Yesterday I wrote about the potential sea change in the business of legal. As a metaphor, I used the Hemingway quote from The Sun Also Rises:
“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
I don’t know if it is happening or will happen.
It’ll happen, or it won’t. I do know that if it does happen, the firms that make the transition best to success in an altered world will be those that are a) client-focused and b) efficient. (Actually, the former implies the latter.)
And if firms are able to stave off this change, they’ll do so by being a) client-focused and b) efficient.
Client focus is a given… or should be. There’s a bit of Princess-Bride I-don’t-think-that-word-means-what-he-thinks-it-means in “client service.” But that’s for another time.
The Meaning of Efficiency
According to one dictionary, efficiency is the comparison of what is actually accomplished with what could be accomplished. The Mariners got seven runs on only four hits the other night when I took my son to the game; that’s efficient. (Normally it takes the Mariners a week to score seven runs, which is the opposite of efficiency.) Warren Buffet oversees Berkshire Hathaway with a staff of about 14 people; that’s efficient.
Efficiency in business — and especially in the business of law — needs a context. For example, my wife’s little Honda Fit gets 35 miles per gallon, but doesn’t hold very much. My hybrid small SUV gets about 25 MPG, which is less efficient on gas but more efficient when it comes to transporting a bunch of stuff — with or without a bunch of family — between our house and our cabin in the islands north of Seattle.
Business efficiency isn’t just the lowest “cost,” with cost representing some combination of money, time, effort, hassle, and so on.
Business efficiency mean delivering higher-than-average value at a given cost, or average value at a lower-than-average cost, or both.
Business efficiency means accomplishing more in the context of what the business is willing or able to spend.
Two ways to improve business efficiency are project management and people management. Both are learnable skill sets.
The Efficiency of Legal Project Management
Let’s stick with the baseball analogy for a minute. After all, the Mariners are suddenly winning games.1
As I work with my ten-year-old son in batting practice, I’ve been trying to take the wasted motion out of his swing. As the pitcher delivers, he’s been dropping his bat position and re-cocking his hips. He winds up in the right position to hit, but his timing is all off. The wasted motion is costing him efficiency.
Yesterday, he finally “got it.” He realized what he was doing wrong.2 Over the course of 20 minutes, the hitch disappeared, he started with the bat in the right position rather than moving it there, and he began hitting the ball hard and accurately, pulling inside pitches, going the other way with outside pitches. (It’s hard to do that if you’re caught up in wasted motion as the ball starts its flight to the plate; your timing is limited by all the moving parts.) He’s got a playoff game tonight (as I write this), so we’ll see if it carries over to facing someone actively trying to get him out, but he’s headed in the right direction.
One way to describe project management is the removal of wasted motion.
There’s a lot more to it, of course, just as there is to making solid contact with a round ball using a round bat, but it’s hard to be efficient when work energy is going in all directions at once.
Some simple Legal Project Management techniques can get you 30 to 60 minutes a day back, time that’s now spent inefficiently. Other aspects of LPM can help with budgeting and sticking to budget, client and team communication, putting the right people on the right tasks, and so on. I’ve talked about those in other articles, in my book Legal Project Management, in my classes and seminars; they can add tremendous value to the client and the legal practice.
But if the “Hemingway effect” becomes an increasing part of the business of Legal, increased efficiency as well as greater effectiveness will gain in importance. Legal Project Management speaks to both, and in my training sessions I do focus on both. Get the wasted motion out of your business-of-Legal swing, and hit the ball with increased efficiency.
The Efficiency of Good People Management
Good people management — leadership — also boosts efficiency.
Most people want to do great work. Great work, however, requires more than just working hard. Great work that doesn’t accrue to both the client’s and practice’s benefit isn’t really great work.
Great work requires leadership.
Leadership is rooted in the same tenets as project management. For example, the team needs to understand not just the tasks in front of them but the context for the tasks. What does success look like? What is the client’s business problem? What’s the client’s vision of a successful outcome? What’s important to the client stakeholders? To the firm or practice?
The key to leadership is finding the right people, pointing them in the right direction, and getting out of their way.3
Good people management requires a bit more than those three simple precepts, but it starts there.
People do their best work when they believe in and trust their leadership. Most work requires more than just researching the correct precedent; indeed, if that’s all there was to it, the entire world of Legal would be headed the way of the NY Times report on $20/hour law jobs I noted yesterday. When your assets go home at night, it’s good people management and leadership that makes them want to come back in the next day. Yes, money helps, but study after study shows that once core salary requirements are met, people respond to other cues: the right challenge, a supportive environment, being part of something larger than themselves.
If you need to get efficient, improved people management should be part of the program. It’s not as connect-the-dots obvious as Legal Project Management, but it should be part of your game plan.
Sooner. Not later.
Remember Hemingway. Reach the “then suddenly” stage, and it’ll be too late.
1Unfortunately, the Mariners are unlikely to continue their winning ways this year; you can only win so many games with no hitting, with pitching alone. However, Legal Project Management can help you “win” consistently, over the long term.
2I can’t easily show him because I hit left-handed and he hits right-handed. Also, my own swing is limited — it’s built for contact, not power, and he wants to drive the ball.
3Actually, you generally set the direction (vision) first and then find the right people, as my upcoming and still untitled book will make clear.