"Degrees of Freedom," Empowerment Make for Successful Discovery Teams

My thanks goes out to Sarah Randag of the ABA Journal for her January 28, 2011, Question of the Week (“Can Document Review Work Help You Grow As A Lawyer?”), in which she quoted from my previous blog entry. After reading the posted comments, it seems that there are several takeaway points to consider should one decide to work in the discovery arena:

  1. Jobs are what one makes of them.
  2. Who one works for makes a difference.
  3. Degrees of freedom are paramount.

I readily concede the point that discovery and document review work is not for all attorneys. It is true that all document review projects and organizations focusing on providing these services are not equal. I speculate bad experiences with some organizations also contribute to the negative stereotypes of the work. Bad experiences, rather than good, tend to stay with us longer (so psychology suggests). In the end, there are two camps: those who have had good experiences and those who have not. Perhaps the distinction between the two camps, promoters and detractors, is perspective on experiences.

I too have worked on a “traditional” doc review project and understand the comments of the detractors. One thing that makes the Counsel On Call experience unique versus other organizations is that our company is run by attorneys, from the owners to the client liaisons to the project managers. These attorneys have spent years either as in-house counsels or at large law firms. They understand the process, what is needed, the objectives, and the goals – including how to reduce costs without sacrificing the work product. It’s also important to note that Counsel On Call works with dozens of corporate legal departments as well as with law firms; many doc review companies primarily work with law firms and simply provide a "staffing" solution.

My most recent project provided me with a direct line to in-house counsel. Leading the discovery team, I directly reported to the lead in-house attorney placed in charge of the review on which we worked. In this regard, we functioned as an off-site legal department under the supervision and direction of the client. It was not uncommon to provide examples, discuss why a particular record might or might not be considered privileged, and seek other guidance from the in-house attorney. These conversations were both welcomed and encouraged. I was provided with knowledge of the process from receipt of discovery request to actual production. Being involved in, and gaining knowledge of, the big picture changes how the work is viewed and done. We were always treated as a critical and integral part of the legal team.

Maybe that is the point as it relates to degrees of freedom. Because I have a background in Industrial and Organizational Psychology with an emphasis on the “O” side, a portion of my first training was in creating, developing, and maintaining efficient and effective teams. I use “degrees of freedom” in this context as a catchall for empowerment, and research suggests teams work better when they are empowered. Ingredients of empowerment include knowledge, a sense of belonging and the ability to make decisions. When a team is empowered, it develops a sense of ownership of both the work and the final product. The team is, collectively and collaboratively, a separate and distinct entity; distinguishable from the sum total of its parts, the individual team members. To that end, I would hypothesize the “traditional” doc review team which possesses no degrees of freedom, and consequently no empowerment related to its work would be far less effective and efficient than the empowered team of which I am a part.

As I said in my earlier entry, I enjoy my work and learn on each project. I’ve broadened my skill set and gained a better understanding of the discovery process. I’ve also learned more about what’s important to my clients and how I can help the team achieve goals. When it’s all put together, I know I’m a better and more valuable lawyer today than I was before I started working on these discovery matters. 


Shawn DeHaven is a Counsel On Call attorney and team leader and has offered to post his thoughts on the discovery process and working with Counsel On Call on Lawdable. To learn more about Shawn, please see his bio or the profile piece in
Counsel On Call’s newsletter from last summer.

Popular Posts: Jan. 1 to June 30, 2010

July is the perfect time to reflect on the first half of the year. Things have been so busy here that we haven't had as much time to post as we'd like, but one of our second-half goals is to contribute more to Lawdable.

In the meantime, here are the five most viewed Lawdable posts to January to July 2010, in descending order:

#5: Legal Project Management: Fad or Focus? (Barry Willms, April 7)
More discussion on LPM, which points to some recent successes and the necessity for the project manager to have authority and follow several key guideline. This follows other popular posts on LPM from Richard Stout (January, see #3), Dennis McKinnie (June 2009) and Candice Reed (June 2009), among other LPM musings.

