Low-Tech “Tools” for Legal Project Management

What low-tech tools might be useful for LPM?

I wrote recently about beginning a quest for LPM not at Level 1, the tools level, but Level 3, understanding the business systems (definition at right) that make up your practice.

That said, there are some low-tech tools that can be useful quickly, require little or no learning, and appear very non-threatening and thus might get adopted. I still strongly recommend you begin at Level 3.

However, Homo sapiens has been defined as the species that uses tools. (We now know we’re not alone in making tools, let alone using them; see what some birdbrains — in real birds — have accomplished. Trust me; this 37-second video is pretty amazing).

Here are some simple, low-tech tools that are at least as good as a crow bending a wire.

The Humble Spreadsheet

Cue music with lots of bass, like the theme from Jaws. The announcer intones, “Risk. It’s the hidden killer. More projects have failed from unpredicted risks than any other cause. Four out of five project managers agree. Get the amazing RiskTrack today.”

Risk kills projects that could otherwise have succeeded. In the legal world, unmanaged, not-mitigated risk surprises are one of two big reasons cases go over budget. (The other is not defining what “Done” looks like.) Courtroom attorneys have a sense of how to manage trial risk, like the saying, “Don’t ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer.” However, I’m talking about project/process risk — a task is harder than expected, or a key player is unavailable when you need her, for example.

Risks can be managed in straightforward spreadsheets. At a basic level, you list each risk as you think of it, and track at least its likelihood, the expected cost if it comes to pass, mitigation (how to minimize it or keep it from occurring), contingency (what to do when it does occur), and the trigger that puts the contingency plan into action. Lexician can send you a simple risk spreadsheet if you want; write me at steven dot levy at Lexician dot com.

Humans have strange blind spots around risk. I wrote about risk a few years ago in The Ten-Minute Legal MBA (the link is to the journal in which the article appears; I cover risk on pp. 5-6).

More Spreadsheet Value

How do you know what to budget for a fixed-fee matter? The past is a pretty good predictor of the future, at least as far as tracking time. Fixed-fee bid on transactional work? Get a dump from your time and billing system for the past year, sorted by type of matter and attorney, and stick it in a spreadsheet. (Virtually every T&B system has a Reports screen that lets you select types of matters, along with an option to “Output to Excel.” Any modern spreadsheet can read the Excel file.)

How much time, on average, does Attorney A spend per transactional matter? What about Attorney A v. Attorney B? Look at the mix of low-bill-rate v. high-bill-rate resources, also. Taken together, this data can give you a running start on pricing matters or other alternative fee arrangements.

One caution: Beware of outliers. The average net worth of Bill Gates, me, and my three siblings is many billions of dollars. However, I assure you that no one in my family is a billionaire. An average can be deceptive if there is one very large number in a sequence; median is often a better measure. That said, most fixed-fee arrangements build in some protection against extraordinary expense; don’t let the occasional high number scare you off, but rather treat it as a risk (see above) that you manage.

No Computer Needed

One of the most famous project management efforts in the software field tracked progress not on a computer but on a corkboard. The project manager put a timeline across the bottom of the board and then put each of the tasks — along with who it was assigned to — on an index card at the determined spot in the timeline. Then the team hung a dirty coffee cup on a string, and moved it each day as a “You Are Here” indicator. They pulled completed tasks off the board, and so any task left hanging to the left of the coffee cup was clearly behind. Everyone saw the same data, and they worked as a team to address whatever the issue was.

I can’t say enough for these types of information radiators. They are knowledge management writ small — but writ very publicly. Everyone on the team sees the same thing… including the manager. I’ll have more to say on information radiators in the future.

Here’s a mock-up of what the coffee-cup system looked like (I’ve never been able to find a picture of the actual system):

 Coffee Cup Project Management

These information radiators work. You can simulate them on a computer with tools such as SharePoint or a wiki, but (a) that’s harder and (b) they don’t work as well. If you can figure out how to deal with client confidentiality issues and if the team is in one place, use the corkboard!

Lagniappe

While we’re on the subject of low-tech tools, I recently found a competitor for the coffee-cup most-value-for-the-least-technology award. Check this link out for a cool low-tech way of time-tracking.

5 comments to Low-Tech “Tools” for Legal Project Management

  • Legos…I don’t know. They’re pretty high tech, if you ask me. I think your most-value-for-the-least technology award should go to the Hipster PDA.

  • Steven

    I have used the Hipster PDA myself, and I worked for a time for a CEO who lived his life by this method.

  • About four years ago, when my wife and I were preparing for our first child and I quit my job to spend more time with the family, I was happy to be free of the smartphone and used the Hipster PDA. But when I started working again, I got another Treo.

    Besides working in a profession where not having constant access to e-mail is expected, I find it hard not having OTA backup/synchronization. Anyone who has ever lost a Day Planner may think twice about going back to managing their calendar on paper.

  • I need to do a better job editing my comments. I meant, of course, to write “…working in a profession where having constant access to e-mail is expected.”

  • Steven

    The CEO who used the hipster — in his case the shirt-pocket-er — did this 20+ years ago. That said, there’s still nothing quite the same as laying out a bunch of index cards to look for patterns, though the PowerPoint slide-sorter view isn’t bad.