminenglish.

Feminenglish perpetuates unproductive gender stereotypes. It’s also a huge waste: To the extent it encourages men to discount the contributions of women – to interrupt them, to appropriate their ideas, to demean them as weak, indecisive or passive – it reflects a huge disincentive for women of enormous talent to stand and deliver.  Strong women who do not wish to be forced to speak Feminenglish have the option to vote with their feet.  And they are, marching en masse out of law firms, out of legal departments, out of the legal profession altogether.

But They Do It

Other languages – German and French come to mind – also have multiple grammatical cases depending on who is speaking and who is spoken to, but they use variations in grammar, declension and conjugation to reinforce cultural norms of formality/informality and relative intimacy – irrespective of gender.  To our knowledge, the only formally “gendered language” where men speak like men and women speak like women is Japanese – not surprising in a culture based on its canons of deference, as well as the subservient status it has historically imposed upon women.

Supposedly those qualified to practice law speak their own arcane second language: Legalspeak. This is a gender-neutral language based on competency, a language that communicates mastery of subject-matter expertise, breadth of knowledge and business savvy and astute legal judgment. Supposedly Legalspeak is what clients are paying law firms for, the tongue in-house lawyers are salaried to speak. In the real world of interpersonal communication, however, all too often Feminenglish trumps Legalspeak.

What Are You Talking About?

It’s possible that you have read this far without a flash of recognition going off, particularly if you are of the male persuasion.  If so, quickly convene a group of women – any size group – and ask, “How many of you have heard described as ‘aggressive’ in women the same behaviors that are described as ‘assertive’ in men?  Raise your hands.”  We guarantee that the uplifted arms will block out the sun. For those of you in denial, this should serve as a practical demonstration that we are not whistling Dixie here.

Still can’t imagine what Feminenglish sounds like?  Here’s a couple of examples, courtesy of Alexandra Petri’s recent Washington Post article, “Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them in a meeting:”

“Give me liberty, or give me death!”

Woman in a meeting: “Dave, if I could, I could just – I really feel like if we had liberty it would be terrific, and the alternative would be just awful, you know?  That’s just how it strikes me. I don’t know.”

“I have a dream today!”

Woman in a meeting:  “I’m sorry, I just had this idea – it’s probably crazy, but – look, just as long as we’re throwing things out here – I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?”

 We’re Baaack

You may ask why a couple of bloggers best known for expertise in Legal Project Management (LPM) have chosen to wade into the murky swamp of intergender dynamics.  Simple.  LPM is a discipline with a dual purpose: better legal service delivery and improved law firm-client relationships.  LPM promotes greater efficiency and effectiveness , but it is not just about methods and systems and budgets and metrics. LPM also is a communication engine, a set of practical protocols that drives better interactions. Anything that impedes clear and candid communication erodes efficiency and fosters discord is anathema to LPM, and that certainly includes Feminenglish.

In 2015, we published a series of posts about social science research demonstrating the damaging impact of Manterruption and Bropropriation, that is, the tendency of men to interrupt women in group communications and appropriate their ideas and insights as their own. Obviously, these communication habits foster Feminenglish and operate as performance disincentives.  We quoted researcher Dr. Arin Reeves: “We cannot talk about women’s retention, advancement and leadership in the workplace without exploring what happens when women are constantly interrupted. If women cannot even be heard, can they truly advance into leadership?” [emphasis added]

We took a lot of heat for those posts (“When did you become such whining feminists?”), but we also got an avalanche of thank you notes.  And friends, we’re at it again, because when it comes to Feminenglish, it is irresponsible – perhaps immoral – to let sleeping dogs lie.  In our next several posts in this series, we’re going to look first at how Feminenglish is spoken and then explore how to escape its debilitating grasp.

More important, we are asking for your help. We’re trying to open up discourse on this subject.  In future posts, we will share examples (anonymously, if preferred), in order to shine a light on the problem and support solutions to the current asymmetry in communications. Please share your experience with us. We’re happy to provide airtime, and we are all ears.

Please tune in for subsequent posts in this series.


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

Wishin’ and Hopin’ … and Sittin’ on Your Hands

Posted in Legal Department Management

heads-in-the-sandWhat if you invented a better mousetrap, but the world didn’t beat a path to your door? What if you developed a promising new medicine for a troubling condition, but when the doctor prescribed it, the patient refused to take it, simply sticking it in the desk drawer while continuing to complain about the malady?

At the very least, you’d lament lost opportunities.  At worst, your disillusionment and cynicism would drive you to check out of Frustration Hotel and repair to the nearest solo-occupancy desert island.  And so it is with many of us trying to improve the current state of the legal profession.

What If the Paradigm Doesn’t Shift?

