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Forget Efficiency – Be Effective! Laws 1 and 2 of the Ten Laws of Legal Project Management

This is the second column of a series on the Ten Laws of (Legal) Project Management. I’ll recap the ten laws at the end of this column, but for this month, let’s focus on the first two, which revolve around the misunderstood idea of effectiveness vs. efficiency.

1. First Effectiveness, Then Efficiency

Efficiency is doing things right, but effectiveness is doing the right things.

Efficiency is easy… for a consultant. For every process, there is often a more efficient way to do it – something that will save a little time, offer a slightly better result, create just a little less mess. I know plenty of “efficiency experts” in various white-collar and professional fields (mostly outside of Legal) who make good livings offering suggestions on increasing efficiency.

Indeed, the entire six-sigma movement, as translated to the professional arena, is an attempt to bolster efficiency.

But efficiency per se in Legal has two drawbacks. First, it works only when tasks/processes are identical (or at least parallel) and repeatable. Second, it matters only if those are the right tasks.

Repeatability

Few of the tasks undertaken by lawyers and paralegals are truly repeatable. They may be structurally similar – every deposition has some similarities to every other deposition – but the content of each task tends toward uniqueness.

“Process engineering” can often locate inefficiencies in low-level tasks, but here’s the secret about low-hanging fruit: Most of the good stuff has already been picked.

Doing the Right Things

Effectiveness – determining the right (most useful) things to do, and then doing them – should be the first focus of any project manager working with professionals.

For example, some years ago I coached a very respected senior lawyer whose team was underperforming. (To her credit, she realized there was a shortfall.) I talked with both the lawyer and the team members, and together we identified a number of tasks that didn’t need doing, or needed a less intensive level of focus (see Law #2). For example, she was performing detailed reviews of the work of the most junior members of the team rather than delegating such reviews – and unwittingly intimidating those less experienced members into working both inefficiently and ineffectively. Also, every hour she spent doing work that could be delegated – or that didn’t need to be done at all – was an hour she wasn’t preparing for or appearing in court, which is where she shined and where she made the greatest difference to her clients. Indeed, it was the courtroom work that gave her the greatest enjoyment and satisfaction, yet each year she’d been doing less, allowing more minor tasks to suck up her time.

2. The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Most legal projects have too much to do and not enough time (and/or client dollars) with which to do them. Every tenth of an hour spent on less-useful work represents minutes where you are not helping your clients as much as you should and could.

Law-school training often aims to inculcate the pursuit of perfection. Attention to detail and a thorough examination of the issues in each matter are undeniably important, but remember that the client is paying you – with limited funds, generally – to do a job for them. Law is both a profession and a business, and business concerns require the use of judgment in deciding where to focus most intensively.

I’m not suggesting a laissez-faire “good enough” attitude at all. Rather, look at “good enough” as two separate times: Good. And enough. Do good and great work, but know when you’ve done enough: Enough for the degree of difficulty, enough for the client’s budget, enough to ensure that you are focusing on the most important issues first.

Laws 1 and 2: The To-Do List

  1. Take stock.
    1. What is the business problem the client is trying to solve? If you’re not defending a criminal complaint, if you have a corporate client, your client has a business problem with a legal component. Even government agencies generally wrestle with business problems, albeit a different kind of business. Identify that underlying problem (if in doubt, ask!) and look for ways you can help the client address it. If you’re doing work that doesn’t accrue toward solving the business problem, consider whether you’re doing the right
    2. What is the matter worth to them? Don’t run up $20,000 worth of legal bills on a $10,000 matter. Again, if in doubt, ask.
    3. What are the most important tasks? These are generally the tasks that will make the biggest difference regarding the outcome, but there are often some small-but-critical tasks as well, such as wrestling with court calendars. Focus on the most important tasks, and if your team has multiple players, assign the right people to those tasks first.
  2. (I’ve written numerous columns about this subject in the past.)
  3. Set a time budget for each task, and discuss that time budget on the tasks you delegate. Base the time budget on a combination of how much work is involved and how much it benefits the client.
  4. Minimize distractions. (See my book The Off Switch.) Distractions rarely contribute to doing the right things.
  5. Don’t get caught up in project-management details that take more time than they’re worth. Time budgets should be 20-30-second discussions on each delegated item. Task breakdowns work as well on a whiteboard as in a spreadsheet, and for most people, either of those tools is more useful and less unwieldy than a project management program. For simpler projects, rather than developing complex schedules that are out of date before you distribute them, think deadlines and dependencies (if Task B is due Friday and Jan needs to review it before then, when must it be completed?).
  6. “Good. Enough.” Pursue both.

In Review: The Ten Laws

  1. First Effectiveness, Then Efficiency
  2. The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good
  3. When You Discover You’re Digging a Hole, Stop Digging
  4. Help Your Team “Make It Up” the Same Way You Would
  5. The Client Won’t Tell You the Real Problem
  6. If It Doesn’t Add Value, Don’t Do It
  7. The Only Constant Is Change, So Plan on It
  8. Don’t Be the Star in Your Own Play
  9. Bad News, Unlike Wine, Doesn’t Get Better With Age
  10. Truth Is Hard, But Self-Deception Is Fatal

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