Failures and losing are really unpleasant experiences – is that enough an understatement? In my mind, there are only a few things worse than the failure itself, one of which is dwelling on it and mulling it over. But perhaps even more regrettable than either of those is walking away from the failure without having learned anything from the experience and without taking the time to assess what went wrong. Implementing After Action Reviews into your case management processes can be an effective way to figure you what happened and what might be done differently going forward.
What Are After Action Reviews?
After Actions Reviews (AARs) are a tool used by the military and private sector to assess completed projects and missions to find strengths, weaknesses, and areas of improvement. Borrowing from the HBR article “Learning in the Thick of It,” AARs should not be “postmortems of past failure” but instead are “aids for future success.” In the context of law practice management, you case deploy After Action Reviews following the conclusion of a case. In using this method of debriefing, there are four questions to consider:
- What did we expect to happen?
- What actually happened?
- What went well and why?
- How can we improve?
After Actions Reviews are not intended to be a time for condemning anyone’s actions or reprimanding poor performance. But rather they are a time to foster open dialogue among everyone involved in the process. Everyone should be empowered to participate and express her perspective. The focus of the exercise should be on the result(s) of the case. Whether it’s facilitating how to sustain good results or developing recommendations for diverting from poor results.
Implementing After Action Reviews
To apply this to a litigation practice context, a partner of mine is fond of saying:
There’s the trial you thought you were going to have, the trial you actually had, and the trial you wish you had.
When you win a trial, it’s tempting to be self-congratulatory, revel in your victory, share stories with the office the next day, and move on to the next thing. On the other hand, when you lose, the temptation is to skulk into your office and bury yourself in work, hoping no one asks how trial went. Neither response provides you any real benefit or opportunity to learn and grow from your experience.
No matter how illuminating the success or apocalyptic the failure, there is always something to learn. While we can’t promise to replicate our results, we can always refine our processes.
After a recent trial in which we obtained an unexpectedly good result in a tough venue representing the insurance company directly, my trial partner and I spent a couple of hours working through our two-day trial.
- What had we expected to happen v. what did happen? More or less exactly what did happen, except for one thing. We had developed some evidence during the case that we hadn’t anticipated that enables us to impeach the plaintiff.
- What went well and why? In the moment, nothing had felt like it was going well. The jury seemed attentive and disinterested. Some rulings that were coin tosses went against us. We made some stipulations to help streamline the trial but were never totally convinced that it was a favorable trade off. In the end the jury did what it thought was fair irrespective of what any of the lawyers suggested.
- How can we improve? Well, I can’t rightly tell you that, because even though this blog is geared toward defense lawyers, there are others who read it. But don’t doubt that we talked about it and made plans to implement some new procedures into upcoming trials.
When after actions reviews become a regular part of your practice in which your team can have an open dialogue about what went right or wrong, whether expectations were realized or not, and what can be done to improve your processes and results, you can expect to see consistent improvement and effectiveness.
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Photo by Rikard Wallin.