One of the key challenges of Legal Project Management is making it meaningful and accessible to those who are unfamiliar with project management approaches. It is therefore important to keep legal project management (and the language used) simple. Therefore, this article is written in that spirit!
Our first article of this three-part series on Legal Project Management provided a brief overview to the rise of legal project management. In this, our second, I am going to cover the key themes to consider when starting your matter.
How to approach Legal Project Management
Many of the challenges law firms face when conducting a matter can often be directly linked back to what you did (or did not do) during the initial stages of the matter. Spending slightly more time at the front end will save significant “noise” both during, and at the close, of the matter. This broader perspective also allows you to work out what really are the key activities you need to pay attention to.
So what should you do?
Set clear objectives, timings and expectations
The first thing you need do is make sure you have a good understanding of your client’s objectives and the intended scope.
It’s important to understand the expected scope of the matter, the legal and business issues being addressed and discuss potential outcomes. At this stage, you can gain a better understanding of what the client is looking for and start to distinguish between a client’s wants and needs. Consider what success looks like for your client’s organization, your client’s leadership team (however defined), and your key contacts, as often, these are not one and the same.
Documenting this as part of a simple ‘Statement of Scope’ is also important.
- Client’s objectives
- Key deliverables
- Matter timeline
- Project team and the roles they will play
- Assumptions or exclusions you have agreed (top tip: include only the key 3 – 4 substantive assumptions here!)
- Potential risks
- Agreed budget or fee (including the payment terms).
Keeping it as short and as simple as possible for managing the process will provide a good basis for reporting and monitoring progress, ensure everyone has a good understanding of what needs to be done and by whom, and ensure your client’s objectives are successfully met.
Develop, communicate and manage the legal project
Once you have completed this step, you are now in a good position to start planning your matter in more detail. This part covers the inter-related elements of developing your budget and breaking this down into logical steps or tasks, staffing your matter, how you plan to communicate to your client and within your teams, and how you intend to manage any scope change of variation conversations.
The last two steps in particular are often not given sufficient attention at the start of a matter but getting both right can significantly help to minimize billing surprises, ensure you get fairly paid for the work you do, and have a major impact on your matter’s profitability.
Let’s look at each of these in a little bit more detail.
LPM Step 1: Phases & Tasks
Once you have a clear idea of matter scope through your discussions with the client, you can now start to group the key parts of work into main areas (with good practice suggesting no more than 5 – 7 key steps or phases so we can remember them!). Going through this step is always helpful because:
- It gives you a very good overview of what you need to making you think through all the aspects of the project
- Encourages you to focus the team’s experience to where it will add the most value
- Provides a solid basis for estimating staff cost and time
- Helps prevent work “falling through the cracks”
Ideally, you will capture these steps in sequential order. Using a very simple of example of ordering takeaway food, the key steps in sequential order are:
- Take the order (and payment!)
- Prepare the order
- Transport the order
- Deliver the order
Each step may then be broken down a bit more, for example the ‘prepare the order’ step may be broken down further into ‘preparing the food’, ‘cooking the food’ and then ‘packaging the food’.
Adopting this approach allows you to check and review progress much more easily when the matter is underway, and also makes it easier to provide your clients with appropriate and helpful status updates.
LPM Step 2: Budgeting
There are a number of ways you can develop your budget:
- From the ‘bottom up’ (i.e. how many hours do we need for each person)
- By looking at what we have done on similar matters previously
- Using a simple template you may have previously prepared (typically done for frequent matter types)
- By asking fellow ‘experts’ within the firm (an often under-used but extremely valuable approach!).
Each individual approach works well in isolation but are often even better when two or more are used in parallel to act as a ‘sense check’ on our final budget.
A quick word of warning: you should be careful to guard against ‘Optimistic Planning Bias’. If a task normally takes 5 hours (and has the previous 10 times), you should not now suddenly think you can now do it in 2 hours – especially when preparing your budget and fee estimate!
