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Communicating with clients about progress

Sep 12 2017

Lawyers interested in getting things done, and done right, should read Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist Manifesto”. Borne out of his experience as a surgeon, and discussions with practitioners in the airline and construction sectors, he offers helpful ideas for any professional besieged by problems and complications in their work.

One of those ideas is the “submittal schedule” used during the redevelopment of the Russia Wharf in Boston. Where you’ve got different specialists working on the same building project, you want to make sure they communicate with each other. Putting it bluntly, if no-one talks, the building might fall down. So the submittal schedule helps to manage the process of circulating technical information and getting it approved. It’s not a checklist for work on the building, it’s a checklist for communications and reporting and it helps people to ensure that things get done at the right time and in the right sequence.

Let’s take that idea - a checklist for communications- and apply it to the client expecting a progress report on a legal matter.

So the client wants to know what we’ve done so far, and more importantly what we’ve achieved. And the client wants to know if we are on track, and what’s coming next, and if we’re not on track, the client wants to know why not, and how we’ll get back on track.

All of which is fair enough. Hand-on-heart now, would a communications checklist help you to answer the client’s questions at an agreed time and in a comprehensive and accurate way? Would it help you to communicate better with your colleagues and update other project professionals?

But, yes, I know. You don’t like that word checklist, do you?

Let me put it another way.

Would a structured agenda help you to communicate, report and pre-empt the client’s and the project team’s questions comprehensively and accurately?

Of course it would. And it would help you:

  • to impress clients by being methodical;
  • to demonstrate control by spotting problems early; and
  • to be responsive by adjusting the project plan when instructions change.

We lawyers intuitively recognise the value of a good precedent. We know that the submittal schedule is a great example of a proven project management approach – if you don’t believe me, ask your construction clients. So why not borrow and adapt the idea and use a structured agenda to make ourselves look good with our clients? Seems like a no-brainer to me.