The Fourth Tool: The Budget

My regular column for SLAW, the Canadian online practice-of-law journal, is now available. It focuses on budgets, the fourth of my five tools for legal professionals.

Of course, you could buy the book on which it’s based for a more thorough discussion, he said with a smile, but the SLAW column is a good introduction.

Ringo and Project Management

Recently, Ringo Starr was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.1

There’s been discussion among music aficionados of a certain age as to whether be belongs there as an individual. After all, according to someone who should know, “He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles.”

John Lennon said that.2

But…. First, John was an inveterate joker. Second, Paul, a brilliant musician overall, was and remains a rudimentary drummer. And third, in a 1980 interview, he stated, “Ringo’s a damn good drummer. He was always a good drummer.”

Here’s the project management part.

Ringo wasn’t a great drummer in terms of technique. (He’ll be the first to state that much.) No one would mistake him for the “in” drummers of the 60s and 70s, the power of John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) or Ginger Baker (Cream) or the jazz-inflected chops of John Densmore (the Doors) or the studio work of Bernard Purdie (every funk hit you can think of) or Hal Blaine (every not-so-funky hit you can think of).

But he kept an immaculately steady rhythm, playing without a metronome. And when he varied the rhythm, it was because the song subtly required it. As George said, “Ringo’s got the best back beat I’ve ever heard and he can play great 24-hours a day.”

He listened to the lyrics and found the precise fills that complemented them. (Listen to the rolling fill on the toms after “he blew his mind out in a car” that instantly transforms a folky ballad into a rock classic.)

He thought solely about what would serve the song rather than how to show flash as a drummer. Paul: “Right down the center. Never overplays.” George: “Brilliance. Pure feel.” John: “Ringo knows where to go just like that.”

Most of those in the R&RH0F are the glory guys, the front men (and women).

But someone has to keep the project in line, keep the beat, set the structure.

Maybe some drummers nowadays do that better than Ringo3, but he was the gold standard.

That’s the project manager’s job. You don’t get the glory. Heck, at least the drummer gets to sit up on a platform and hit things. People rarely pay attention unless you screw up.. (Let’s not even talk about drum solos. Please.) But you’re the difference between an innocuous folky ballad and rock ‘n’ roll!

So let’s hear it for Richard Starkey.

Oh, there’s one last way in which Ringo embodies the “zen” of project management – his cry at the end of Helter Skelter:

Planning and Project Management

From today’s Pearls Before Swine:


Worthwhile Article on Paying Your Best Performers “Unfairly”

Business Insider has a very nice article on Google’s policy of paying people “unfairly.”

By “unfairly,” Google means that different people receive different pay and/or incentives for the same position and title.

One requirement is that the business have reasonably unbiased ways of judging productivity.

That works in the tech world. (Google is not alone here.) It’s clear on a programming project who writes the best code and writes it the fastest, turns in the fewest bugs, helps most to debug other people’s code, and so on.

What About Legal?

Some law firms offer a mild variant of this procedure by paying more to those who bring in new business – the eat-what-you-kill approach. However, to some extent, that approach defines the lawyers’ primary business as sales, not legal work.

Would it be possible to use the Google model effectively in law, looking solely at service-delivery effectiveness rather than sales? Who are the attorney (partner-level) superstars when it comes to managing projects, being highly profitable rather than just revenue-generating, delivering client value, and, yes, besting the other guys consistently?

Should firms (or departments) do something like this? Some do allocate a share of year-end funds to equity partners based on their effectiveness, though I gather this is anything but transparent for most firms using this model. Could it be modeled further? Would it help morale and retention? Or is it simply out of step with the expectations of most lawyers today?

How much of the value at a practice comes from superstars v. solid performers putting in the hours?

Personal note: when I worked for Microsoft, I was compensated in part based on the difference I made to the company and its customers. I received base compensation based on my experience and job description – i.e., title and level/position. I gained additional compensation, often exceeding salary, because of things I accomplished that went beyond “doing my job,” whether it was saving millions of dollars a year against the legal budget or, in earlier days, breaking barriers to adoption for some key products and bailing out a number of high-visibility troubled projects. 




OT: Brilliant Way to Increase Tips

This is just brilliant.

I’m not sure it has any application to Legal Project Management, or the business of law.

I’m not even trying to make a statement on the concept of tipping.

(Might I wonder, though, if the penny in the iPhone box was all that one person could spare after paying Apple’s aspirational-goods pricing?)

I’m only noting that it’s a very clever idea.

Imagine the possibilities in this divided country. Instant polls! Vote with your change!

(Or maybe not. Customers getting into arguments at the register might not be good for business. And where would all the Microsofties put in their vote for Windows Phone? You do remember Windows Phone, don’t you?4)

By the way, someone asked last time I used it about the abbreviation OT in the title of this article. It stands for Off Topic.

