Legal Business

Legal Project Management (Part 9): Getting Away from Perfectionism

When Voltaire wrote the phrase "Better is the enemy of good" in the late eighteenth century, he was not thinking about the needs of legal clients.  But the phrase is extremely relevant to the challenges lawyers face today as they adapt to what Paul Lippe has called "the new normal."

In the "old normal," lawyers developed a culture of perfectionism in which no stone went unturned.  When litigators were trained to prepare for a case, they were taught to consider every twist and turn of any argument that could possibly be raised by the other side, no matter how unlikely.  When transactional lawyers were taught how to draft contracts, they were encouraged to draft language that anticipated every possible threat that might arise.

Clients seemed to care little about efficiency, and most lawyers did not care at all.  In fact, truth be told, the hourly billing model implied that the more inefficiency a client would pay for, the more hours would be billed, and the more revenue would be generated.

But the world has changed and legal budgets are tighter than ever before.  (For example, Lippe noted that outside legal spending by the Fortune 500 has dropped 17% in the last three years, from $16.7B in 2007 to an estimated $13.8B in 2010.)

In the new normal, clients want to be the ones who make decisions about what they will pay for.  Many have concluded that if a "perfect" legal solution requires more hours and a bigger bill, they would prefer a lower cost legal approach that is simply "good" and meets their most pressing needs. 

For example, I've written before about the lawyer I worked with who thought he had written "the perfect lease" for a real estate developer.  It may have been perfect in protecting the client's interests, but it cost so much that the client refused to pay the bill, and the lawyer ended up writing off part of the cost.

The underlying issue of how to deal with perfectionism is hardly unique to the legal world.  The phrase "better is the enemy of good " is often heard in other businesses when project managers discuss how to stay on time and within budget.

When I discussed the issue with Don Schrello, who has headed my Board of Advisors for more than a decade, he told me about his days as a manager for the Apollo program in the 1960s, when the US was racing Russia to the moon.

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