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!





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