Law practices face mounting cost pressure. Firms increasingly need to navigate within the borders of fixed or flat fee arrangements. In-house departments face shrinking budgets and growing needs from internal clients.
Today legal professionals cannot afford to misuse time. Attorneys must do the client’s work efficiently, focusing on the client’s business needs. They need to avoid work the client doesn’t want to pay for. They need to control and predict their costs, devise and meet schedules, and manage the risks their projects face – and do all this while providing their legal services effectively.
That’s the goal of Legal Project Management.
Legal Project Management hones, focuses, and builds on tools and skills experienced attorneys already have, without trying to convert them from attorneys into professional project managers. Without big process overhead, buzzwords, or bull, Legal Project Management guides attorneys to success in managing cases as projects even as they do the legal work necessary to succeed in those cases.
This book provides attorneys with practical techniques they can use immediately to take control of their legal projects. Whether they are “accidental” project managers or willing explorers of this new realm, Legal Project Management helps them succeed in their projects in ways that go directly to the firm’s bottom line or the department’s P&L – controlling costs, meeting schedules, managing risks… and maintaining sanity while doing so.
The Why of Legal Project Management
Not only fixed-fee or limited-resource cases benefit from Legal Project Management. Consider any case where you want to accomplish one or more of these goals:
- Control or better understand the cost.
- Control or predict the time spent, both cumulative time (hours) and running time (schedule).
- Be better prepared for events, especially unplanned events.
- Deliver only the work necessary to meet the client’s needs.
- Engage the most appropriate resources to do the work best suited to them.
- Improve communication on the team and with the client.
Legal Project Management is a set of techniques and frameworks that help attorneys and practices meet these goals.
What’s Different About Legal Project Management?
Legal Project Management is based on concepts proven in traditional project management. However, it modifies the actual techniques and approaches to fit the legal world and its practitioners.
Many of the core teachings for managing construction or IT projects have no legal analogs; traditional project management is a Procrustean bed confining rather than supporting travelers through the legal world. Attorneys aren’t always amenable to being planned, organized, or managed; they are highly skilled knowledge workers, even artisans independent in thought and action, rather than task workers. Schedules are often set by others, from court calendars to clients. Likewise, legal goals aren’t always attainable, especially in adversarial situations; missed goals would spell failure for the project of constructing a house, but a legal project may be successfully executed even if the legal outcome isn’t all that everyone hoped for. Legal work is not always fully controllable and predictable, no matter how exactingly you try to specify it. The playbook of traditional project management is not designed for such a world.
Good Legal Project Management helps attorneys unobtrusively as they do their day jobs – being attorneys serving their clients.
The Principles of Legal Project Management
The core principles and concepts of Legal Project Management are straightforward, practical, and business-focused. Taken together, they yield project predictability.
The Four Objectives of Legal Project Management
Together these four equally important goals define Legal Project Management:
- Working toward clear project/case goals: What does success look like on this matter – and on this project? Do client and attorneys agree on that definition? Agreement on “Done” is critical to good Project Management outcomes. Negotiate the two or three things – no more than that – needed to call the project successful.
- Lowered risk: Low project risk means minimizing the impact of unplanned events. Risks will come to pass. What matters is how you mitigate them and how you deal with them.
- Cost control: Once attorney and client agree on “Done,” it’s possible to determine both cost and value of a matter. Then the attorney project manager can assign appropriate resources (people) to the project and define a suitable schedule. Good risk management – just as with good trial management – can minimize the number of surprises as well as the impact they have when they do occur.
- Timely delivery of value: Delivery on schedule is important, but even more important is delivering the value that the client seeks… on schedule. By understanding the client’s business needs and “Done” and by asking the critical early questions, the attorney project manager can increase the timely value of legal services – and increase the value that the client sees in her firm or department.
The Four Stages of a Legal Project
Legal projects generally have four stages, unlike the six, seven, or more of traditional projects. There is no long requirements-gathering phase or extended adoption and maintenance stages, for example, nor are there usually “gates” that control progression from one stage to the next. Considering a project in stages supports a framework for staying on top of the project.
- Initiation represents the gathering of the information that will ultimately determine success or failure: the “Done” statement, the client and client-business stakeholders, the project vision and charter, client conditions of satisfaction, agreement on fees, and a clear communications scheme.
- Planning includes assignment of the right people, making tradeoffs among people, time, and cost, determining schedules, deadlines, and dependencies, understanding project risks, and recognition and mitigation of any gaps in understanding or capability.
