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How to get legal teams working better on matters.

How to get legal teams working better on matters?  This is one of the questions I get asked most often when training and consulting on legal project management.

Effective team working is an issue which is of most obvious concern to large firms working on complex matters.  But smaller matters in smaller firms are often handled by more than one lawyer and they too need support from other professionals to help deliver their legal services.

Regardless as to the size of the firm or matter, effective team working is usually the key to success.

So how to improve team working?  As starting point, I have six suggestions.


1. Realise that building effective teams takes time and effort

It takes a lot of hard work, done consistently over time, to develop outstanding teams.  This is widely known but rarely acknowledged.

So the first thing everyone – team leaders and members – need to do is acknowledge this.

Secondly, everyone needs to be prepared to chip in and work for the team.

We all know that, generally, lawyers tend to be very individualistic by nature. However the days of the individual lawyer as super-hero are long gone (if they ever existed at all).  Modern legal service delivery is a team sport, requiring a multitude of skills and experience.


2. Appoint a project manager

Well I would say this wouldn’t I?

The fact is though that effective team working depends on good co-operation between team members.  A basic step towards achieving this is to ensure that everything – research, drafting, communications and so on – is being co-ordinated.  Someone has to do the co-ordination.

Matter project managers need not necessarily be full time legal project managers but they should have  skills, aptitude and experience of project planning, scheduling and communicating.

‘Accidental project managers’, people who take on the role without the relevant skills and knowledge, often find team management, through active project management, tough going.

Although a lot of project management can be described as the application of common sense it is much quicker, less stressful and more cost-effective if the common sense is applied within the context of a project management framework along with supporting tools and techniques.

The frameworks, tools and techniques should be applied lightly, as the last thing legal service teams need is to be overburdened with project bureaucracy.

For the rest of this post I am going to assume that you have been appointed matter project manager.

You want the delivery team to work well together, so what do you do?


3. Hold a matter kick-off meeting

Too many lawyers I meet groan audibly when I ask whether they attend matter kick-off meetings.  A common feeling among these lawyers is that kick-off meetings should be avoided if possible as it seems easier to just ‘get on with the work’.

Regular readers will know that I think this is a mistaken point of view.  I am no longer surprised when some of those lawyers who dislike kick-off meetings then complain that team working is not very good in their firm.

Guess what?  Properly run kick-off meetings help build good project delivery teams.

Kick-off meetings help set expectations.  Even people who will not be required to provide input immediately are at least made aware, if they attend a kick-off meeting, that at some point down the line their expertise and help will be needed.  Hence when they are asked to become more fully involved the request is not a surprise.

What often happens is that if specialists – for example Tax or Planning lawyers – are invited to kick-off meetings they can make useful contributions to the matter sooner rather than later.

How often have you heard someone with specialist expertise lament ‘if I was involved earlier, I could have saved you a lot of wasted effort, time and cost’?

Holding matter kick-off meetings, especially where matters are complicated and teams relatively large, can help capture specialist advice earlier.


4. Plan the work to be done

As with kick-off meetings, many lawyers, including those acting as matter project managers, feel uncomfortable spending time on matter planning early during the matter life-cycle.  Once again, they much prefer to ‘just get on with the work’ instead.

Research shows that high performing project managers spend twice as much time on planning activities than less effective project managers.  This is because the high performers know that time spent planning is time well-spent.  Surely there is a lesson their for legal service teams?

Some very basic steps to help you create a plan and devise a schedule:

  1. Understand what deliverables are required order to achieve client objectives;
  2. Understand when the deliverables are required
  3. Consider what needs to be done to produce the deliverables. (The easiest way to do this is to break deliverable output down into a series of tasks).
  4. Consider what skills and experience are required to complete each task.
  5. Assign tasks to relevant personnel.


5. Be clear when assigning work

It is easy to assume, generated by wishful thinking perhaps, that work you assign to someone will go to the top of their in-tray and be completed quickly.

Not necessarily, as the recipient usually has existing work and is trying to meet existing commitments.  So discuss with the task assignee the amount of work they have got on and when they are likely to be able to complete the work you have assigned them.

If their estimate is beyond the date you require then you are either going to need to do one of two things:

  1. negotiate with them and / or other people who have assigned them other work to give your work higher priority or
  2. assign the work to someone else.

Above all, be clear about any task pre-requisites, dependencies, due dates and quality standards.

The more precise you can be the greater likelihood the work you have assigned will be completed when you want it and in the way you want it done.


6. Communicate throughout

Surveys show that project managers spend between 70 – 90% of their time on communications various sort.  My personal experience bears this out too.

The keys to success here are making sure that communications are regular and appropriate.  Project managers will usually create a communications plan and devise a standard project update report.

This is a great starting point but bear in mind that each of us have different communication preferences, when both giving and receiving information.  This means that project managers need to spend time considering how best to communicate with different team members and then communicate in the most appropriate way.  This sounds deceptively simple, but it is in fact quite hard to do.

I believe that communicating effectively is the single most important factor contributing towards effective team work. This factor, although the sixth to be listed, is in fact the most important one to focus on.

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