Recently Stephanie Kimbro, a respected, gifted and innovative thought leader in the legal profession, wrote an utterly discouraged and discouraging blog post in which she threw in the towel:

I have written, researched, co-founded, created, evangelized, volunteered, taught and counseled lawyers and others in the legal profession…I was originally motivated by the idea that I could make an impact on the legal profession, educate lawyers to use technology to improve the delivery of legal services, and help increase access to justice…After fighting uphill battles and still seeing the pace of adoption and attitude change go at a snail’s pace, I’ve decided to stop trying.

The issue here is not simply the tragic loss of Ms. Kimbro’s wisdom and insights, the loss of a committed resource to the legal profession.  The bigger problem is the legal profession’s denial of profession-threatening  economic paradigm shifts and its resolute resistance to innovations, technologies and methodologies that could make legal service more effective, more efficient, and, above all, less costly.

In the face of forces, factors and developments that pundits told us would fundamentally alter – for the better – the law firm-client relationship and the modus operandi of legal service delivery, a profession still ruled by the nattering nabobs of negativism (Google it) continues with its head stuck firmly…in a state of denial. The sleeping giant simply will not wake up.

Who Is to Blame?

The malady is confined neither to lawyers in law firms nor lawyers working in-house.  All too many still sit passively as momentous events and forces threaten to steamroll them.  There are innovative law firm leaders who are attempting to lead, but the rank and file simply are not following. Most law firm lawyers still swear that the billable hour – which equates value conferred with the amount of time spent delivering service – will have to be pried from their cold, dead hands.  And game-changing technology?  If a new software tool requires more than two key punches, fuhgeddaboudit.

Still, when it comes to assigning responsibility for antediluvian legal business practices, we must cast the lion’s share of the blame on the client – on in-house counsel responsible for selecting, managing and, if need be, imposing discipline on outside counsel.  Law firms’ resistance to change can be understood, if not forgiven, because they are simply clinging to an historical economic and bargaining imbalance that long gave them the upper hand and made them a lot of money.

Oh, Poor Pitiful Me

Harder to fathom is the lethargy of in-house counsel. Sulking on the other side of that wall between firms and clients (a wall that many optimists like ourselves hoped could be demolished by improved techniques for law firm-client collaboration and communication), the in-house folks continue to wail and rend their garments in response to the draconian cost pressures they are experiencing, all the while proceeding to do nothing about it except demand discounted billing rates from their outside counsel (a stratagem shown to play well with the execs in the C-suite, but produce absolutely zero reduction in overall legal costs).

William Henderson, a professor at the University of Indiana’s Maurer School of Law and a pioneer in the rapidly evolving discipline of Legal Project Management, recently simply could not contain his astonishment at the inability and unwillingness of in-house counsel to exercise the negotiating leverage that the global financial crisis has bestowed upon them: “I overestimated the ability of in-house lawyers to effectively use their purchasing power in their own long term interests.”

It’s All a Matter of Will

As we see it, this problem basically is a matter of will —and will not:  1) In-house counsel lack the will to compel beneficial changes. 2) Law firms will not change.  Oh, they would if enough important clients imposed sufficient disincentives to their inflated billing practices and  inefficient, hidebound service delivery methods.

But clients can’t…or won’t…or don’t know how.  As a result,  a variety of proven innovations – including requiring accurate budgeting, alternative fee arrangements, using e-billing for data mining firm billing practices,  RFPs with real pricing teeth, Legal Project Management,  Legal Process Improvement, Legal Process Outsourcing, integrated budgeting and project management software,  to name but a few – have failed to gain traction and enjoy wide acceptance.  For the moment, it appears to us as if the Luddites are winning.  Ms. Kimbro’s frustration is understandable.

In an email stream attendant to the 2015 annual conference of the Association of Corporate Counsel, consultant Susan Hackett, former General Counsel of the ACC, tweeted about “VMWare’s wish for firms to stop charging as if every matter is one of first impression; stop charging to re-invent the wheel.” When I responded that “the solution is for clients to decide and reinforce what they WILL pay, instead of making the same time-worn complaint,” one in-house counsel (and I trust he was just being sarcastic) responded,

I wish the lawyers whose huge bills I keep paying without question would suddenly start charging me less without me asking.”

When Pigs Fly

Oh, sure, that’s gonna happen (just beware of all those flying pigs). Dusty Springfield once sang a pop ballad called “Wishin and Hopin’,” the refrain of which was that “wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’, dreamin’ every night of his charms, won’t get you into his arms.”  In other words, to get what you want, you have to take some action and create meaningful incentives in order to compel needed change. For in-house counsel, it really is time to stop wishin’ and start taking action.

One would think that today’s economic imperatives and drastic budgetary complaints would impel in-house counsel to exercise their newly-acquired leverage.  So far, sadly, inertia is winning out over pain.


© 2015, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.

