For those of you who've been reading this blog for a long time, you know I am a big fan of law firm extranets. Not only do extranets make the law firm transparent to the client and encourage accountability, they also force lawyers to define tasks narrowly. In our virtual law clerk and paralegal programs, we have to provide enough information to the workers so that they can return the task well done. The upper level lawyer's job is to not only define the specific task given to the law clerk or paralegal but all of the tasks in chronological order in order to achieve a client goal or benchmark. When any worker can see the progression of tasks leading to the deliverables, it's pretty easy for that worker to figure out where their piece of the puzzle fits in.
David Maister and his new blog has a great post about providing task information to workers called "what do you want from me?" David notes that most of the work that is being assigned is assigned "badly." He offers this tidbit of advice:
When someone gives you a task to do, say something like ‘I really want to do a great job for you, so can I clarify a few things?’ Most people will say ‘Yes.’ You can then be sure you understand the following details about your assignment –
1) The context of the assignment – ‘Please could you tell me what you are going to do with this when I get it done, tell me who is it for, and where does it fit with other things going on?’
2) Deadline – When would you like it, and when is it really due?
3) Scope – Would you like me to do the thorough job and take a little longer, or the quick and dirty version?
4) Format – How would you like to see the output of my work presented? What would make your life easier?
5) Time budget – Roughly how long would you expect this to take (so I can tell whether I’m on track or not?)
6) Relative priority – What’s the importance of this task relative to the other things you have asked me to do?
7) Available resources – Is there anything available to help me get the job done? For example, have we done one of these before?
8) Success criteria – How will the work be judged? Is it more important to be fast, cheap or perfect?
9) Monitoring and scheduled check points – Can we, please, schedule now a meeting, say, halfway through so I can show you what I’ve got and ensure that I’m on track for your needs?
10) Understanding – can I just read back to you what you’ve asked me to do, to confirm that I got it down right?
11) Concerns – before I get started can I just share with you any concerns about getting this done (e.g., other demands on my time) so that I don’t surprise you later?
Yes, your client or boss should be good at delegating or assigning work and giving you this information anyway. But the truth is that many people would not have thought through what they really want from you until you guide them through their ‘either-or’ choices.
The foundation of my new model for legal practice is built on the very principles which David refers to above. Because lawyers are so frazzled and consumed with billing hours and making sure everyone around them is billing hours, they forget why they went to law school. They forget why they toiled in the trenches for years to gain experience. A lawyer's brain can be a viciously awesome instrument. Unfortunately, many lawyer brains are wasted and fried by law firm business models that do not provide appropriate incentives. Lawyers must remember that their value is to understand the client's goals and define and document a strategic path which will achieve those goals. That path should be documented and available to everyone on the team, most especially the client.
Our virtual worker model allows top level lawyers to do what they do best and make sure that every task is pushed down to the lowest billing level. By having workers available on flex schedules; a lawyer can post tasks to an important issue and receive the response by the next morning. If a big project comes in requiring answers to eight key questions, the underpinning of those questions can be assigned to law clerks for quick turn around. The lawyer assimilates the information and incorporates it into a strategy which will deliver results and spends his or her time managing the project toward completion.