Monday, December 12, 2011

Every Position, Every Player, Every Game

I have three active children; so I spend a good deal of my free time coaching a variety of sports teams.  It’s fun, rewarding, and at times quite challenging.  Everyone wants to win every game we play (I am talking about the parents, of course).  It's nice to win, but youth sports are about learning, not just winning.  The kids have to make their own mistakes on the field if they are going to develop.  So every game I coach, I create a substitution grid that allows me to ensure that every player plays every position in every game.  If it is our weakest player's turn to be in the scoring position in a tight game, so be it.  Sometimes we don't win as a result, but the kids gain valuable experience and grow to be better players in the long run. 

In the practice of law, it seems difficult to risk taking a "loss" in the name of cross training and professional development.  But, in terms of the long term strength of your team, providing access to skill building is key.  You, your clients and your staff benefit tremendously from these activities.  So, how can you incorporate training into your workflow without sacrificing the firm's work quality or reputation?

Here are a few things that have worked for our clients:

Capitalize on teaching moments.  Identify matters that are good teaching opportunities and get junior people involved in a meaningful way.  Leveraging inexperienced resources to provide assistance on a complicated case may increase billing opportunities, but it is unlikely to further their learning.  Assigning more comprehensive tasks on less complicated matters allows junior attorneys to learn to assume responsibility of deliverables, and is more likely to create lasting teaching experiences.

Delegate parts of matters.  Give a junior team member part of a matter with clear deliverables.  Not only will this give the junior member a chance to work and learn under your supervision, but it will also give you a chance to observe the workproduct of your staff.  With feedback and time, you will be able to trust in the quality of your staff's workproduct.

Use mentoring teams.  When a matter is large enough to require two attorneys, assign one more-experienced team member and one less-experienced.  The more-experienced attorney gets the opportunity to advise and mentor the junior member, and the junior member gets hands-on training.  It's a win-win situation.  This will also help your firm develop a culture in which junior members don't hesitate to ask for advice when needed, and senior members take an interest in junior members' development.

Perform an autopsy.  After a matter project is completed, or an issue occurs, dissect and critique the performance and overall results with your whole staff.  This is an excellent way to ensure that your entire team will learn from each others' positive and negative actions.  It's also an effective way for the managing partner to lay out a definitive process for similar instances in the future.  Performing regular project critiques may even inspire your team to generate new and innovative ideas. 

At some point you have to let people take the plunge and do something different.  If you can't ever feel comfortable that your team can exceed expectations without your supervision, you don't have the right people working for you.


David DePietto is the founder and CEO of NexFirm. He can be reached at dd@nexfirm.com.