July 09, 2020 Feature

Standard Operating Procedures: A Checklist of Values Governing Team Behavior

How to use checklists to improve team effectiveness.

by Peter B. Bensinger Jr.

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On a day’s notice, I was flying in to pitch the general counsel of a major corporation on our firm taking over a big case going to trial. Our “trial” crew would supplement the two-year-old team from the big firm that had worked up the case. We would be the “tip of the spear.”Overnight, our team scrambled to learn what we could about the case. But given the complex transactions and procedural history, pitching substance was out. Track record and laurels, boring. So we pitched process: Out came the SOPs—standard operating procedures.

For years, I had taken crap over the eight pages of bullet points making explicit implicit expectations about team behavior—a checklist governing how we would operate together. This set of rules met with endless eye rolls and elbow jabs. Several partners thought I was nuts when I trained lawyers from another firm in the SOPs after we became lead trial counsel in their case. But they stayed on to try the case with us and came to swear by the SOPs. They were grateful.

So, at the pitch, I slid across the conference table copies of the SOPs—one for the general counsel, one for the head of litigation, and one for the associate general counsel running the case day to day. Instead of pitching track record, we pitched values governing how we were going to behave as a team if we got the assignment.

It was interesting to watch what happened next. The three in-house lawyers joined in a vigorous discussion about the values the SOPs embodied. They asked questions and shared personal reflections and anecdotes. No one balked at a pitch about values and processes.

I have often wondered since what would have happened if our clients had been men. But it seemed perfectly reasonable to these professional women that a trial team would have a written set of expectations reflecting values against which to measure their behavior. A checklist.

Illustration by Jimmy Holder

Illustration by Jimmy Holder

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