Strategic Pricing: Creating Conditions to Succeed

Posted in Law Firm Profits



The difference between pricing legal work the way law firms have always done it and strategic pricing is simple: The former looks at the price tag from the law firm’s point of view, focusing on revenue and profitability.  The latter focuses not on how much clients can be convinced to pay, but on perceived bang for the buck, that is, how the client looks at value in the context of its overall business. 


The Plan, Boss, The Plan!

Every year, most law firms undertake a strategic planning process, and every year their top three goals are the same:

  1. Generate more revenue
  2. Become more profitable
  3. Make certain we have (or go get) the right talent to achieve items 1, and 2.

If you read further into the strategic plan summary that every partner parks in a bottom desk drawer, somewhere waaaaay down the list of firm objectives you may find some vague reference to measuring client satisfaction or client performance management.

These plans – wish lists, really –  tend to be perennial exercises in futility: they neither serve as practical roadmaps for lawyer behavior nor provide practical steps for revenue-enhancement, increased profitability and sophisticated talent management.  As a result, they serve as poor foundations for internal pricing practices.

The Tendency Toward Navel Staring

Unfortunately, all too often law firms treat pricing as an inwardly-oriented activity that generates a price-point that then is imposed on the client. This fosters a mindset that asks only, what will the traffic bear?  Today this mindset is not working.

Every law firm managing partner will tell you that it is becoming progressively harder to land work – new work or repeat business — in today’s competitive marketplace.  Fierce competition for a piece of an essentially fixed pie has triggered an all-hands-on-deck approach to business development. No more trichotomy between finders, minders and grinders.   Today, every partner must go beyond being a profitable individual contributor.  To avoid being marginalized or “made available to the market,” he or she must also be a successful rainmaker and a mini-P&L center.

And even putting all the troops on the front line is not maintaining – much less growing – the revenue stream. Despite their yearly plan to make more money, today many law firms are struggling to stay even: 35% of large law firms’ revenues are declining.

It’s surprising that more firms don’t consider an obvious truism: if clients are not satisfied – if they don’t think their interests are being given top priority by outside counsel – goals 1 and 2, above, are unattainable; clients will take their work and money elsewhere.  As for goal 3, merely having a lot of skilled bodies on the bus will not automatically realize the firm’s financial goals – not unless the clients feel they have received fair value for the cost of services and continue to engage that talent.

This intense emphasis on BD means that most law firm’s strategic plans look through the wrong end of the telescope, concentrating on sending more feet out on the street to beat more bucks out of the bushes. What should be happening is that pricing, revenue and profitability should be looked at through a broader lens: a shift in focus toward a client-centric view of the legal world in which alignment with client goals is Priority One, Job One, and Metric One.

Client-Centric Thinking

In an era where law firms no longer call all the shots in the law firm-client relationship and where bargaining leverage has shifted to the client, law firms’ cards-held-close-to-the-vest orientation does not foster client satisfaction or trust. In negotiations, an adversarial backbeat persists, the client constantly worrying, are we going to be paying too much for this outcome?

On the other hand, strategic pricing, which is built on a detailed inquiry into how the client defines value, can become the keystone for a relationship where the client feels that the costs relate fairly and efficiently to his needs.

Instead of asking, “How much money do we want to take in this year?” and “What rates and pricing structures are necessary to hit our numbers?” law firms should be asking “What can we do to more fully understand not just our clients legal needs, but also their business needs?” That question answered, firms should then ask themselves, “How can we meet those needs more consistently, efficiently, and predictably?”

Framing the Strategic Context

Before the firm fires off a pricing proposal, its lawyers need to find out what the client really wants and expects from the work they are considering  sending  to the firm.  Unless a lawyer is performing true commodity work, where each matter is exactly like the next and the desired outcomes are identical, the firm’s pricing experts must first ask the client some key questions to create a strategic context for the legal work:

  • What are the client’s primary goals – the key deliverables — for this matter? What constitutes a win from the client’s point of view? What are the stakes?
  • If these goals are achieved, what benefit will that provide the client?
  • What budget do they have in mind? (And be clear: clients always have a budget number in mind.)
  • What criteria do they use to evaluate outside counsel?
  • As members of the in-house legal team, how are they evaluated for how well they manage outside counsel and outside legal spend?

These framing questions are entry-points for further nuts-and-bolts pricing discussions. The client’s answers to these threshold inquiries will, in turn, shape and direct further questions that lead to accurate and comprehensive understanding of the engagement.

Now It’s Numbers Time

It is only when  a lawyer fully understands the full sweep of client goals and priorities that strategic pricing can begin.  That is one reason why simply pulling a budget from a prior matter off the shelf so often leads to disaster.

