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Overcoming the EQ, Implementation and Execution Challenge in the Legal Profession

Emotional intelligence (EQ), implementation and execution: the guts of getting things done.

After all, any great vision or plan is just an idea unless and until tangible, concrete action is taken to give it life and (ideally, lasting) impact. Not that strategy and planning aren’t important, after all, to quote Yogi Berra: “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” But in the legal industry, I see a lot more emphasis on planning related activities than on real world implementation and execution. Layer on the precious little attention typically paid to EQ related considerations and it’s no wonder change efforts often stall or stumble in the legal context. Not surprising as the creation and delivery of “the plan” alone is the essence of most legal deliverables. Let me explain what I mean by this.

The outcome or product of traditional legal effort is typically a tangible document like a will, a separation agreement, a contract, an initial public offering receipt, an opinion, a collective agreement or a court order. In other words, static guidelines that typically guide implementation and execution efforts. In many firm and corporate settings, this is where the legal contribution or role ends. As a result, very little, if any, effort or attention is paid by the lawyers to what happens after they have delivered their outcome or product. That’s for operations or other business as usual units to address.

For example, in the course of my providing a person with advice on managing their unwieldy monthly divorce attorney fees, they commented that they couldn’t wait until their divorce was finalized as then all their issues with their ex would be resolved. Unfortunately, the various ongoing issues that were irking this person (including scheduling weekend time with the children, payment of unexpected discretionary expenses etc.) weren’t going to go away when the divorce was finalized as those “rules” had already been set (they just weren’t being followed).

From the lawyer’s perspective, the had done their job of establishing reasonable rules for everyone to follow and appropriate financial settlement parameters. From the client’s perspective, they had spent a significant amount of money obtaining “rules” and a divorce order that did nothing to resolve very real, daily issues continued. Not a productive use of anyone’s time, energy or money and the basis of much discontent from the client’s perspective.

Contrast this with a client who was involved in material litigation that was dragging on for years. For months the other side repeatedly failed to turn up for scheduled discoveries at great cost, expense and inconvenience to the client and their legal team. EQ considerations and cost/benefit calculations helped the client and their lawyers understand, anticipate and plan for the unpredictable behaviours of the other side, develop a successful litigation strategy and set and manage the significant legal expenses.

As each example illustrates, while lawyers can’t physically force anyone to do anything, an understanding that the time and effort to get people to do things involves significantly more than the equivalent of Jean-Luc Picard on Star Treck saying “Make it so” can have a significant impact on the lawyer’s value to their client. This general underestimation and underappreciate how brutally hard it can be to get people to do things takes me to the “touchy feely” world of motivating behaviours, garnering buy-in, instilling habits etc. Any search for books on these subjects will unearth countless titles (significantly more than you will find on how to draft a contract) because it is so difficult for anyone to get it right.

The general challenges associated with implementation, execution and EQ is magnified when looking at initiatives within firm settings where the population is largely comprised of independent fiefdoms and profit centres each with its own very real “Make it so”, top-down, command and control structures with no real, immediate incentive or motivation to team up and work with others outside of the immediate team (including knowledge management, IT, marketing etc. professionals with the firm).

The billable hour and referral structures layers on to feed the micro, “what’s in it for me”, views that prevail and often hinder bigger perspective efforts that benefit the clients, the firm as a whole, and, ironically, the longer-term health and sustainability of individual practices themselves.

Worse still, this isn’t a secret. As a Managing Partner of a Seven Sister Firm once confided to me “I know where we need to do to be, and when I speak with my senior partners to get their buy-in they agree that it is what we need to do and where we need to be, but when the time comes to implement the change required, those same senior partners suddenly announce that they have taken their books of business to another firm that lets them continue with their traditional approach to their practice.” The fact is, however, that as the market becomes more mature and the cost of legal services continue to soar, clients are becoming more and more focused on receiving legal advice that is integrated both across legal and between legal and other disciplines (such as finance, IT and knowledge management). Clients also want practical advice that takes into account their actual needs and context. This means that the traditional approach needs to change.

Given effective change requires time, effort, planning, patience, implementation, execution and EQ skills that many lawyers lack, what’s a Managing Partner, or any lawyer for that matter, to do? My top 7 suggestions are to encourage (even better, reward) lawyers to:

  1. Develop “T” and /or “plus” shaped skills (i.e. technology, data management and analytics, design / user experience, business skills, industry knowledge and skills, project management, EQ, communication, financial, etc.) or at the very least go to sessions that give participants the context to better appreciate and leverage the contributions of subject matter experts in these areas;

  2. Understand why the legal product is needed by the client, how they will use it and what practical problem / context they are dealing with (what is good for you or the firm is secondary – focus on understanding and meeting client needs);

  3. Identify and optimize the process that is embedded in the elements of the legal product/outcome that are having the greatest impact (negative or positive) on the lawyer’s (a) value to their client or (b) ability to meet their client’s needs;

  4. Be patient, understand and accept that in the short-term there will be uncertainty and missteps associated with planning, designing and introducing any new process, technology or approach that generates longer term benefits for everyone (i.e. it always gets harder before it gets easier and takes longer than you think it should to plan and implement);

  5. Gather and monitor data that can be used to make informed decisions about client needs, emerging trends as well as when, where and why to focus change efforts and resources;

  6. Expand their team to actively incorporate the contributions of allied professionals and recognize the value of their skill set and perspective;

  7. Set big goals and take “bite sized” risks – the status quo is constantly evolving and the skills that will support successful, sustainable practices in the future require time, attention and effort significantly above and beyond the “I went to a lunch and learn, I’m good” level to develop. Since there is no guaranteed outcome, particularly when much of this is uncharted territory for the legal profession, conduct pilots, adjust as necessary, iterate and expand.

Any thoughts, suggestions or challenges you’d like to share? Don’t hesitate to reach out, I’d love to hear from you!


About the Author

Melissa LaFlair is the Founder of LaFlair Legal and Project Management Services®

She is a Legal Operations Expert and Change Architect, Agent and Advisor focused on Building Powerful Lawyer- Client Relationships®.

A consultant, lawyer and certified PMP with over 20 years of experience. Melissa’s unique insights into the various challenges and opportunities that present themselves in today’s legal market are based on actual experience on each side of the lawyer-client relationship. Melissa’s signature, holistic approach to legal operations introduces practical, results oriented, strategic, behavioural, data and technology based perspectives to budgeting, reporting, process development, process improvement, resource allocation and risk management efforts that support the differentiation and long-term success of the organizations she works with.

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