Image [cc] dground

One of my biggest pet peeves about working in a law firm is that we are completely reactive in our operations, and we are quick to jump on the next project without reviewing what we have just finished. Toby touched on the reactive process of our business model yesterday, so I’ll focus on the lack of process review today. When I was in the Army, we called this an “After Action Review.” The idea is pretty simple and can be summed up by asking five open-ended questions:

  1. What was our mission? 
  2. What actually happened?
  3. Why was there a difference?
  4. What have we learned?
  5. What will we do about it?
The key to this whole process is to extract the things that went right (and why they went right) and the things that didn’t go as planned (and why they went wrong), and memorialize that information so that we continue to do the right things, and we adjust our processes on the things that didn’t go as planned. In the Army, it can literally mean the difference between life and death… luckily for law firms, it doesn’t go to that extreme.
There are two obvious stumbling blocks that are present in the law firm environment regarding these types of post-matter or post-project reviews:
  • The need to assign blame if something went wrong
  • The fact that you can’t charge a client for the time you spend on these reviews
As for the first issue, these reviews cannot turn into gripe sessions. The purpose of the review is to take a very cold, calculated look at the situation, the timeline, the people, the processes, and the results. I like to refer to it as an autopsy without blame. The results of the review (and you need to keep everyone’s eye on this goal throughout the process) is to identify what we learned, and what we will do next time to create an equal or greater outcome. Period. 

Now, for the “but, we can’t bill our time” issue. A law firm is a business, run it as such. If you think that you cannot afford to take the time to do a review of your previous matter or project, then you are doing a disservice to those people you lead, your clients, and to yourself. The time you take to work out what went wrong in the prior matter can help prevent you from making that same mistake in the next.