White space?

27 09 2010

I’m always looking to improve my blog, and one of the areas I look for inspiration and guidance is on other blogs, particular those with a big audience. One of the most popular is called “Zen Habits“, a blog about using zen principles to simplify life and slow down which has been going since 2007. Since the author has six children, I figure he must know a thing or two about running a busy, complex life!

The partners at Whitmore Grubbins took the art in their meeting rooms very seriously

The article that grabbed me this time, was called “Life’s missing white space” (link at end of the post), which explained the concept of white space in the design world, and then went on to look at how the principle can be applied to life, to increase clarity, balance, priority and peace.  Now with the possible exception of peace (although I’ve met my fair share of conflict-seeking lawyers over the years!), I think those outcomes could certainly benefit many of us in the legal profession.

In basic terms, the idea is that in the design world, the white space surrounding the design, can form part of the viewer’s experience. Think of the Mona Lisa: looking at this in a spacious room, with nothing either side of the picture would give a very different experience from seeing it in a small gallery with other pieces of art 30cm each side of it and above and below it. The white space has an important relationship with the content.

Where I think the concept has application for lawyers is that building white space into a day allows quality thinking time and reflection. The need for this can manifest in many different ways: the “doh” moment on a deal or case when a lawyer realises that something obvious has been overlooked; the realisation in the middle of an internal discussion that all the parties have been down this road before and are just rehashing the same behaviours again and again; the snatched and heated conversation with a difficult client or colleague that could have gone much better with just a little thought beforehand.

A little white space, a little pause, would offer the opportunity to just go back to basics. What are the objectives for a particular piece of work? What is it that the client really wants?  What are the risks here? What will the other party be thinking?

Often it is this thinking time that is the first casualty of the drive to get more done. Particularly in law firms living with the tyranny of the chargeable hour. The challenge is that this white space and the thinking that could occur within it, could result in a higher quality output for the client.

The other area where I believe that white space can help us, is its ability to allow reflection and learning. This can help us grow both as individuals and organisations (I’ll leave discussion of Senge’s classic book “the 5th discipline” for another day). I’ve written previously about some of the challenges facing lawyers who wish to examine their work and learn from it, but adding some white space offers a great opportunity to grow.

Asking at the end of the day “what went well today” and “what could I have done better?”, is time well spent in my book, even if it is (literally) just five minutes.  One similar technique I picked up from a book called “Mindchi” was a two minute review at the end of each day, where you replay the day’s events from start to finish as a movie on fast forward in your mind’s eye. The first time you identify areas for improvement, the second time successes and things that went well. I found learning in both “films” (although I much preferred watching the second!

The paradox with creating white space, is that it is both simple and difficult to create. Simple is that it’s just a question of doing less and creating some time (ideally by removing some of the unimportant, unproductive things we all do each day). Difficult in that we are often not truly the master of our own schedules, and even when we are, old habits are hard to break.

Just for the record, the five minutes you spend each week reading The Intelligent Challenge should stay in your schedule!

Your training was useless. Discuss.

3 08 2010

I asked an experienced law firm partner recently what percentage of his academic training he had used in his career as an outsourcing lawyer. The answer? Less than 10% Now I know that here in the UK, there has been debate for a number of years as to whether the vocational training given on the Legal Practice Course was sufficiently tailored for the large commercial firms, and as a result, the choice of provider and course content has widened, which is undoubtedly a good thing. That, as you might expect, is not the thrust of this post.

Discussion about the latest cases was encouraged in class

Firstly, the classroom based elements of a lawyer’s training take four years via the traditional law degree route. However, non-lawyer graduates can cram those three years into a single year with the CPE conversion course. This raises a number of questions. If it can be done in a year, why take three? I’ve heard hypothetical arguments that CPE students don’t have the same understanding of the law as law graduates, but I’ve never heard of any practical consequences of this. More critically, I would challenge anyone to work with a selection of five-year qualified lawyers and identify those that did the CPE rather than a law degree. I have however come across lawyers who have excelled because their first degree was something else relevant to their practice (a science, a language), and certainly if I had my time again I would have done a business or economics degree and then the CPE course before qualifying.

So, if the core “black letter law” can be covered in a year (albeit a hard one!), why not spend a chunk of those two “spare” years on the law degree either giving more depth in the areas that are of more interest to the students, or create different learning experiences to create a richer understanding of the topics? For example, for the commercial modules, why not teach the students to apply the principles to real world examples (rather than hypothetical problems)? Why not broaden their business understanding with some more commercial knowledge? For aspiring family lawyers, why not give a broader understanding of the emotional dynamics that create a context for a lawyer’s work? Why not arrange the type of six month work experience placements that are common on business degrees?

The second area to examine is the on-the job training. My belief is that the practical experience and supervision that young lawyers get is actually a critical component of their development, and for all the talk about investment in people, once a young lawyer gets on the chargeable hours treadmill, this can often come second to revenue generation. Now to be fair, there are many firms that take their trainee development seriously and do an excellent job at it, but I suspect even the best firms can (and should) strive to be even better. Think world class. Technical training. Commercial (or other context-specific) training. Interpersonal skills. Project management training. Financial acumen. Management training. Leadership training. Mentoring. Coaching.

Finally, with all this focus on effective training for young lawyers, what about those who are “fully formed”? Is training then off the agenda? Is every year another last minute struggle to rack up some CPD points by going to a nearby seminar and working on the blackberry while waiting for lunch to be served and then the event to finish? In my experience some of the best lawyers are those that never stop learning. Always curious, whether it’s a new area of law, a client’s business, a new technology or a new business development opportunity. This life-long learning should be celebrated, not least because these people can be great role models for the younger lawyers, and because they create new intellectual capital for the firm and new value for clients.

To finish, training comes with a cost. But so does attrition and recruitment. While the credit crunch has ensured that recruitment of bodies is not the problem it was a few years ago, the war for the best talent hasn’t gone away. If the training you or your team received in your academic years was not as effective as it could have been, what can you do now, to keep your learning fresh?

When lawyers meditate

19 04 2010

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: http://www.lawdepartmentmanagementblog.com/law_department_management/2010/02/intriguing-idea-based-on-sabine-chalmers-post-mortem-competitions-by-law-firms.html

How hard is your work, really?

1 04 2010

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!