My Blog - Connecting the Dots

Using psychology to improve practice efficiency (Pt. 2 of 3)

Posted by Jack Bostelman on Apr 14, 2013 | 0 Comments

This is Part 2 of a three-part series. In Part 1, the chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm learns about special lawyer personality traits that get in the way of internal law firm management initiatives, and applies his new understanding to a legal project management pilot. In this part, he applies his new understanding to another project – a program to collect better data about matter experience. In Part 3, he applies his new understanding to two more initiatives, an effort to revitalize management of an important practice group and a project to revamp internal CLE programs for senior associates and partners.

How do these strategies apply to practice efficiency projects? (cont'd)

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In Part 1, Keith Mayfield, chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm, learned that lawyers have personality traits different than the average population, based on studies by former trial lawyer-turned-management consultant Dr. Larry Richard. Those personality traits get in the way of most internal law firm management initiatives that require partner participation. In two recent blog posts discussed in Part 1, Dr. Richard describes how to overcome those personality traits:  seek buy-in (while avoiding sticks, and even carrots) and apply “intervention” strategies at the outset. Those strategies include:  putting the request in terms of what motivates the partner, envisioning next steps, getting the commitment in writing, making the commitment public to the partner's peers, creating small partner groups to discuss how to proceed, explaining why the project has meaning, and removing obstacles. In a new blog post, Dr. Richard describes additional strategies to get lawyer to follow through, including:

  • Point out someone in the firm who has successfully completed the desired task, which is based on research showing that studying a role model works better than being told what to do;
  • Provide moderate amounts of objective (non-judgmental) feedback as the task progresses;
  • Break the task into smaller units, so these milestones can be recognized as successes, in order to motivate;
  • Pair lawyers on the project so they have a mutual commitment;
  • If possible, set up the task as a kind of friendly competition with other lawyers who are asked to do similar tasks, recognizing that lawyers by nature are competitive;
  • Explain that other firms, or groups within your own firm, have successfully completed the task, sometimes called the “band wagon effect”;
  • Weave a story around a lawyer's true accomplishment to communicate desired behavior, which leverages off human beings' natural response to stories;
  • Lead by example and don't be a hypocrite – get your own task completed promptly;
  • If the firm has a clear set of values that  are honored in practice, tie completion of the task to those values;
  • Get the firm's thought leaders to complete their tasks in a timely and visible way; and
  • Before describing the full task, ask for completion of the first small step, because completion of a small commitment is more likely to lead to completion of the larger commitment.

In Part 1, Keith applied many of those strategies to get his firm's legal project management pilot back on track. In this part, Keith turns his attention another project – a program to collect better data about matter experience.

Collecting data about completed matters

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Recognizing that without more lawyer input the administrative staff cannot gather accurate and complete profile data about concluded matters, Keith has started a lawyer-driven project to collect this information. This experience data will be used to assist lawyers in identifying comparable matters for purposes of finding precedents, preparing pitch materials, staffing matters with lawyers who have relevant experience and identifying internal experts on a particular type of matter. The data can also be used for more complete league table reporting. The project envisions associates submitting the required data at the end of each matter, using an on-line form.

Keith had asked a partner in the firm's capital markets group to head this project, but progress has been limited. The partner has been diligent in pursing the initiative, but has been getting limited traction with her fellow partners and the associates in the practice group. The main challenge has been getting the many involved lawyers to attend meetings and follow up on their individual commitments.

Rethinking his approach in light of the lawyer personality principles, Keith decides on the following:

  • Hold a meeting with the capital markets group to discuss the vision for the project – the ways in which it will improve life for lawyers in the group – and to take suggestions;
  • Reconstitute the pilot team by reducing it to a half dozen of the most committed lawyers, with periodic briefings to the full capital markets group;
  • Use this smaller group to pilot an approach, identifying the data to be collected, working with the IT Dept. to develop the on-line form, and creating a workflow and follow-up process to ensure timely, accurate and complete data;
  • Persuade the chair of the capital markets group, who supports the project, to be more visible in his support, such as by attending an occasional meeting of the pilot group, discussing the project at periodic practice group meetings and at the group's partner planning meetings;
  • Identify, through partner networking and competitive intelligence research, competing firms who have successfully implemented similar data gathering and share this at practice group meetings;
  • Through the visible support of the group chair, explanation of the project's benefits to partners and emphasis that competing firms have already succeeded in data gathering, gain the commitment of the partners in the group, which will be essential in pushing associates to complete the required on-line forms;
  • Gain commitments from the thought leader partners in the practice group that they will ensure the on-line form is completed on their matters;
  • Circulate periodic e-mails to the entire practice group congratulating partners who have a high completion rate of the on-line form for their matters; and
  • Circulate e-mails to the group describing success stories about how availability of the data assisted in a successful pitch, aided efficient staffing on a matter or allowed a more complete league table submission.

Recognizing that obtaining support from the group's partners is the key to the project's success, Keith includes strategies to gain their commitment, such as applying individual motivators (support of the chair, benefits to partners, competitive pressure through public congratulations of others and bandwagon effect through what other firms are doing) and obtaining buy-in through a practice group suggestions meeting. He also applies the small group approach to the planning group, which promotes individual responsibility and mutual commitment as compared to the unwieldy large-group approach previously being pursued. The associates, on whose work the project depends, are also invited to buy in through the vision/suggestions meeting, success stories and visible support of the group chair.

In the next post

In Part 3, Keith applies his new understanding to two other projects:  the effort to revitalize management of an important practice group and a project to revamp internal “adult education” CLE programs for senior associates and partners.

[Photo credits: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / coraMax & lucadp]

About the Author

Jack Bostelman

Jack Bostelman is the president and principal consultant of KM/JD Consulting LLC. Before founding KM/JD Consulting, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

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Before founding KM/JD Consulting LLC, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

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