Six reasons to embrace the power of the debrief

(How not to) keep debriefs open and uncomplicated

By Paul Lemon

It seems like every other month, another headline screams “X law firm ditches annual appraisals”. For many this is welcome news. Just the word “appraisal” implies a one-way conversation, of the command and control era – the unnecessary admin and anxiety that go along with your ‘moment in the sun’. Their shortcomings are well known too: many appraisals are infrequent, overly retrospective and ratings-focussed.

In response, some firms have replaced appraisals with “real-time” feedback: feedback from anyone to anyone, at any time. Real-time feedback is more frequent and agile. But it has its own limitations. It’s great recognition tool, but there’s often a lack of data when it comes to talent decisions such as compensation or promotion.

In truth, both have their place – they balance each other well. One formal and infrequent, the other frequent and informal. 

But there’s clearly something missing: a feedback process that is aligned with the fundamental work product of most law firms: projects or matters. We think the smart mid-point is for firms to get serious about matter-based feedback or ‘debriefs’. 

The missing link – the power of the debrief

In our work implementing software that helps law firms find the right balance of frequency and structure, it makes so much sense to exploit the natural cadence of firms and lawyers around matters. Here we outline six of the many reasons why “creating a culture of debriefing” should be on your next boardroom agenda. 

1. Productivity 

There has been much talk in recent years about the ‘more for less’ agenda at clients and more broadly, productivity has been an issue in many business sectors for longer than that. Many large law firms have been investing heavily in legal project management, innovation and technology platforms to find better ways of working, and breakthrough innovation. And yet, there is a golden opportunity for every law firm, regardless of size, to be generating matter-based insights. 

These might be small things at first, one or two per project, but over a sustained period can add up to powerful insights as to how and where we need to be improving. Being work based and including a strong client focus, we know that lawyers will be engaged in the debrief process, especially given the performance improvements reported by military pioneers.

2. Engagement 

There’s a real buzz around improving engagement levels, especially with relation to millennials. As stated much of this has centred on the move to ‘ditch annual reviews’ and replace them with continuous performance feedback. In many cases firms that have embraced real-time feedback applications have found the transition introduces a new set of challenges. The feedback given is largely positive (which of course has its place) but often lacks detail and structure on how and where we can improve. The specific nature of feedback given at the end of a matter naturally provides a constructive context, and better balance, around what worked, what didn’t and what can be improved. It’s a unique way to fast track on-the-job learning and individual growth, and what employee doesn’t want that?! 

3. Collaboration 

Another key area of focus for law firms as the sector tries to break down its traditionally siloed approach to solving client problems. In her seminal book on the subject, Heidi Gardner, Harvard Law Distinguished Fellow, describes how it’s not enough today to have the know-how to deliver a service, we have to continuously look for ways that it can be done faster, better, cheaper and ideally in a way that makes the recipient feel special. There’s a huge opportunity here for firms to embed the debrief – an explicit, collaborative learning process – across internal teams, and externally with clients, to co-discover opportunities for improvement and innovation.  

4. Client Value

We know that client value comes with a strong service culture, but too often law firms don’t close the loop on an engagement. We may have a sense of how things have gone on the matter, but we haven’t asked the client. By building debriefs into the client process, perhaps by modelling the accountancy sector where the Audit Review is the final stage of a project, firms can be a lot more responsive, spot revenue at risk etc. There’s also a great opportunity to flex the debrief questions to uncover opportunities for further work at the client, or perhaps discover value created that could be applicable to other clients or sectors. 

5. Knowledge 

Whilst After Action Reviews have been trumpeted by Ron Baker as ‘The Best Learning Tool Ever’ the matter debrief also provides an unparalleled opportunity to capture knowledge. The process of discovering root causes to successes and failures generates specific actionable insights and know-how. These are invaluable lessons learned, or as one firm puts it “a living library of what to think, and how to think” with reference to a particular issue or client. As the ‘baby boomer’ generation begin to exit our firms, there’s no better time or way to capture hard to codify tacit knowledge, matter by matter. Wouldn’t it be great to onboard a lateral hire or help a junior team member get up to speed by simply reviewing key lessons learned on a particular client or issue?

6. Well-being

Finally, an issue very much in the spotlight for the legal profession. We know there’s a huge amount of effort and energy expended solving complex client problems, delivering on our promises, on time and on budget. Too often we don’t draw a line in the sand between one project and the next – whether it’s a success or failure. The lines can easily blur and that can be unhealthy, especially for perfectionists. We might not systematically celebrate success well enough, or often enough. However, the real value of the debrief is to take the emotion out of failures or mistakes, to allow our people to learn from them, put them in the past and use the experience to grow for tomorrow.