A hat tip to the blog Not Always Right, which contains an unending stream of embarrassing customer moments for those seeking schadenfreude.

A Crucial Interview Question

I was talking with a client yesterday about interview questions, discussing ones that elicited useful information. We got to speaking about questions from the candidate, and I said there was one question I always wanted to hear… and almost never did.

This question is a terrific question for project managers to ask their clients, as well.

What keeps you up at night?

Sure, it’ll likely elicit a weak jest about progeny… before it turns serious.

For a job candidate, it’s a terrific question. It allows the candidate to gauge the potential future manager’s needs – and the types of problems you might be running into. And a manager who can’t answer it – or who won’t, or who is disingenuous – may make you realize you’re not looking at your dream job.

But it also gives you the chance to say, if appropriate, “Here’s how I might be able to help you sleep better.” What special skills do you bring to bear on the problem? Why are you the person they should hire?

The Project Manager Version

Hourly Labor RatesOne of the hardest jobs of a project manager is ascertaining the real problem. This difficulty is particularly prevalent in legal, where clients – whether lawyers or not – want to talk about legal rather than business problems because they’re trying to be helpful.

A client’s real problem is whatever is (metaphorically) keeping her up at night.

Maybe it’s competition. Maybe it’s production-line snags, or internal politics, or finding the right staff, or, as Hamlet says, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Ask this question, understand the answer, and you have a signpost that will help guide you to client satisfaction.

Sure, sometimes you’re just solving a little thing, smoothing away some irritant. However, much of the work you do will touch on the client’s big workday fears. Ease those fears, and boost your client satisfaction.

[For the record, I do recall one candidate asking this question over the many hundreds of interviews I conducted over the years (at Microsoft I was often brought onto interview loops as part of a final screen for candidates for other departments, not just my own).]

SmallLaw Pick of the Week


My March column for SLAW, the online Canadian Journal of law practice, won the SmallLaw Pick of the Week last week.

The article, The Third Tool: The Off Switch, is a brief intro to one of the time-saving techniques that I recommend. Legal Project Management Field Guide goes into more detail on this third tool, and The Off Switch not only goes much deeper, but covers a dozen other tips and techniques to make your days significantly more productive.

Thanks to the folks who give out these awards. The editors of SmallLaw, a free weekly email newsletter for solo practitioners and those who manage and work in small law firms, give this award to one article every week that they feel is a must-read for this audience.


What Can “the Law Business” Learn From Radio Shack?

I passed a nearly-gone Radio Shack outlet last night. Everything was 70%-90% off. An inveterate tinkerer and early adopter, I still couldn’t find anything I wanted, let alone something I needed.

But it got me thinking.

What’s Our Business?

What business was Radio Shack in?

I think it was – and had always been – a high-end notions store, with a little of this, a bit of that, something from everyone within a certain population. Need a resistor or a diode? An adapter for some ephemeral bit of electronica? A connector for your TV or stereo? A battery powered toy?

For a long while, they were about the only place to get such things. Go back almost 40 years. Want a computer? Your choice was the expensive Apple II or the not-quite-so-expensive5 TRS-80. Note the picture. Elegant? No. It said, “for specialists” all over it. Like everything else in the store.

They built repeat business from those with specific one-off needs plus a small population of incipient engineers. They never served the public at large.

They served a need, but never figured out how to build relationships with the broader customer base.

Was Radio Shack’s business that different from a law firm’s?

That’s a serious question. And a tough one.

Who’s the Competition?

Radio Shack had little real competition until the age of the Internet.

There had always been a certain amount of mail order (e.g., Edmund Scientific) and a few local shops6. But Radio Shack never had to worry about a competitor.

Until disruption happened. Twice.

The first was the explosion of the personal-computer market, jump-started by the IBM PC – and the acceptance of the idea that computers were useful for individuals and small businesses. Suddenly, the underpowered, over-ugly TRS-80 and its descendants were chasing a market, rather than leading it.

And the profit margins Radio Shack had been counting on disappeared.

The second disruption came in a box.

With a smile.

Now hobbyists and those needing one-off novelties could get them at a lower price. More importantly, they could find what they wanted, since Radio Shack displays – like those of any notions shop – could be arranged only in a single way that made sense to a small proportion of shoppers, the hobbyists.

Radio Shack never accounted for the competition. Yet it was clear by the mid 1990s their model was doomed – a long, slow death, but unless they could change, there was no way out.

They didn’t change, of course. Adding overpriced phones bought a little time, but no security.

Can law firms be disrupted in the same way?

What is a law firm’s barrier to entry?

What happens if the “unauthorized practice of law” rules are redefined, or bypassed? What happens if clients start demanding serious change – not the fits and starts of the past half dozen years, but real change for 90% of their matters? For corporations, how else might they place everything but the bet-the-business issues requiring high-end specialization? For individuals and small business, how much of the work could go through pseudo-law-firms such as a modified LegalZoom or a law office in Manila or New Delhi with a single representative in Montana or New York?

