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What’s the fuss about after-action reviews? (Pt. 1 of 2)

Posted by Jack Bostelman on Feb 17, 2013 | 0 Comments

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. In this part, the chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm learns the purpose and key benefit of after-action reviews. In Part 2, he learns other benefits the reviews can bring, as well as when and how they should be conducted.

A puzzled law firm leader

“Why are people talking about after-action reviews?” wonders Keith Mayfield, chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm. The topic has been coming from many directions recently. One of his lateral partners has just left his office after suggesting the firm begin after-action reviews for all matters, as they did at the partner's previous firm. Last week Keith lunched with the general counsel of a prospective litigation client, who asked whether the firm regularly conducts after-action reviews. Last month Keith attended a managing partner leadership meeting, where he now remembers the subject came up briefly during a breakout session. Keith's now curious to learn more.

Keith calls the consultant who ran the breakout session, who has law firm experience, to ask why after-action reviews are being talked about.

What is an after-action review?

After-action reviews have been common in other professional services firms for a long time, explains the consultant. Law firms are playing catch-up. For example, accounting and management consulting firms regularly conduct these reviews. Some law firms do as well, and the trend is continuing.

After-action reviews focus on lessons learned. They address these questions:

  • What were our goals in the matter?
  • What actually happened in important areas, such as substantive outcome, schedule, budget and client satisfaction?
  • Why did those results occur?
  • What have we learned that we should repeat or avoid next time?

The most important step is the last one – identifying and turning into actionable items the lessons learned in the matter. Holding the review meeting and putting a memo in the files serves no purpose. The learning must be applied to future matters.

What is the purpose of after-action reviews in a law firm?

After-action reviews can serve many purposes. The main purpose, as described above, is to enable the firm or practice group to learn by considering what went right and what went wrong, so they will do it better next time. That leads to greater efficiency, better financial results for the firm, greater client satisfaction and improved lawyer morale.

The review sessions can also be the occasion to collect important information about the matter that will be useful in conducting future matters, such as the important substantive legal issues addressed (for a searchable database) or the main fee drivers for various phases, such as number of depositions or areas in which due diligence was conducted (to assist in future fee estimates and budgets).

How can we do it better next time?

Legal project management. After-action reviews are an important element of legal project management. The team sits down after completion of the matter or a key phase in the matter and discusses lessons learned – what was right and wrong about what the team did that can be used to improve future matters. Egos and defensiveness must be left at the door. The focus is on what happened, not who caused it to happen.

Share the results. For teams that work together regularly, the lessons learned become incorporated into the team's future work simply by virtue of the team members having attended the meeting. For most law firms, though, teams are assembled specifically for a matter. There needs to be a way for the lessons learned from their after-matter reviews to be shared with the other lawyers in their practice group. Regular practice group meetings would be a good forum for this sharing. Alternatively, special periodic meetings could be scheduled to hear reports of lessons learned from after-action reviews.

Topics for discussion. Possible topics to consider during an after-action review when comparing actual outcomes to upfront objectives of the matter are:

  • Was our initial understanding of the scope and objectives of the matter the same as the client's?
  • If scope changed, did we become aware of the change on a timely basis and discuss with the client how a scope change would affect schedule and budget?
  • Did we achieve the desired objectives substantively? Did we achieve them on time?
  • Did we staff the matter appropriately, in terms of seniority, experience and number of lawyers?
  • Did we come in within the fee estimate or budget the client expected? Were the amounts of the fee in each quarter or other relevant period also within the client's expectations?

Among the lessons learned from discussions of these topics could be:

  • We achieved a successful result, but the client was unhappy because we didn't communicate status enough along the way. The client was unsure what the outcome was likely to be until it had occurred. Positive surprises can be as bad as negative surprises.
  • We communicated with our day-to-day client contact regularly during the matter, but when scope expanded due to unforeseen events, we did not reach out directly to the more senior client manager to whom we had originally given our fee estimate. This manager was surprised and very unhappy about the unexpectedly large fee.
  • We wrote off a large portion of our time on this matter because we utilized a large staff of junior associates for one thorny due diligence area, rather than suggesting that the client engage a consulting firm that specializes in this area.
  • We were correct in assigning an extra partner to the matter and fewer associates because many issues arose that required senior judgment rather than extensive research or major drafting. We came in within our fee estimate.

In the next post

In Part 2, Keith learns other benefits the reviews can bring, as well as when and how they should be conducted.

[Photo credits: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / kikkderdirk & baurka]

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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KM/JD Consulting LLC renders impartial practice management advice to law firms on improving efficiency, increasing profits and reducing risk, emphasizing knowledge strategy.

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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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