Supercharge Your Practice with One Project Management Tip

19 March, 2015

Nathan Morris

Nathan Morris


In most professions, you can draw at least a rough division between work that is business-as-usual and work that goes toward a special, time-bound project. But for attorneys, the division breaks down. As attorney Grant Collingsworth argues, “virtually every legal engagement is a project with a fixed goal and limited duration (although some litigation can feel like a permanent state)” — making all attorneys into “accidental project managers.”

Since the 2008 recession pushed attorneys to streamline legal costs, more and more have been knocking off the “accidental” part of that title, and are now embracing Legal Project Management. Showing your credentials as a project manager is one of the hottest new trends in the profession. Meg Spencer Dixon, a consultant on time management for lawyers, explains the perks:

“Lawyers can use project management techniques to improve client service, increase predictability, reduce costs, reduce time spans, and optimize results. Project management is also an excellent tool for managing client expectations by ensuring that you and your client are on the same page regarding the desired outcome, costs, timing, and scope at the outset of a matter, and by keeping your client informed and involved throughout the project. Project management can therefore help achieve every lawyer’s ultimate goal in every billable matter: a satisfied client who pays the bill.”

A survey conducted by the American Lawyer Media Legal Intelligence survey found that firms who used project management (PM) techniques reported “more productive client relationships, improved communication, greater cost predictability, and other benefits.”

In light of this, some legal firms are going the whole-hog, dedicating considerable time and funds to formalize PM principles into their process. But as Collingsworth notes, the majority in the legal profession remain skeptical, seeing what project management they already do as “a necessary evil to achieving the substantive result.”

The good news is that even without diving fully into Legal Project Management, with its formulas and jargon, there are a few basic principles of the discipline that can immediately begin to improve your practice. LPM experts Barbara Boake and Rick Kathuria explain that the real key to success isn’t in any particular tool or technique, but rather adopting “only those principles that are simple and useful enough to be embraced by a practising lawyer.”


Legal Projects Have a Life Cycle

One key lesson all attorneys can learn from PM is that we should think of cases according to a phased life cycle. Structuring our activity according to the cycle means being able to pace ourselves more effectively — not skipping over any of the necessary planning work, but also not getting bogged down in an “analysis paralysis.”

There are different models of breaking projects into phases, but here’s a five-phase model that works well for attorneys. Keep in mind that a particularly complex project might break down into smaller pieces, which each run through these phases.

Phase I: Initiate and Define

Before a case is opened or a legal transaction begins, some investment goes into determining its strength and feasibility. Weak cases and bad ideas need to be caught here, before more resources are invested.

At the opening of a case, there are two principles that PM can teach us. One is the value of communication. Collingsworth writes: “The underlying principal of project management is effective communication. Properly managing a project first and foremost requires a clear, honest line of communication.”

He continues: “Effective communication requires procedures to establish what needs to be communicated and when, particularly the bad news. No lawyer wants to pick up the phone and tell his client he is over budget or behind schedule.” Or, as legal business development expert Jim Hassett puts it: “Hold difficult conversations before money is spent, not after.”

But even before money-talk, the most important subject of early communication is the objective of the case. Typically, the attorney has her own idea of what a win looks like — but if that isn’t in line with the client’s needs, she might do beautiful legal work for a frustrated, unimpressed client. Collingsworth advises: “Define up front what you would consider to be a win.” Is it settling a case as quickly as possible, winning at all costs, or something in between? Write the objective down in your case notes.

Phase II: Plan

All planning for the case needs to be in writing in the case notes, and scheduled into your calendar.

Otto Sorts, the anonymous curmudgeon who blogs at Attorneys at Work, describes being introduced to legal PM long before it became trendy. He was opening a case with an engineer, who asked for a schedule. He writes:

“I began my usual uncomfortable explanation about the vagaries of the process and the complex nature of litigation, how it depended on the judge, opposing counsel and other uncertainties in the case. After a long silence, he shook his head, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Son, that’s just plain bullshit. Life itself is complex and uncertain, but we live it every day, anyway.’”

To help us muddle through this complexity and uncertainty, project management professionals have devised an array of forms and diagrams, from Gantt charts to Work Breakdown Structures. Various firms have adopted their own strategies. But even if you’re still in the realm of eyeballing and guesstimation, going through a structured list of questions will help both you and your clients to know what’s ahead.

Meg Spencer Dixon suggests these general categories for the planning process — all of which should be written down in the case notes:

A. Describe the project’s purpose(s) and objective(s).

B. Describe the desired results.

C. Assess the feasibility of producing the desired results.

D. List all the work to be performed.

E. Describe the human resources and skills needed.

F.  Prepare the project schedule.

G. Estimate the project’s costs.

H. Assess the risks and how to manage them.

I.  Describe how the project will be monitored.

J. State the procedure for modifying the project plan.

Breaking the matter down into smaller parts won’t just let your brain get a better grip — it also increases the likelihood that a problem in one part will be solved before it grows large enough to throw the whole project off-kilter.

Phase III: Execute

All of that preparatory work should guide you toward making those first decisive moves to begin your project in earnest. As the case or project kicks off, make sure you’ve got the right people on your team: you might have immaculate plans, but if you don’t have the right help, the case will flounder or fail.

In addition to having the right individuals, you need to foster the sense of being a team, with a shared routine and a collective sense of motivation.

Phase IV: Manage

In a different post about PM for lawyers, Otto Sorts gives this advice about the Managing Phase:

“So, you figured it out, got your team on board and got the right tools for the job. Now, you just have to sit back and relax as the project purrs along as a result of your superior planning, organization and wisdom. The hard part is already done, right?

“Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but all the planning, organization and wisdom in the world are still subject to the universal law that transcends all others: Murphy’s. People, tools, weather, politics, utilities, traffic, illness and other catastrophes are lurking about, waiting to strike. Sometimes they do.”

Once the project has sprung to life, you need to be constantly checking in to compare what’s happening to the benchmarks and schedules that were set previously. Were the original plans off? Does the project need correcting? How are you communicating all of this to your team and your clients?

Because a focus on project management often pairs with the idea of spending less time on a case, one important aspect to manage is the quality of the service you’re providing. Remember that PM is about cost-effectiveness, not short-cuts.

And all PM gurus will tell you to especially track changes in scope (how much you’re trying to accomplish). Scope is part of a magic PM triangle, along with the budget and the timeline — each is in a fixed to the two others. This means that if your scope grows unchecked, your costs will soar, and completion will take an eternity.

And what if, in all these potential changes, the objective changes as well? Otto Sorts advises that this means you have a new project on your hand — and it’s time to go back to Phase I, armed with your new knowledge.

Phase V: Close and Review

In addition to your regular process of closing a case, all PM methods require space to review what happened. This is also a good time to recognize your team members — a very small expression of gratitude and shared celebration can go far.

You can decide what questions to answer in your evaluation (which, like most everything else, should be written down, in a kind of “lessons learned” format). Four basic ones are:

What does the client think about the conclusion? (It might be easier to ask for a review from your client if things went well — but the most important information might come from clients who were dissatisfied with the result.)

  • How do the team members feel about the project?
  • Where did reality deviate from the plan?
  • Do my project management systems and procedures need to be altered or refined based on this information?

Keeping tabs on your evolving roll through the life cycle of each project might appear like a hassle, but it’s actually a step toward simplification. Meg Spencer Dixon writes:

“While it may seem that following all of these steps would make a project more complex, in fact the complexity is inherent in the project itself; using a project management approach merely displays that complexity in an organized fashion. Ironically, a clear portrayal of all aspects of a complex project tends to make the execution of the work itself proceed more smoothly.”