Monthly Archives: April 2010

Excited? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Think about your work this week. Did it excite you? If so, what was it that excited you? Can you do more of it? If so, how?

When I was in private practice, the first thing I realised I enjoyed doing was big deals. The sort of projects that consume you for the best part of a year. After doing a few, in the weeks between deals, I would find the constant swapping between smaller matters frustrating and the work boring. Others of course think the opposite. The variety of smaller projects keeps them stimulated, whereas one big project would have them chewing their toes off with boredom.

One of the mentors I worked with at a national firm had a really diverse practice, that within a six month period would see them working on an IPO, a judicial review for dairy farmers, and a defending a criminal case involving a missing cat (I kid you not!).

Terry, the youngest member of the asset finance team, was REALLY excited

The point I’m making however, is that having identified what I enjoyed about my work, I made a conscious choice to take my career to a firm where I’d get more of that type of work. The next stage was realising that one of the key things I liked about big projects, was getting close to the client’s project team and really understanding the commercial drivers for the deal. To show how the same work type can provide enjoyment for different reasons, another, consider that at that particular time I was working with a great lawyer who got a great deal of satisfaction from the really technical, black letter law issues that came up on these sorts of projects. Same type of work that gave gave me a buzz, but a very different reason for it.

This then led to move inhouse, so I could get much deeper exposure to the commercial side of deals, whereupon my next moment of clarity came from realising the enjoyment I got from being involved in the commercial decisions that were been made and being exposed to the strategy that drove those decisions. This led me to my MBA, and into the commercial world I now inhabit.

Now, let me be clear, I’m not holding myself up as some sort of career-planning guru, but I passionately believe that it’s important to be in a job that excites and grows you. Life’s too short to do anything else.

Cutting to the chase, what made me write this post, was the similarity of the process I described above to a type of root-cause analysis I use in my process mapping engagements called “the five whys”.

Essentially, when a problem is identified in a process (for example a step of a process which proves to be a bottleneck, or frequent source of errors), you ask “why does that happen?”. The same question is asked of the answer to that first question.

For example, the due diligence report for an acquisition is often late. Why? because the employment section always takes too long. Why? Because the two employment lawyers who have the experience to do the work are often out at tribunal. Why? Because they have an institutional client who will not let them delegate any of their work.

This process continues until “why” has been asked five times, which will invariably take you to the root cause of the problem.

My thinking is that the same technique can be used to work out what it is about your job that you really love (i.e. when you find something you enjoy, ask “why?” five times to get a deep understanding of where your enjoyment comes from), allowing you do find ways to get more of it into your day. More love is good, right?

I don’t think this is easy; answering these kinds of questions requires time, self awareness and often a degree of soul searching. However, what price a flash of insight that can shape your working life?

When lawyers meditate

Calm. Reflection. Space. Words that lend themselves to a description of life in a typical law firm these days. What’s that? They don’t you say? Hmmmmm, you may have a point. As the pace of business increases, and clients (as customers do in most areas of life these days) continue to seek “more for less”, it’s increasingly difficult to find the time to pause.

This lawyer has just finished a deal....

Arguably this is never more important than at the end of a deal or project. Project debriefs have tremendous value on so many levels. Firstly, if they include the client and are properly managed, they can provide an opportunity to assess team performance away from the pressure of getting the work completed. What worked well and what could have been better? How was communication between the respective teams? How did document management work? What does this mean for future deals? This can be a great relationship builder, particularly if it can be done soon after the completion of the project, when participants are basking in the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes after an intense period of working in finished (and sleep deficits can be addressed!).

The next area of opportunity is within the firm itself. What has been learnt about doing deals of that type? How can we do them better next time? What were our costs and how did they stack up against forecast? Can we get a reference from the client to use for business development? Can we publicise our involvement and use for a directory submission? Have we gained any new know-how, and if so can we capture it? Do we need to update our precedents or other documents?

Finally, how about reflection on an individual level. How did I perform? What did I do well, and what could I have done better? What about my relationships with my colleagues; has the project strengthened or damaged any of them? Did the project impact my life outside the firm (e.g. anniversary or birthday missed?)? What have I learnt from a technical and commercial perspective? Do I need to update my CV as a result? Do I want to do more deals like that, or has it made me want to move away from that type of work?

The challenge with all these is of course finding the time, especially in those firms still subservient to the all powerful hourly rate and chargeable targets (where this type of exercise will be marked with the dreaded “non-chargeable” code). However, I really believe that these debrief and reflection activities can provide real long term performance improvements for a relatively modest time investment. So next time you finish a deal, go grab a cushion, fold your legs up, and mark your timesheet “meditating”….

Update: Interesting comment and link on a similar topic here:

Ever been delighted? By your lawyer?

About to embark on a consulting project for a law firm, I was preparing the kick off session and selecting the tools I thought would work best for them.

