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Using psychology to improve practice efficiency (Pt. 1 of 3)

Posted by Jack Bostelman on Mar 24, 2013 | 0 Comments

This is Part 1 of a three-part series. In this part, 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 Parts 2 and 3, he applies his new understanding to three other projects:  a program to collect better data about matter experience, an effort to revitalize management of an important practice group and a project to revamp CLE for senior associates and partners.

The herding cats problem

“How can I get my partners to follow through on their commitments?” muses Keith Mayfield, Chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm. His current concerns are several internal practice improvement projects that need to be headed by partners but are floundering because the partners spend all their time on client work and none on the projects. These include:

  • a legal project management initiative,
  • a pilot program to collect better data about matters to facilitate finding similar matters for precedents, pitch materials and internal expertise,
  • an effort to revitalize management of an important practice group that has been essentially unmanaged, and
  • a project to revamp internal continuing legal education for senior associates and partners.

Keith has never believed as strongly as he does now in the accuracy of the maxim “Managing lawyers is like herding cats.”

Insights are found on-line

On a whim, Keith Googles that phrase. His first hit is a study by a former trial lawyer-turned-PhD psychologist, explaining that tests have shown lawyer personalities are different than those of the general public:

  • More skeptical – question the premises for management initiatives; bad at trusting and giving benefit of the doubt, as needed for collaboration
  • Greater sense of urgency –internal work doesn't start until client work is done
  • Lower sociability – work badly with others in team situations
  • Lower resilience – take criticism badly; afraid to take on new things for fear of failing
  • Greater autonomy – resist being managed and told what to do

“Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality  Revealed,” by Dr. Larry Richard in Altman Weil Report to Management, Vol. 29, No. 11 (Aug. 2002) (The above descriptions of the implications of these traits for practice efficiency projects have been adapted by me. Dr. Richard is a law firm consultant, formerly with Altman Weil, then Hildebrandt and now independent.)

What can be done?

A light bulb goes off for Keith. These factors resonate with him. He's learned the hard way that he must work around the obstacles they present. For example, he now makes personal visits to his partners to discuss important things he wants them to do, rather than sending an e‑mail or picking up the phone. He now tries to find his partners' underlying motivational triggers rather than assuming they'll perform merely because he asks. And he now consciously avoids making his suggestions look in any way like criticisms.

Keith understands how most of these personality traits contribute to doing a great job for clients, who need someone who questions assumptions, gets right to work and performs without micromanagement.

Keith wonders, though, whether more has been written about successful techniques to get around these personality issues in the firm management context. He Googles Dr. Larry Richard, the author of the herding cats article and a law firm management consultant, and quickly discovers he's recently begun a series of blog posts on that very subject, explaining how to get partners to be accountable in following up on their internal commitments.

Let's review the principles outlined in these blog posts, then see how Keith applies them to his own practice management projects.

Go for buy-in, not coercion or incentives

In the first post, Dr. Richard explains why commanding, coercive and incentivizing approaches don't work. Instead, the approach that succeeds starts with getting true buy‑in from partners, by explaining the project early on and revising it based on their feedback, so they develop a sense of ownership.

Keith realizes that this approach, while now easier for him, does not come naturally. He's insightful enough to understand that's because of his own lawyer personality traits, which make relationship building somewhat difficult for lawyers. Fortunately, he's been able generally to overcome his own issues by focusing on the desired outcome.

Be proactive, not reactive, in getting lawyers to comply

In the second post, Dr. Richard advises law firm leaders not to wait until the deadline has passed to intervene. Instead, at the time of the request apply what he calls “interventions” – strategies likely to get the partner actually to follow through. These include:

  • Find out what motivates the partner and put the request in those terms;
  • Lay out the next steps, so they can be envisioned;
  • Ask the partner to commit in writing;
  • Make the commitment public to the partner's peers;
  • Break partners into small groups to discuss among themselves how to proceed;
  • Explain why the project has meaning to the firm and the partner; and
  • Remove actual obstacles, such as lack of administrative resources.

The blog post also recommends using multiple “interventions” and accepting the fact that not all partners will fulfill their commitments.

How do these strategies apply to practice efficiency projects?

Dr. Richard promises more posts on this subject. Until then, how should Keith apply his advice to improving lawyer performance in practice efficiency projects?

Legal project management

Keith has asked one of his litigation partners to lead the effort to pilot legal project management techniques for intellectual property litigation, including scoping, budgeting, resource allocation, budget tracking, after-action reviews and communication with clients about these elements. Keith had assumed the partner would run with the project, given that he was a vocal proponent who was getting client pressure on his own matters to improve budgeting and tracking.

Keith realizes that merely getting the partner's assent wasn't enough. He decides to apply the following strategies:

  • Meet privately with the lead partner to
    • offer additional resources,
    • ask who else from the intellectual property litigation group should be involved,
    • describe in detail Keith's vision for legal project management throughout the firm, which will be based on experience from the pilot project;
    • explain the rest of Keith's suggestions for the project (described below) and get the partner's input, and
    • suggest that Keith and the lead partner discuss their initiative at lunch with the general counsel of the major client that's been pushing for improved legal project management;
  • Invite several other litigation partners in the lead partner's practice area to advise on the project;
  • Hold a meeting with the lead partner and these additional partners to get input on goals for the project and generate specific ideas;
  • Add a senior administrator in the Finance Dept. to the project, who can explain the software budgeting tools available and assist in adapting them for the project;
  • Hire a consultant to
    • advise the group about specific steps they could consider to get started, and
    • assist in logistics, such as organizing meetings, taking and circulating notes and tracking personal assignments of team members; and
  • Ask the lead partner to describe the initiative to the full litigation group at their next monthly meeting, and update them every 6 months.

Each of these steps not only helps propel the project forward but also ties to one or more of the personality-related strategies described in Dr. Richards' blog posts. For example, meeting with the client's general counsel not only gather's intelligence about client expectations for the firm's legal project management initiative, but also makes the lead partner's commitment public with a constituent whose goodwill he values highly.

Reporting to the litigation group serves the dual purpose of gaining buy-in from other partners who will be involved after the initiative is rolled out broadly and making the lead partner's commitment public among his peers. Adding the Finance Dept. administrator and consultant to the project removes obstacles and helps the lead partner envision next steps. Inviting a handful of the lead partner's colleagues to the project not only generates useful ideas, but also assists with visualizing next steps.

In the next post

In Part 2, Keith applies his new understanding to another project – a program to collect better data about matter experience.

[Photo credits: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / izakowski & lenm]

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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