Legal Project Management: It’s Just Not That Hard

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Personal Productivity for Lawyers

This quick-start guide to Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero also includes two shortcuts for those who want the benefits of GTD without having to learn the system.

Contrary to popular opinion, project management is a very simple concept based on common sense. It is the systemization of a process, and people do it instinctually all the time. But when projects require the coordination of work in a group environment, the system needs to be documented for buy-in by all participants.


Project management was developed by the IT world and adopted by the business community to create a workflow blueprint that prioritizes, designs, and coordinates a detailed plan to reach the project’s goal efficiently, on schedule, and on budget. It is ripe for adoption by the legal profession, where each matter becomes a project.

Each matter can be broken down into steps that are prioritized, assigned, calendared, and monitored to avoid work reproduction or oversights, and create accountability. But the process you create must also be flexible to allow  review and revise your blueprint for the future. Over time, the efficiency created by tracking the process will drive your costs down and your quality and profits up. By including your client in the process landmarks, your work becomes more transparent and your client relationship is strengthened.

Unfortunately, efficiency has never been what practicing law was all about. Researching, pondering, and brainstorming in a collegial environment was more the idea, which is no longer a viable model in this new world of practice management.  As Jordan Furlong, in How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Project Management, puts it:

[W]e lawyers pride ourselves on our capacity for ingenuity … At some level, we take offence at the idea of project management because it seems to reduce this wonderful profession of ours to little more than a series of steps, a collection of flow charts that anyone could follow … The day of the haphazard lawyer, who pursues a solution by intuition, experience and the loosest possible timetable, is drawing to a close. In his place is emerging the process-driven lawyer: disciplined, procedural and systematic, who understands that madness lies not in method, but in its absence.

Not only is efficiency never rewarded in the traditional model, but efficiency’s opposite, billable hours, are. Taking time to plan and coordinate is inconsistent with the billable hour model, and the ROI on that process comes over time rather than creating immediate profits. In order to incorporate and encourage buy-in, project management requires a move away from billable hours and toward profitable projects and satisfied clients.

This is not an easy transition. Solos and boutique firms have a huge advantage over big firms: they can start up or change their business model quickly, giving them more immediate access to clients who are learning to love fixed pricing, constant access to files, and engagement in their legal process.

The expectations of today’s clients cannot be met by traditional practices. Think about how your clients would react if you reviewed the documentation, created a workflow analysis of the necessary and alternative actions, possible outcomes, and a budget for each scenario. Then you met with your client to review the plan, define your goals, choose performance pathways and determine the value of your services. Suddenly, the entire nature of the attorney/client relationship changes. And this is the way clients now expect and demand that their lawyers engage with them.

The legal project management system you or your firm use can be either an app such as Onit, or follow one of several offshoots of the formal project management systems training required for certification.  For solos and small firms, it does not need to be complex, but it does need to include several essential elements such as:

  • Review the scope and objectives of the project with your clients—determine their desired outcomes or acceptable alternatives
  • Devise an easy system of communication among you, the team, and the client
  • List and prioritize the specific actions required or that may arise
  • Create a timeline and schedule to track due dates and strategic actions
  • Assign specific tasks to team members and coordinate their actions
  • Plan meetings, follow-up, or other methods to monitor progress, and revise the plan as necessary

Whatever way you feel comfortable doing so, incorporating project management into your practice is essential to offering your clients flexible pricing, transparency and a client-focused engagement, all important to creating a sustainable and successful practice in the current law practice environment.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ivanwalsh/4113877252/)

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  • I’m so glad to see that you recommend a connection with the client here. As a once-paralegal and office manager who, by default, wound up doing most of the connection with clients–because lawyers do not really like talking to clients–I cheer you on.

    One point I’m making in my current writing is to explain to plaintiffs why their lawyers don’t tell them what’s going on. And why they should. And as a current plaintiff (in two lawsuits), I myself am trying to get one of my lawyers to tell me what’s going on. After two e-mails and one phone call, I still haven’t heard from them.

    So keep telling lawyers that they must keep their clients in the picture, especially because they may actually find out something useful. After all, nobody knows the facts better than the client.