#4: E-Discovery Tools: Evaluate, Collaborate and 'Lawyer the Problem' (Barry Willms, May 21)
One of the summaries of a Discovery Symposium 2.0 panel session with Barry, co-author of Lawdable Richard Stout, and Edward Efkeman from FedEx. A synopsis of the process and decisions in-house departments factor regarding technology tools and how they fit with their respective teams and culture.

#3: The Spotlight Shines on Project Management (Richard Stout, Jan. 21)
This post was part of a multi-blog dialogue about whether PMs should be lawyers or non-lawyers as LPM truly cemented itself in the vernacular of the legal profession at the beginning of the year. Richard even suggested that LPM could provide an alternate path to partnership in law firms in the future. There were many great observations on the 3 Geeks and Hildebrandt blogs and plenty of back-and-forth on Twitter.

#2: Q&A With Attorney Chris Cotton: Haiti Update (Jan. 18)
Chris is a real leader within our E-Discovery Division and a trusted tactician and voice on our teams. He has also spent significant time in Haiti, helping build and launch an orphanage through the Hands and Feet Project before he came to Counsel On Call. He was in regular contact with several people on the ground after the earthquake, spoke to the media, coordinated with Tennessee's congressional delegation, and took a few minutes to speak with us about the situation in Jacmel.

#1: Alternative Fee Arrangements Gain Traction (Candice Reed, Feb. 3)
Talk of AFAs was deafening in the early part of the year and has only slightly quieted down in recent weeks, so it's no suprise a post on the subject drew plenty of interest. We also heard a lot about it at Discovery Symposium 2.0 and have written often about the subject on Lawdable. We're confident it will continue to be of interest for the foreseeable future.

 

 

Legal Project Management: Fad or Focus?

Like alternative fee arrangements, Legal Project Management (LPM) has become somewhat of a new fad – or at least a very popular topic to discuss and write about. While it’s still unclear how much attention the broader legal landscape truly gives this discipline (although some are making a noticeable commitment to it), I’m of the opinion that LPM should be a key focus of the legal profession moving forward.

LPM is not only about getting things done cheaper and on time, it’s about using best practices and process to accomplish desired goals and budget predictability. To accomplish this, the project manager (PM) must have authority, as Paul C. Easton states in a recent blog post. It’s key, and not only with the attorney team, but with the different departments and personnel involved in any project. That level of responsibility requires experience and a track record – the ability to develop and oversee processes, meet benchmarks, stay on or below budget, and develop consistency -- and having done it many times over. Simply pushing the task down to the lowest possible billing rate, a practice Easton frowns upon in his post, is counter-productive in most instances.

While we commonly see its use in discovery-related matters today, LPM should be the focus of any-size project requiring coordination of more than one person and there have been many successful PM-led initiatives in other areas of the law. It doesn’t matter the area of law, really, because budgets, organization, timelines, process, quality standards, and repeatability are universally necessary considerations. Each is part of the LPM role, and each can be improved dramatically with a great PM. A PM who understands a client’s bigger picture is even more valuable and can help bring core disciplines from one department to another, building on previously successful practices (e.g. e-discovery to due diligence or employment work).

However, without authority – or at least a seat at the decision-making table -- the PM’s power to generate results is effectively non-existent. Spinning wheels, waiting for sign-off by the higher-ups on everything, direction that differs from previously successful results, and choices that are subject to constant overturning… this breeds confusion, stagnation, indecision, and ultimately higher costs.

If you go the route of project management, don’t go halfway. Make a commitment and give it the resources (and power) it needs to be successful.
 

The Spotlight Shines on Project Management

There’s a great post up on the ‘3 Geeks and a Law Blog’ that frames the current discussion regarding project managers, or, more specifically, the professional background of and what potentially makes a good project manager.

We’ve discussed this topic on Lawdable before and it’s a worthwhile, ongoing conversation within law firms and other legal service providers like Counsel On Call (although no one is like us, of course). One can very quickly dive into topics ranging from law schools and their e-discovery curriculums (or lack thereof) to whether the disciplines of project management can truly be absorbed by a practicing attorney, among a host of other sidebars.

