Oddly enough for lawyers, a group enthralled with the size of their brains, humans have large brains because of social, not analytical, needs. Scientists questioned over the years why humans evolved to have big brains; what was the environmental pressure that caused the evolutionary adaptation? A consensus has formed around the social aspect of our lives and the benefits groups provided for survival.
Members of the human species discovered early on that humans do better in groups than alone. Put simply, humans thrive in groups and struggle as individuals. Cheetahs and leopards, also large mammals, do better alone, but elephants do better in groups. But group activity comes with its own challenges. Understanding social interactions and navigating amongst others is, as any teenager can attest, a complex thing. Human brains grew and adapted to handle these social challenges.
Cognitive scientists and neuroscientists know that much of the human brain is devoted to handling tasks tied to social activity. While humans are capable of analytical thinking, it isn’t the human brain’s forte. This leads to a paradox for lawyers. Legal education and training has focused on perfecting the analytical side of things while neglecting the social side. Think back to law school. How much time did you spend on dissecting the concept of consideration versus understand group dynamics?
Lawyers Want to Be Cheetahs, Not Elephants
Jump into the world of delivering legal services and you will find lawyers overemphasizing the analytical and underemphasizing the social. One of the most popular pastimes in the legal industry is analyzing legal invoices. Lawyers slice and dice invoices every way possible looking for hidden meaning in six-minute increments. At the same time the social side of the practice—interactions between lawyer and client—are ignored. With some serious effort, lawyers may begrudgingly agree to an “after action” review. Gritting their teeth, they spend 30 minutes breezing over what went well and delicately touching on what failed during a recent engagement. Then, having endured the pain, they are back to managing invoices.
In many ways, this process reminds me of the annual performance review. When I transitioned from practicing law to leading a manufacturing plant, I found that managing people was far more important than managing words. With 700 people in the facility, we had social issues—boy did we have social issues. Like all large companies, we approached performance reviews as an annual thing. Although we talked about interim coaching, in reality the performance review became the big event. For employees, that one brief meeting could determine pay raises, bonuses, work opportunities, and career paths.
Lawyers do the same thing. At best, law departments meet with their law firm counterparts once a quarter. More commonly they meet once a year, and often even those meetings don’t happen. The meetings are perfunctory reviews of what happened during the prior period. For many outside lawyers, the point of the meeting is to get more work not to evaluate how to improve. Even a quarterly meeting misses a lot of the daily action and the details often have long been forgotten by the time everyone gets in the room. Periodic meetings in the age of “always connected” don’t make a lot of sense.
Your Clients have an App for That
Several large companies have recognized that performance feedback should be a continuous improvement opportunity. They moved to using systems where, by combining technology with new thinking, employees and their managers carry on performance dialogues throughout the year. The annual performance review goes away or simply becomes another step in an ongoing dialogue.
To accomplish this change, a culture change that has its own challenges, the companies use apps. The employees and their managers communicate daily using the apps, addressing issues and delivering coaching right when something happens not many months later (or not at all). By including various tools in the apps, such as the ability to share photos and voice recordings as well as text, the companies make it easy for the employees and managers to communicate naturally and frequently. The users include goals in the apps, so everyone can go from the bigger picture to the day-to-day performance, and then back.
The Legal Continuous Improvement App
The after action review has been a staple of six sigma and has become embedded in most operational excellence philosophies. In legal services, we talk about having discussions during a matter to stay in communication and then a review after the matter. But these discussions often don’t happen. Lawyers are busy and don’t like having these communications, so the discussions fall by the wayside. When everything seems to be going well the excuse is “no need to fix what isn’t broken.” When things aren’t going so well, the last thing lawyers want to talk about are the problems.
As an alternative, lawyers should pick up on what their clients are doing. Why not create an app that allows lawyers and clients to communicate continuously about a matter? The app could include milestones, such as court dates, deadlines for transaction documents, and board meetings. The users could share text, photos, and voice recordings, discussing the status of tasks and raising questions. When something goes off track, the parties can communicate immediately, though—and this is the tough part—they should do so thoughtfully and positively. When the matter ends, the users have a record of how things went and can have a more meaningful dialogue with a more focused discussion. When used throughout the year, the quarterly or annual meeting between lawyers and clients would become a chance to discuss ways to enhance improvements rather than a “review by ambush” experience to dread.
Technology Can Help Lawyers Add Value
As technology noses into the delivery of legal services, lawyers must become more focused on where they add value. Understanding the core human thing, the social experience, is a defining difference. By using technology creatively, such as an app to speed communication on matters in ways that enable continuous improvement, lawyers can facilitate client problem solving and higher quality communication. This type of differentiation will separate lawyers from minute-counters.