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Learning the magic – how to get lawyers to follow through on collaboration and efficiency commitments

Posted by Jack Bostelman on Aug 11, 2014 | 0 Comments

A practice group leader is frustrated

Kendra Masters, head of the Capital Markets practice at an AmLaw 100 firm, has tried for many years to improve the way her lawyers collaborate, yet her efforts have not succeeded.

Tools that would help

Kendra sees how her lawyers can be more efficient, and produce a higher quality and more consistent work product, if they took the time to create some tools. For example:

  • Checklists could help the more junior lawyers draft documents and perform certain tasks better and at an earlier stage in their careers, with less supervision and correction by senior lawyers. Checklists will also assist senior lawyers when reviewing drafts prepared by junior lawyers or by other law firms.
  • A repository of precedents for various types of documents will speed the efficiency of drafting and improve its quality, especially when used in conjunction with drafting checklists, yet will avoid the excruciatingly slow process of creating standard forms.
  • A system for sharing current developments news could improve consistency of the Group's advice to clients and reduce errors.
  • An enhanced training program could move junior lawyers up the work food chain, as well as broaden skills of senior lawyers to provide a deeper bench.
  • A robust Group intranet with current content and an intuitive interface could make it more likely lawyers in the Group will use the available resources, and could improve the sense of community of the Group, which is split across several offices.
  • A complete deal list, including key parameters for each deal, would allow finding matters similar to the one being worked on for purposes of
    • finding precedents,
    • identifying lawyers with relevant experience for purposes of staffing or asking questions, and
    • benchmarking fee estimates.

The leader's approach hasn't worked

Kendra has tried to do some of this work all by herself. These were all good ideas, but she has little to show for her efforts.

Checklists. Several years ago Kendra drafted a checklist to guide lawyers in negotiating underwriting agreements. She invited partners in the Group to create other checklists, suggesting various lists that could be useful. No one responded.

Precedents. A few years ago Kendra started identifying precedents and placing them in a special folder in the firm's document management system. She e-mailed the Group about this effort, and mentioned it at quarterly meetings of the Group. Few have accessed the folder, and none have contributed. Kendra's own efforts have been sporadic, with progress moving inversely to the ebbs and flows of client work. In the past years, Kendra has stopped contributing altogether.

Current developments. Kendra hosts a quarterly meeting of the Group, at which she and a couple other partners bring current developments to the attention of the Group on an ad hoc basis, but attendance has been bad, on the order of only 25% of the Group. Attendance by partners and senior associates has been extremely poor. She understands an advance agenda and regular substantive subjects will improve attendance, but she hasn't had time to develop advance agendas and line up speakers.

Training. Kendra has from time to time asked partners to speak about certain subjects at quarterly Group meetings. Attendance has been poor even for those meetings. Kendra believes the Group instead needs training targeted to a specific audience, such as junior lawyers, and in a more formal format with a dedicated time slot. Yet she hasn't had time to pursue this idea further.

Group intranet. Kendra has been frustrated by the chicken-and-egg problem in improving the Group's intranet site. Lawyers will not visit the site unless the content is current and robust. Because no one uses the site, though, she can't get lawyers to contribute new content.

Deal list. Kendra prepared a questionnaire of deal information and e-mailed it to all partners in the Group, asking that they ensure that an associate completed the questionnaire after completion of each matter. A handful of questionnaires were completed in the first few months, but three years later virtually none are being submitted.

A fortuitous encounter

During a practice group leaders' planning meeting, Kendra discusses her frustrations with a member of the firm's executive committee. The EC member encourages Kendra to speak to a consultant he recently met at a law firm leaders' conference. After making the call Kendra is encouraged. The consultant explains why Kendra's approach hasn't worked. More importantly, the consultant addresses how Kendra can accomplish her goals for the Group.

Why previous efforts failed

The consultant explains that lawyers are wired differently than other business people. They have a greater sense of urgency – attending to client work before turning to any internal work, rather than doing some of each. They also are naturally less collaborative, preferring to work in isolation. They are skeptical and autonomous, questioning authority and frequently concluding there is no need to perform internal tasks requested by others. They are change-averse, stemming from a fear of failing at something new.

