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We've all been there. Someone, a partner, co-counsel, support staff, whoever, makes commitments at the onset of a project, and they never follow through. This isn't just a problem with unreliable associates or partners with conflicting priorities; it's something lawyers and law firms of all sizes experience.
You'll probably never get everyone to do everything they've committed to, 100 percent of the time. But there are some steps you can take to improve follow through. Here's how.
Attacking "Commitment Drift"
Writing for Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute (disclosure: Thomson Reuters is FindLaw's parent company), Patrick J. McKenna describes the problem of inconsistent lawyer follow through as one of "commitment drift." That's commitment drift as in saying "Yeah, I'll do that," then drifting on over to "Oh sorry, something more important came up."
McKenna is writing for large and midsized firms, but the experience is one that most lawyers can relate to, and it's a problem, he says, that "seems to be one of the most common challenges" facing firms. After all, how can you successfully manage projects or make long term plans when you cannot be certain that your team will see through the tasks they've taken on?
7 Steps to Increased Follow Through
McKenna has put together seven steps that he believes will help ensure results. You should read his entire explanation in his original post, but here's the cheat sheet version:
1. Toss mandatory assignments; make most work voluntary.
2. Break a project into bite-sized chunks.
3. Ask for specific commitments before the next meeting.
4. Ask for personal commitment.
5. Set an appropriate deadline.
6. Record commitments in meeting minutes.
7. Follow up! (And offer to help.)
Some of these seem obvious, even if you've never thought of them before. Recording commitments in the minutes helps hold team members accountable by creating a written record that everyone can access. Following up lets you address issues earlier, and offering to help makes you seem more like a partner in the task, rather than just a task master.
My favorite, at least, is the idea of removing mandatory assignments. No one wants to be stuck with the least interesting, least rewarding work. Yet, this is what happens every time someone decides "Oh, John can just handle that." It's not surprising that John doesn't follow through in such cases. (This is particularly relevant when working in practice groups or firm committees. You can probably feel free to keep assigning grunt work to associates and paralegals.)