Before you answer too quickly, recall that Radio Shack swore it couldn’t happen.

But it did.

Are Law Firms in the Notions Business?

That’s a serious question – metaphorical, but serious.

Let me be intentionally provocative:

Radio ShackLaw Firm
What They SellA variety of items that were (at the time) hard to findA variety of services that are (at this time) hard to get elsewhere
Customer Driver1. Need
2. Relationship (weak binding)
1. Need
2. Relationship (weak binding)
Shopping ExperienceDisorganized, often requiring sales helpDisorganized, almost always requiring sales help
Organizing PrincipleMade sense internally, but obscure to most customersMakes sense internally, but obscure to most clients
Growth OpportunityIn 1977, computers… but quickly overwhelmed by other players?? (Industry consolidation is not a growth opportunity)
ThreatIBM, Apple, AmazonLegalZoom, “law factories,” in-house changes
Threat ResponseAwful ads in Thanksgiving Day NFL games“Unauthorized practice of law”
FutureLittle to noneTBD
“But I need that stuff. Where do I buy it now?”Amazon (which doesn’t resemble Radio Shack at all)Perhaps in various places that don’t much resemble today’s firms…?

I don’t know the answer. I’m an observer, and this is to some extent outside my area of specialization.

But I am an observer of the business world, having run businesses on three continents, and having worked for many years running businesses within a very large and highly profitable multinational corporation.

I believe law is vitally important to civilization, and in a minute I’ll close this article with my favorite quote from A Man for All Seasons, by Robert Bolt. We depend on laws.

What’s not as clear to me is the extent to which we depend on the current organization of the law business.

And I have the same fear as Robert Bolt’s Sir Thomas: If we as a society do not organize the law business to fit the times, who will stand for us should the business be disrupted violently from outside forces?

   William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!


Why Traditional Project Management Doesn’t Work for Professionals – Reason #487

I renewed my membership in PMI today, the Project Management Institute. Among the questions I was asked, on the way to supplying my $129, was, How did you first learn about PMI?

PMI How Did You HearLook at the list of options, a list that appears to be 200+ items long. (I scrolled all the way down to see. I do this stuff so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.)

Who is actually going to page through all that — except someone without a life, or perhaps an obsessive project manager who cannot distinguish the inconsequential from the important?

A project manager with infinite time can afford to be infinitely obsessive. The rest of us must pick and choose. Good project managers evaluate risks and priorities quickly but thoughtfully. Just as they must focus on the risks with the biggest exposure rather than treat each one equally, so they must focus on prioritized tasks as well.

Scrolling through a list of 200 items to fill out a piece of inconsequential info isn’t something good project managers are likely to prioritize.

The worst part is that some project manager probably did a traditional requirements-gathering gig around this website. Hard work, but no understanding of real needs, or user (client, customer) behavior.

Oh, I also encountered reason #488 before I could give them my money. The credit card they had on file had reached its expiration date. So what does a user most likely want to do at this point?

Right. Update the expiration date. Card companies don’t normally change the card number when they send a new piece of plastic with a new date.

But of course this site had no option for updating the info. I had to enter everything again. Not a big chore, but unnecessary and user-unfriendly. Again, some project manager went out to gather requirements, and missed a blindingly obvious one.

I wish I could say this type of bad project management was rare. But in the real world, it is anything but.

PMI should be embarrassed by the way their site demonstrates a lack of effective project management.

The good news – you don’t have to work like this. Becoming an effective legal project manager is not hard. Indeed, one of the reasons I teach seminars and write books and articles is to improve the level of project management in the professional world.

Let me teach you and others in your practice how to perform effective Legal Project Management.

Getting Project Managers Started Young

Toddler reading LPM BookWhat do you think? Too young to learn about managing projects?

Well, maybe.

But on the other end of the spectrum, for sure you’re never too old.

What are you waiting for? Let the children show you the way – or at least let this child point out the right book!

  1. Okay, the whole idea of a rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame seems an oxymoron. Rock at its best is immediate and ephemeral, even if The Who somehow sang “I hope I die before I get old” at the Super Bowl. Still, the R&RHoF is – somehow – a thing.

  2. Paul played drums on Back In The USSR, Dear Prudence, The Ballad Of John & Yoko, and a few other tracks, but often when the Beatles were recording songs he’d written, he’s sit at the drums to show Ringo, “Play it like this.”

  3. I said “Maybe.”

  4. I actually have a Nokia Windows Phone, and it’s quite good – especially since I bought it unlocked for $50. If you want one, click here and select No Contract. No LED flash or front-facing camera, but it’s a solid contender.

  5. Even then, about the only place with higher prices was Apple.

  6. I remember a late-60s place outside Albany where people “parted out” surplus hand-wired circuit boards.