- Execution focuses on delivering outcome-determinative work that meets both the client’s business goals and the firm or department’s internal needs. It includes the management of changes and risks, ongoing communication of progress, knowledge sharing, and getting great work from the project team.
- Delivery and Evaluation is the nontrivial yet often overlooked conclusion to a legal project. Assess and assure client satisfaction, stockpile newly won knowledge, learn from experience… and celebrate success.
The Critical Early Questions
Project success or failure is determined as much by getting answers to the right questions early in the project (Initiation, Planning) as it is by the quality of legal work during Execution.
- What does “Done” look like? What is the client’s business problem, and what does it look like when solved? What are the two or three critical success factors?
- What steps will most likely get you to the solution?
- How long will those steps take? What is the client’s desired timeframe? What external factors such as court dates will constrain the project?
- What’s the right way – for the practice and the client – to staff the steps?
- What’s most likely to go wrong?
- What does the client plan to spend on this matter, this legal project?
- Who has a stake in the outcome, especially the client’s clients – those in the business not directly visible to the project?
- How will you keep those stakeholders, and the project team, informed about issues and progress?
Business and Fiscal Literacy
Project management, legal and otherwise, is a business function in support of a business (and legal) objective. Project managers need at least a minimal level of business acumen and fiscal literacy to successfully support both client and practice business needs.
Legal Project Management doesn’t require an MBA or even significant math, but it does promote the understanding of some key business principles, such as opportunity cost, return on investment, repurchase intent, and loss exposure.
It also promotes the shift from the practice of law in the abstract to its practice in the context of a business, whether that business is a firm’s profitability or a department’s budget.
The Tools of Legal Project Management
The most important tool of Legal Project Management is not a piece of software; it is the framework for organizing the project and getting out in front of its issues.
Most standalone project management software is ill-chosen for “accidental” project managers. Project management software places inappropriate emphasis on those mechanics of project management such as schedule that can be most clearly defined, providing the illusion of control. “Control,” however, is not the goal of effective Legal Project Management; delivering timely value is the goal.
Some software tools, such as those for managing risk, sharing knowledge, and communicating within the team, can add value to the project without requiring inordinate investment of attorney time.
Structured Communication Topics
Legal Project Management ensures fluid and ongoing communication that minimizes surprises, misunderstandings, and rejected or undesired work. Structured communication topics includes:
- The business problem that underlies the client’s legal problem, a major determinant of success and client satisfaction.
- The conditions of satisfaction that also drive client satisfaction, which heavily influences repurchase intent.
- Short-term/long-term balance rewards a focus on strategy at least as much as tactics, minimizing micromanagement by the client.
- Scope is the discussion and agreement about the specific, outcome-determinative work to be done.
- Budget and fees/chargebacks, and their related tradeoffs, can be a difficult conversation absent a structure to guide the discussion.
- Stakeholders and their interests, especially hidden business-side interests, can dramatically affect what seems like a straightforward project.
- Risks plague every project; Legal Project Management provides a language for discussing, evaluating, and responding to both legal and project risks.
Metrics and Efficiency
Metrics are critical to evaluating all projects. Picking the right metrics is critical… and harder than it looks. The wrong metrics – substitute metrics in particular – will drive behavior in unproductive directions.
Legal Project Management promotes metrics that are directly measurable, aligned with practice and client goals, widely understood within the practice, drivers of desired behavior, broad-based, and repeatable.
In addition, many clients are already using metrics to measure your performance as a legal practice. You need to understand what they’re measuring in order to improve on your current numbers… because your competitors are out there promising that they can improve on your numbers.
Legal Project Management – the book and the approach – is right for you if you need to make better decisions and provide accurate information about cost, deadlines, and risk. Legal Project Management is right for you if you’re trying to control legal costs and increase predictability. Legal Project Management is right for you if you believe attorneys need to remain attorneys but add project management skills rather than become project managers.
Legal Project Management is not an alien discipline, full of jargon and process overhead. Rather, it’s designed for the specific world of legal professionals. It respects the way attorneys work, enhancing their success by playing to their strengths. And it’s easily mastered, with good training and effective coaching, because it’s practical, straightforward, and based on tasks they’re already doing.
For More Information…
Contact Steven B. Levy at Lexician: steven dot levy at lexician dot com or call 530-LEXICIAN.
Legal Project Management: Control Costs, Meet Schedules, Manage Risks, and Maintain Sanity is available from DayPackBooks, Amazon, and other booksellers.