Does hearing a phrase like “law firm project management” make you want to shut your computer down and walk away? Even if you know your systems are disorganized, undertaking an initiative like project management can seem overwhelming. Before you leave your desk in defeat, however, give us a chance to break it down for you.
Think of this way: Labster Ryan McKeen compares project management to homebuilding. You deal with costs, resources, scope, and time — and the rest falls into place.
Law firm project management is simply the act of planning, controlling, and finishing projects to achieve a certain goal within your firm. For example, project management includes understanding your business goals, the best way to achieve them, and the critical tasks that must be done to close a project.
Not so scary after all, right?
To break it down even further, these projects exist within law firm workflows. A law firm workflow is a repeatable system you follow to reach a goal. For example, your client intake process is a workflow that includes projects such as creating a client intake form.
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Why Should Law Firms Learn Workflows & Project Management?
Consider this scenario: you hire a new paralegal who you trust to help you prepare for an upcoming case. As that case gets closer, you begin to wonder if critical tasks were completed such as labeling exhibits and making copies. Panic begins to set in. If you had established processes to cover these steps, you could’ve moved forward with confidence.
As a solo attorney or an attorney with a small law firm, your processes may live in your head. Unfortunately, as you grow, doing everything from memory is no longer sufficient. You need documented processes and systems. To deliver consistent legal services to your clients, you must understand workflows and project management.
We believe that successful project management equates to delivering high-quality legal services. This is why it’s critical to develop your project management and law firm workflow management skills.
How to Get Started With Law Firm Project Management
Every attorney who deals with project management has an ah-ha moment: task management is not project management – and requires different tools. Once you’re out of the task management mindset and into broader project management, you’ll realize you might need a couple of separate tools.
Although project management includes many unique methodologies to choose from (e.g., Lean, Agile), all you need to do to start is underline your core needs, identify who each project is for, outline the steps needed to complete the project, and create an ongoing process improvement goal.
Regardless of the methodology you choose, you must do some thought-work before you jump into project management. Consider these questions:
- How much time are you spending defining your goals? What do you want to achieve at the end of this project? As you move through a project, you’ll want to check back in with these goals periodically to stay on track.
- How are you collaborating with your clients? Throughout your projects, ask yourself if what you’re doing aligns with what your client asked for.
- How are you communicating with your clients and your team? How are you managing client and team feedback during a project? Consider how you could improve communication throughout a project. For example, are you taking the time for a client call when a quick email would suffice?
- Are your processes simple? Are your cases moving through your firm efficiently? Consider what you could change moving forward to make complex steps in your process simpler.
- Are you working to make your processes better? After you complete a project, are you reflecting on your success and improving your processes for the future?
With these questions and considerations in mind, you can complete your own research to find a project management method that works best for your firm. We’ll dive deeper into this a bit later.
One-Time Projects v. Workflows
It’s critical to understand the difference between a project and a workflow within your firm. Projects have a clear beginning and an end, such as opening and closing a client case. Workflows are the repeatable, ongoing systems in your firm such as marketing, client intake processes, and billing.
How to Map Out Your Law Firm Workflows & Projects
Project and law firm workflow management begins when you start mapping. Let’s start with mapping your projects. You can do this fairly quickly by creating a spreadsheet. Make a series of columns that include:
- To-dos. What are the tasks associated with this project? Outline these tasks with relevant due dates.
- In progress. When a task is in progress, place it here, complete with who’s responsible for it.
- Completed. When a task is complete, place it here.
It’s a great idea to have a map for each project you’re currently working through. Again, these maps are specific to larger projects such as a new law firm website, office expansion, or a specific client case.
Now, write down your law firm workflows—the repeated processes you do on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Start by listing your main workflows (client intake, client onboarding, billing, bookkeeping, etc.) and then each stage within that workflow. You can do this using a spreadsheet, sticky notes, or your favorite word processor.
With what may seem like some sort of strange magic, you’ll begin to see your projects and workflows take shape. You’ll never again have to guess where a client is in each process or what you and your team need to do to ensure work stays on track.
Law Firm Project Management Tools
As firm believers in the benefits of the paperless law firm, we know automation is project management’s best friend. There are plenty of software tools to help you manage both projects and workflows with minimal effort. Unless you like having your desk overtaken by sticky notes, we recommend implementing a task management tool.
You can also find tools that include other features such as accounting and bookkeeping, case management, timekeeping, and more.
Law Firm Project Management Methodologies
You have quite a few different project management methods you can choose from once you get used to mapping and managing your tasks and projects. We recommend researching your options, then selecting one and testing it to ensure it fits your firm’s goals. Some of the most popular project management methods include:
- Waterfall. Using waterfall, projects follow a linear sequence of events, with each phase being completed and finalized before the next one can begin.
- Agile. In Agile, teams deliver project work in small increments instead of all at once at the end of a project. This method is often used for projects that are subject to change to ensure timelines and goals are still met.
- Scrum. Scrum is a subset method under Agile. In Scrum, a team as a whole is responsible for deciding who will complete what part of a project. The project itself is then completed in sprints or defined time slots.
- Hybrid. In a hybrid model, teams use both Agile and the waterfall approach together. The planning of a project is linear (waterfall), while the delivery is incremental (Agile).
Again, we recommend doing your own research and testing various methods to see what works for you. No one knows your needs and the needs of your team like you do.
How to Improve Your Project Management & Workflows
As you complete projects using your new understanding of law firm project management and workflow, you’ll begin to see shortcomings and holes in your processes. Don’t be discouraged; this is the best part. You’ll be able to improve your processes to better serve your team and your clients, thereby moving your business forward.
We recommend setting aside some time each month to discuss, as a team, what’s going well, what’s going poorly, and what you should do moving forward. Book time on your calendar to ensure you follow through. For example, are you missing steps in your projects? Are clients giving you feedback that you could use within your workflows to improve their experience? These are the things that matter as you move forward.
Tip: Apply the same techniques to clients! An attorney we know, Andrea, quickly figured out that giving her clients tasks to complete, with deadlines, increased efficiency and moved the matter forward. After all, your clients are the main focus of your project!
Law Firm Project Management Requires Discipline
Project management requires discipline and daily practice (funny how that sounds exactly like being an attorney). By taking initiative now and learning how to manage your law firm’s projects using the methods above, you’ll be well on your way towards project management success.
As a solo or small firm attorney, you might be tempted to ignore project management until you grow. After all, things may look like they’re moving forward just fine…right now. You’ll find quickly, however, that as soon as you hire your first employee or you lose someone from your team, processes will go haywire without proper management. Now’s the time to get started.
Want to Know More About Managing Your Firm? Download Chapter One of The Small Firm Roadmap for Free
Starting a new small law firm? You don’t have to figure it out on your own. You can find everything you need to know about project management and more inside our new book. Learn from those on our team who have done this all before. Download Chapter One of The Small Firm Roadmap for free today.