LPM Step 3: Staffing
How you choose to staff the team at the start of the matter has a key impact on overall success, profitability, and client satisfaction. Therefore, make sure you spend time to “get it right.” Luckily, there are a couple of simple ‘rules of thumb’ that can help you do just that.
Adopt the rule of one
In other words ‘One Task, One Owner’. Each task should have only one owner. You, as the matter or project management lead, need to know who is responsible for conducting the task. The responsible lawyer also has a better sense of ownership of the task at hand. If ownership is blurred, too much time is wasted either chasing status or coordinating responses.
Assign Team by Level
Good practice is also to staff by level, not individual if you can. This makes sure you are staffing for the right skills, supporting both better value for your client and also appropriate career development for your team.
Allocate Client Responsibilities
Finally, remember to be clear on those areas and responsibilities that your client needs to perform during the matter. You don’t need to be specific about who in the client team will actually perform each activity (unlike your team, where you want that visibility and clarity) but you do need to be explicit about what the client responsibilities are overall.
LPM Step 4: Communication
One of the keys to successful project management is making sure there is regular (and effective!) communication throughout—there really should be no surprises to either your client or your own teams. Proactive and consistent communication helps promote commitment, involvement and contribution, and ensures wider awareness and understanding within the client and client team.
Often, there isn’t enough attention to this step throughout the matter. A good first step is to identify:
- With whom you need to communicate (client, team and other parties)
- Who should communicate (matter lead, project management or other)
- How often
- By what method (e.g. face to face or email).
If feeling adventurous, you may want to put this into a ‘communication plan’ to help provide more structure to your approach.
There are likely to be a number of difficult or awkward conversations that need to be had during the course of a matter. But by having regular communication with your client through a combination of ongoing dialogue and proactive status reporting, these conversations become a lot easier and have a more solid foundation. It pays to remember that “unlike wine, bad news does not get better with age” which brings us nicely to our final step.
LPM Step 5: Planning for variations
As part of the very first step (confirming the client’s wants and expectations), you should have already gained a clear picture of what is required to successfully deliver the project, including a clear definition of the initial scope required. However, in the real world, the initial scope is very rarely that which is executed by the end of the matter. This could be due to either additional complexity, parties, or change in overall business intent and objective when compared with the start.
Many projects fall down through ineffective management of scope during the lifetime of the matter. This is, in part, is due to the lawyer’s reluctance to have “the difficult conversation.” Having a clear process agreed at the outset makes this conversation much easier. This could be as simple as an agreement to inform your client by email in person as soon as something is flagged as being out of scope. What is important for you as a lawyer or project manager (and also for the client) is that any scope change is documented and that any agreed action is similarly documented.
Another top tip here is to have a phase or even a separate matter to capture potential out of scope activities. It provides you with a record of what has been done, and also acts as a reminder to speak to your client.
The key things at the beginning of Legal Project Management
In closing, the most important thing to do is to give yourself some time at the beginning of the matter to adequately prepare and set yourself up for success before diving into the tricky legal issues in front of you.
Adopting approaches to ensure better communication, greater clarity, and enabling easier matter review should be your key themes from the start. And the key things to do at the beginning of the matter? Well, these can easily be summarized as follows:
- Define and agree a clear scope and expectations (this going along way to helping remove ambiguity and managing uncertainty during the lifetime of the matter)
- Group work into phases to support easier internal review and also client reporting
- Ensure regular and targeted communication, with this covering the client team, your client, and not forgetting any other third parties who may also be involved
- Agree how to address scope changes ‘up front’
In our final article in this short series on legal project management, we will look at what we need to do during the matter itself and also at the end of the matter, a step often missed by even the very best of firms!
Keen to learn more? Read our case study on how Positive Pricing helped this global law firm, based in the US, to develop & successfully implement its Legal Project Management strategy.
Some of the themes within this article have previously appeared in the author’s book ’Smarter Pricing, Smarter Profit’, published by the American Bar Association in 2014 and 2019. Where appropriate, any attributions to third party sources and materials have been in the original source materials.