Here’s what we’d like to tack onto the conversation: excellent project management is completely dependent on the individual project manager. If you look hard enough, there are lawyers out there who are great project managers, who understand how to budget and track metrics, who know how to design and implement proven protocols -- and who have been doing this for years. On the flip side, there are undoubtedly non-lawyers who can come into a project management role, add a lot of value, and do a better job than 95% of the lawyers who currently have project management responsibility. That’s not a knock on those lawyers, but a nod to those non-lawyers’ skills.

The training PMs receive and their personalities affect the people most likely to stay lawyers in the first place. The old adage that ‘I didn’t become a lawyer to do accounting’ is true. However, those who’ve been in law for awhile also see that there are different career development avenues to pursue and to help their clients. (And who’s to say PMs can’t make partner in the law firm of the future? Clients want to work with great PMs; that can mean more business from a PM’s clients.)

Circumstances, experiences and exposure can also help you develop the skills and expertise to push you in the direction of project management. In the same manner that lawyers involved in e-discovery today may not have started with technological understanding or had any initial training; those who have been thrust into the fire might have had an interest created, and then received the training and knowledge to accomplish and even master the topic. So, too, some of those thrust into project management may find that they like it, are good at it and want to pursue it to create the necessary expertise to become premier in the field.

We’ve found great lawyers who make great project managers, but we’re also in a more unique position than, say, a law firm, for instance. Our lawyers were looking for a different way to practice law and that’s why we’ve found one another; that departure from traditional thought also helps us identify those who could potentially make great project managers. And while MBA-types might run individual departments at a law firm, it’s usually a lawyer from within their own ranks who serves as a project manager on a specific case or matter. Some of those lawyers make great PMs, but many are so grounded in traditional lines of thinking that it’s difficult to break away and innovate; great project management requires a balance of innovation and proven protocols.

That’s a long way of saying there are different ways to approach this issue, and it’s going to be a focus as more people become attuned to it. In the end, it’s great for our profession.
 

Leadership on a Matter -- It Matters

The main subject matter of this blog is to discuss best practices or recognize innovative happenings in the legal profession; despite our best efforts, it’s sometimes difficult to stop for a second to write about something or want to write about it when it seems promotional of our company. I considered this yesterday as I was reviewing the status of an interesting new assignment we’re working on, and there are a couple of items I felt were worth discussion here. So here we go ...

Just last week, a team of approximately 20 Counsel On Call attorneys and paralegals -- working remotely from five different cities across the country -- began a project in which they are assisting a corporate client by reviewing and updating all of its vendor contracts before the end of the fiscal year. Each is a great attorney with significant contracts experience in the client's industry (I think the average is around seven years of experience), but what is especially noteworthy about this matter is that several boundaries have been knocked down. It truly is about good lawyers wanting to work with good lawyers, trusting a process and not necessarily taking the road most traveled. The focus is on communication, not location; the qualifications of the attorneys, not the name of the place where they work; and the track record of the leadership and management of the team, not just the bullet points on a resume. This results in the client's ability to get the work done efficiently, access a much larger talent pool and keep a tight hold on costs.

Specifically to the latter point – and we have certainly learned a lot from our work in the world of e-discovery in this regard – good project management and team leadership are essential. Anytime there are this many people on a team, multiple work sites, and tight deadlines, it is imperative to have a strategy in place and implement it. That sounds easy, but I think anyone who has been involved in team-based assignments understands that it takes a great project manager and/or team leader to pull this off. There are always changes; there is always troubleshooting; it is never a completely smooth ride. You need to be able to have a core strategy that can move forward without getting derailed when adjustments are needed. The leadership on the matter matters, and that’s why I'm very proud that we have a great group of leaders who can handle these types of assignments and make our clients’ lives easier.

There’s certainly more than one way to skin a cat, and it’s exciting to be a problem solver in that regard.