For these reasons, a mere request to perform an internal task, even when made by the Group's leader, will likely not trigger any action. Even for those who agree in the abstract, there will always be client work that comes first. Many others will not see or agree with the benefits of the effort and will simply not wish to comply. There is no embarrassment for failing to comply, because nobody agreed to the request in the first place. There is little sense of communal responsibility about the request, because it came unilaterally. Moreover, the Group leader typically has no actual authority over the partners in the Group, such as influence on their compensation or the matters they take on.

The new plan

The consultant explains a different approach that he says has worked many times. The approach requires more management time from the Group leader, and possibly an expenditure of money, but has a much greater chance of success.

Themes of the plan

The new plan employs tactics designed to overcome the lawyers' natural resistance:

  • Obtain buy-in to the proposals and a sense of ownership among the lawyers in the Group.
  • Create a sense of personal mutual commitment with colleagues.
  • Use small Groups to enhance the sense of personal commitment.
  • Eliminate administrative obstacles.
  • Get the lawyers to understand the benefits and importance of the proposals.
  • Lay out the steps in detail, so the effort doesn't seem overwhelming.
  • Give recognition within the Group to those who complete a project successfully.
  • Create a sense of competition among the Group's lawyers.
  • Provide input along the way so the lawyers know someone's paying attention.
  • Accept the fact that despite these tactics not all lawyers will fulfill their commitments.
  • Show senior management's commitment and lead by example.
  • Create a sense of urgency with deadlines and status reporting to the full Group.
  • Consider hiring a consultant with lawyer credentials to help manage the process for a fixed time period.

Steps in the new plan

The consultant recommends the following approach:

  • Schedule a kick-off time for the initiative that avoids any seasonally busy time for the Group.
  • Have the Group leader confer with management of the firm about the initiative. This serves the dual purpose of (a) obtaining management's support and, if successful, recognition for the efforts of the Group, and (b) maintaining some pressure on the Group leader to ensure the initiative succeeds, because of its visibility to management.
  • Have the Group leader hand pick a few partners to be part of a “steering committee”. This creates a core of partners with buy-in, who will also become the leaders of several of the projects.
  • Convene a formal meeting of the full Group (partners and associates) to discuss the proposals and gather ideas for additional proposals. Discuss which ones should be tackled first. Introduce to the Group the consultant and the targeted time frame for completion. Explain that help from a broad cross-section of the Group will be sought.
  • After the meeting, have the steering committee take on some projects and, based in part on participation at the meeting, select other partners and associates who will be asked to help
  • Provide administrative and paralegal assistance where that would be helpful. If possible, obtain billable hours credit from management for the work. This sends a strong signal about the importance of the work to the firm.
  • Establish a weekly check-in with a central person with authority, such as the Group leader or the consultant, so that progress – or lack of progress – can be tracked. This creates a sense of accountability. Circulate the full status report to the steering committee and all participating teams each week, so each team can see where it stands vis-à-vis the others.
  • Hold periodic meetings of the full Group, at which work product of the teams is shared with the Group, and comments from the Group are solicited. This creates deadlines for completion, the potential for embarrassment for non-completion and a sense of competition among the teams. It also reinforces buy-in and a sense of community.
  • Have the Group leader and other steering committee members provide comments on the teams' work product.
  • For projects involving the IT department (such as the intranet redesign), engage the consultant as project manager in order to bridge the very different ways of doing business of the lawyers and the technology staff.
  • After the first initiative is completed, develop a plan for future phases so the overall effort of periodic “investment” in collaboration and efficiency tools becomes part of the Group's culture.


Kendra is encouraged by what she hears. Although she didn't understand why her previous efforts failed, she sees how the consultant's approach could make a difference. She decides to establish an initiative along the recommended lines. She realizes this will involve a lot of work on her part. Kendra is mainly motivated by the benefits to her Group if the effort succeeds. She also has a sense, though, that senior management will have to recognize the significance of her success, and will hold her Group's effort out as an example to other practice groups. This will create further support within the firm for these kinds of initiatives, which Kendra believes are important to the firm's competitive position.

[Photo credits: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / tester & edharcanstock]

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.

Jack Bostelman, President

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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