Six Sigma, one of the leading methodologies for improving quality and efficiency has a core concept called “CTQs”; these are the requirements that are Critical To Quality. A tool to help evaluate these CTQs is called Kano Analysis. Essentially, a law firm will identify client requirements (ideally through primary research, although “Voice of the Client” programmes are still relatively rare in law firms), and rate them as (a) dissatisfiers; (b) satisfiers; or (c) delighters.

She's delighted, are your clients?

Dissatisfiers are the things the firm has to get right – the most basic requirements. Getting the client’s name wrong in a document is a pretty good example of not getting a dissatisfier right. Satisfiers, in contrast, are those elements of the firm’s service that can increase satisfaction depending on their degree. For example getting a first draft document within three days might satisfy, but getting it to the client within two days will increase satisfaction. Finally, delighters do what they say on the tin. These are unexpected service features that delight the client. Providing a short, “plain English” summary of a project document for the operations team at the conclusion of a deal (where this has not been discussed) is an example. Unexpected is the key word.

I think this is a useful exercise for law firms for a number of reasons. Firstly, and this may seem obvious, it makes us think about what is important for the client (ideally, by asking them!), not what we think is important for them. Secondly, it can help draw out client requirements that are not explicitly stated, which when identified, can help the firm provide a much better service.

However, if you only take one thing away from this, think about what you could do today to delight your clients. As a former in-houser, I can confirm that there are firms out there that do this, and it’s different from just going the extra mile or doing a really good job. In any walk of life, it’s good to be delighted!

The rise of the undead lawyer

One thing that has intrigued me over the last twelve months is the number of former lawyers who’ve ended up in really interesting, non-traditional roles in private practice. It’s not easy to pigeon-hole the type of role into any particular category: business development? knowledge management? talent development? strategic support? The roles span all of these and more. What interests me is that often the development of these roles has been very much unplanned, and often the career path that has led people to them has been serendipitous rather than clinically planned.

Beware the undead lawyer

The professionalising of law firm management has been evident for sometime now, and is likely to step up a gear over the coming months as the profession feels the effects of the Legal Services Act 2007. However, that focus on the top echelons of senior management (CEOs, COOs and CIOs etc) is not really what I’m exploring here. This new breed of business support personnel usually play at a level below the board (although may well serve on some type of management committee), but nonetheless, are quietly influential. Often leading the types of initiatives that make a real difference within firms, shaping and managing change is clearly an important skill set.

What’s also apparent, in my entirely unscientific investigation (talking to these people!) is that they not only enjoy their new roles, but find them fulfilling and generally see themselves as continuing down that path for the foreseeable future.  Their background as lawyers gives them a unique understanding of their firms and the partnership culture, which further enhances their ability to make change stick.

It will be interesting to see how these roles develop; whether common characteristics emerge, whether more lawyers look to make the jump into this type of role,  whether the roles offer a route into more traditional management, and whether law firms begin to look outside the firm for talent to fill these positions.

At the moment though, it’s clear that these twilight roles in the shadows of law firms will continue to be filled by undead lawyers; with new careers rising from the graves of professional practice. What’s stranger still is that most of these lawyer zombies are smiling!

How hard is your work, really?

Outside the profession, despite the bad press that lawyers get, the majority of people still think of the practice of law as an intellectually challenging job. Fundamentally, I think they are right. It takes time to learn the black letter law that underpins the work, and more time still to understand how to apply it to the wide variety of circumstances that a lawyer will come across in day to day practice. To then present that advice in a format appropriate to the client, to use creativity to solve problems, and to build the relationships and trust necessary to build a long career is tough.

A brain surgeon: is he smarter than you?

But (you were expecting a “but”, right?), within this work profile there is of course a spectrum of complexity. Traditionally, as lawyers became more experienced, they took on more complex work and more junior lawyers stepped onto the first rung of the ladder to begin their career learning to do the less complex work. But somewhere in the middle, things get a little hazy. In the old favourite “Managing the Professional Service Firm”, Maister talked about the classic challenge of under-delegation, and my suggestion for today is to revisit this in your working lives.

When times get tough, as they have certainly been recently, the classic law firm model of having chargeable hours as the main metric for judging performance encourages lawyers to hoard work to keep their figures healthy. Whether that work is done at the right level (or indeed even profitable) is often a question that is not asked.  As firms are restructured to realign the cost base with the reduced revenues that come with a recession, mid and lower level resource is stripped out. This recession was arguably different from the previous two in that more partners found themselves on the move, but irrespective of this, my point is that as the work volume starts to increase, many firms will find they don’t have the right profile of  resources to do the work efficiently.

Have a look at how you are spending your day. Not in a “timesheet-track-every-six-minutes” kind of way, but in a more substantive “where am I spending my time, and who else could do this work” kind of way. Could work be passed down to junior colleagues? Could it be a valuable training exercise? What about automation or outsourcing? If your time was freed-up, how else could you create value for the firm or legal department?

Enjoy your day today, and particularly appreciate the difficult parts that challenge and stretch you!