For example, if an earlier budget was formulated around the goal of resolving a dispute as rapidly as possible, that budget might be heavily front-end loaded with partner time to bring an early-stage full-court-press to bear.  If, on the other hand, the goal of a new matter is to put the brakes on a matter, drag it out, and wear the other side down, the budget naturally will look substantially different.  Bear in mind too that there may be many client voices and interests to be considered:  Lawyers may want to make law and establish precedents, whereas business unit heads who are footing the tab may want to minimize outside legal spend at all costs. Different goals have markedly different budgetary implications. If the lawyer doing the pricing has no idea what the client’s goals are, the budget is likely to be an unrealistic estimate, bad fit, or recipe for overruns down the road.

It is no accident that the Association of Corporate Counsel, in creating their suggested Outside Counsel Scorecard, listed the following service quality criteria for outside counsel (listed in order of importance):

  1. Understood Client Goals
  2. Legal Expertise
  3. Efficiency
  4. Responsiveness
  5. Predictive Accuracy
  6. Effectiveness

Note that understanding the client’s goals is listed first. That understanding is the starting point for having firm lawyers  select the right team, craft the right budget, and achieve an effective (for the client!) resolution of a matter. All other desiderata flow from there.

If firms want to achieve their financial goals, they must support true strategic pricing by incentivizing lawyers to focus on the value they can provide to clients — not just the hourly rates du jour.  That does not mean tickets to ball games or fancy dinners or sending newsletters.  It means talking with clients in meaningful ways – day in and day out, not just when a fee estimate is being prepared — about their business contexts and their goals for the work they are outsourcing to firms. When clients are truly the first priority, the conditions for law firm financial success fall right into line.

© 2015, Pam Woldow, Doug Richardson & Legal Leadership LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.

Five Critical Questions Every Client Should Ask Law Firms About Budgets

Posted in Legal Department Management

imagesAlthough dramatic changes in law’s economic landscape have conferred far greater bargaining leverage and purchasing power on clients, in budget discussions with outside law firms, many in-house counsel just aren’t asking the right questions. Clients simply cannot optimize budget planning and management without  knowing the answers to these five questions:

  1. Has the Budget Process Included Input from Primary Client Stakeholders?

Going beyond negotiations among lawyers on the law firm and client side, the budget must reflect input from client constituents who have “skin in the game.”  This is especially important where a client business unit is paying for the legal services even though the company legal department is assigning the work to outside counsel.  What may seem important (or acceptable in cost) to in-house counsel may not have the same level of acceptance by line management and business group “clients.”

  1. Does the Law Firm Have Appropriate and Adequate Resources to Deliver the Work Described in the Budget?

Many clients take the competency of outside counsel as a given. But there may be gaps in the capabilities even of well-respected firms, in terms both of subject matter expertise and “person power.” Partners in law firms are ambitious people, and in today’s competitive environment, there are times when the “promise” of services evidenced in the budget exceeds the firm’s “power” to deliver them.  That may mean, for example, that associates assigned to certain matters have insufficient knowledge and experience, which can lead to considerably more partner time than was contemplated by the original budget.

Another common resource allocation issue is law firm turnover.  For example, a particular practice group may have 15 – 20% annual turnover of associates (not uncommon), which leads to a constant and expensive (in terms of delays and costs) “churn” of the team working on a client matter.  The client is entitled to understand how the law firm will select and manage the team in order to stay within budget and achieve the client’s goals.

  1. Does the Budget Reflect Risk Management as well as Just Getting Tasks Done?

A good budget should include both a thorough exploration of client goals and a clear-eyed assessment of legal risks.  The budget should identify potential risks and unexpected events, determine the likelihood of their occurrence, and evaluate the anticipated financial impact of each risk to the client.

  1. Does the Budget Include Legal Work That Is Not Essential to the Client Goals for the Matter?

Law firm lawyers often have a hard time distinguishing between fundamental and incidental legal work, between what must be done to reach the client’s goals and turning over every rock along the path. Historically, firms have been driven to take every step, conduct all research, look at every case, and explore every rabbit hole in order to deliver legal services – and to keep the billing clock running, as well.  That may be appropriate in some matters, but more often exhaustive lawyering just is not needed.  And in today’s cost-constrained legal environment, clients view “overlawyering” as a cardinal sin.

  1. Does the Budget Include a Mechanism for Effective Communication and Keeping Key Client Stakeholders Appropriately Informed of Matter Status?

Budgets are not just about numbers; they’re also about when and how those numbers are communicated to the client. Excellent communication takes time, and clients may have specific needs about how and when they need status updates.

If the client needs reports in certain formats, wants reports to include cost and risk projections, or wants outside counsel to participate in weekly telephone check-ins, the budget should include line items for the needed communication. By including the communication as a separate budget item, the clients can assure themselves that their outside counsel are focusing on their specific needs and that there won’t be complaints (and requests for budget changes) about how much time updates are taking.

© 2015, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.