This Little Measure

Font large upon a central screen, my new hybrid car informs me about my fuel efficiency.

Big numbers. Right in front of me. Hovering around fifty miles a (US) gallon.

Inspiring me to keep it there. To accelerate more slowly. Gentle my Kia Niro up our precipitous hills. Ease off the gas on the flats, letting battery power take over. Even drive – slightly – slower on Seattle’s crumbling, potholed streets.

It is a basic tenet of any measurement science, including project management, that you get what you measure. My quantified efficiency glowing large between the spokes of the steering wheel, I change my driving habits, at least a bit. I’ll stipulate that I’m amenable to its siren call, having bought a hybrid in the first place, but I’m still a New York City driver at heart.

The Challenge

Herein lies the challenge for anyone managing a legal project:

  1. You get what you measure, and
  2. If what you measure isn’t directly aligned to your goals, you’ll work with decreased efficiency.

Lawyers do this all the time, of course. The profession measures hours. But clients don’t request hours, they request advice, or solutions, or suggestions. Professional ethics – and the inner drive most in the profession share – leads to hours spent in pursuit of those goals, but too often lawyers misfire at least a little. It often appears in the guise of too much work, work unlikely to prove dispositive, T’s not just crossed but re-crossed and re-re-crossed until they disappear beneath the weight of the ink.

One reason we measure hours is because other measures are at least as tricky. Results? What is the “result” of a litigation, for example, where so few matters actually go to verdict and where even verdicts often resemble pseudo-Solomonic attempts to split the baby? Deliver a good contract? Define “good.”

The Options

Given the fallibility of so many measures, what are the options?

  1. Don’t measure, or
  2. Understand the gap between what you’re measuring and the real goals, and ensure that your institution can accommodate that understanding.

I’m not a big fan of #1 in anything more complex than an hour or two’s work. That said, for many short-cycle tasks, shunning specific metrics while relying on a common framework may indeed be more efficient than spending time trying to delineate a near-term yardstick. I don’t try to measure my son’s efficiency (or efficacy) in cleaning his room, but rather take a done/not-done picture of success, and trust that with growing maturity will come a decreasing desire to live as if he’s creating performance art for a tornado zone.

For larger legal projects, though, I think as managers we must accept that we will rarely have truly accurate measures. Instead, we need to think through the measures we have, use them judiciously, and remain aware of the distance between what they measure and where we truly need to go. And if we’re managing others on a team, we need to share that learning with the team.

I used to work in an environment where everyone was supposed to set three or four major goals for an entire year. At year’s end, they would be evaluated against progress toward those goals.

We got what we measured – and more importantly, got little of what we didn’t measure. Helping someone else achieve their own goals? Not measured. Lots of lip service, little progress. The hundred minor tasks that make a department run smoothly? Not measured, and performed at about the level of my son cleaning his room.

Eventually, my old company changed the measurement system, but it took twenty years of arguing, the loss of too many outstanding employees, and ultimately turnover in the C-Suite. They got what they measured – which included lots of incredible work, but also significant inefficiency and friction.

Some of the managers understood the mis-measurement gap, but the institution couldn’t accommodate that understanding. There was no way within the system to give credit for important goals not directly aligned with the measured results.

You get what you measure.

If you measure the wrong thing, you either deliver inefficiently, or you spend energy translating between the measurement system and the results you truly want to see. Neither is perfect, but the latter is better for you, your team, and your clients.

The Measures

As a lawyer performing substantive work on a legal project, recognize the difference between what your own management team is measuring – e.g., billable hours – and what the client and project truly need.

As a manager of a legal project, focus early on defining the client’s goals for the project, in particular the critical success factors, the three or four definable measures that will spell the difference between success and failure, or at least the difference between a satisfied client and looking at other legal options.

As a practice manager or managing partner, find ways to measure your real goals (profitability is not the same as billable hours) and help your teams manage the gaps between obvious and traditional measures and your long-term business health.

And my fifty miles a gallon? I’ll let you know the real number next time I’m in a hurry to get somewhere.

Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils, shrunk to this little measure?
Wm. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar


  1. Great post. On a tangent from this, I’d love to see the court system better measure the extent to which it is meeting its goals. The Macdonald-Laurier institute made a good start re the criminal side: . This is urgently needed for our civil courts and tribunals too.