Solving the Legal Profession’s ‘Commitment Drift’ Frustration

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underperforming partners

If there is one single frustration that I hear from firm and practice leaders on a continual basis it is trying to determine how to deal with the “commitment drift” of those partners who make promises but don’t always follow through. In other words, how do you ensure task completion on important projects when your partners agree to do something at the implementation stage, and you’re uncertain that you will see the necessary committed follow-through?

Whether it is in a practice group setting, around the table with the members of your Strategic Planning Committee, or wherever colleagues are meeting, this seems to be one of the most common challenges. That said, there are seven important steps you can take to ensure results (in most cases):

1 . Ensure that the undertaking is voluntary

Far too often the group leader (in their wisdom) thinks that George is the best person to do a given task, and so assigns the task by publicly arm-twisting or subtly embarrassing George into taking on that task. Now ask yourself: just how motivated is George really going to be with an assignment that was delegated to him under those circumstances?

Even worse, I often see those instances where one particular practice group or committee member was absent from a meeting and the others debated about what project “to stick Jennifer with.” Now, once again, should we really be surprised when people don’t follow through?

When someone voluntarily takes on a task they are far more committed to ensure the completion of that project. Your role as leader is to seek out voluntary undertakings from each of your fellow partners, even though you might strongly feel that someone else is better equipped to do a specific project.

Of course, this all assumes that those who chose (again, hopefully voluntarily) to become members of a practice group or some firm committee understand that part of their obligation is actually to do something that advances the goals of the group. If that is not the case, then maybe your leaders need to review the firm’s practice groups or committees to see if they are working as they should.

2. Where necessary, break the project into smaller steps

Some of the tasks that need to get done may be fairly huge — for example, taking more than two or three hours of an individual partner’s time over the next month. When that happens, get the partner to break the task down into its logical and sequential phases and estimate a time-frame for doing each phase. Even if you think you know how long each step should take, you want buy-in from the individuals doing the work. With this method, you and the partners can examine which steps of the task to start with and ensure that the partners are not unrealistically taking on too much and thereby setting themselves up to fail.

3. Ask each partner, specifically, what he or she will deliver back to your next meeting

It is quite conceivable that even an enthusiastic partner might go off and tackle some project only to ultimately deliver a result that was not anywhere near what the group was anticipating. Therefore, it is helpful for everyone to think about any particular task in terms of the desired outcome or deliverable — what they expect to bring back to the next meeting. Whether it is simply a written report or evidence of what action was undertaken, the idea is that something tangible will be shared that can show progress has been made.

As the leader, you need to ask each partner to briefly summarize (for the group) what works needs to be done, how they might approach it, and whether they anticipate needing help from anyone else in the group. Doing this will put them in the right mindset to own the task and ensure that both they and you understand exactly what the outcome or deliverable will be.

4. Ask for a personal commitment

When you have finally determined the parameters or scope of the undertaking, you then need to look your partner in the eye and say, “Now George, you understand that what is required here should take about three hours to accomplish. Given your current and anticipated client obligations, are you comfortable that you can invest three hours and get us this report by our next meeting?” When people give their word, especially in front of their peers, that generates an even deeper level of personal commitment.

5. Determine an acceptable completion deadline

Ideally, you want to have tasks accomplished before your next meeting such that any status reports might be circulated to everyone ahead of. For some strange reason, I’ve noticed that we often will pick a Friday as our deadline. Where possible, a Monday may make for a better deadline as most people don’t really jump on their individual projects until the last minute anyway; and a Monday then allows a weekend for more reflective thought.

6. Produce a written summary of the commitment

When working through the various tasks that need to be undertaken during a meeting, it is advisable to write them all down — on either a whiteboard or paper flip-chart — for all to see. To help people remember their individual commitment, you can then transcribe those flip-chart sheets into meeting minutes and circulate (within 24 hours) to all attendees. Most organized people agree that there is something about the physical act of writing down a commitment that makes it easier to remember and more likely to be acted on.

7. Do a one-on-one follow-up with each partner

One of the most valuable ways in which you can spend your leadership time is following up with your partners, between meetings, to offer your help in ensuring that they complete their task. You know that your star performers don’t need to be managed. They absolutely do what they say they will do. Others in your group, however, may well need someone with the patience to prod them a bit and offer their assistance, so that best intentions actually do get implemented.