General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

A service of the ABA General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology eReport

American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

NOVEMBER 2010

Vol. 9, No. 4

Features

 

Legal Project Management for the 21st Century

Lawyers tend to resist any type of comparison between law and any other type of service delivery. Some say practicing law is inherently different from other disciplines because of the unique facts and circumstances involved in each matter and the degree of professional skill necessary to solve highly complex, rapidly changing problems. Folks in this camp theorize that the practice of law is “unique,” every client problem is different, and a resolution to each situation needs to be “cut from whole cloth.”

When queried why matters are handled in a particular manner, it’s not unusual to hear the response, “That’s the way things have always been done!”

There are several understandable reasons why some lawyers rely on old approaches and have an aversion to analogies to other industries. Lawyers are trained to give great weight to precedent, are often cautious and conservative, can be generally slower to adopt new technology or business methods, and—more often than not—feel the daily pressure of getting things out door prevents them from taking a fresh look at how they approach client matters. Lastly, a lot of lawyers are playing aggressive defense against “commoditization.“ Adopting new business practices may be a subtle (yet erroneous) interpretation by some of heading down the slippery slope toward devalued legal services.

Think Differently for Higher Profit Margins
Ignoring the hard fought lessons of other industries in terms of efficiencies is a fools’ errand. Some of the techniques deployed by software development with respect to project management are certainly worth consideration by lawyers. These techniques are not complex or radical, and have nothing whatsoever to do with commoditizing the high degree of professional skill and care required to deliver great legal service. To the contrary, the techniques can enable lawyers to deliver their services better, in a manner clients appreciate, while simultaneously better measuring (and occasionally even increasing) their own firm’s profitability.

Although it is completely true that the professional skill necessary to successfully resolve a client’s problem is absolutely unique, the process involved in approaching most legal problems is often highly replicable. From a project management standpoint, a litigated matter may be seen as a highly structured, nonviolent dispute resolution process with a relatively clear definable process (e.g., complaint, responsive pleadings, discovery, motions, trial, judgment), operating within a set of codified rules (e.g., civil procedure, in a civil case). In fact, the litigation process is often defined even further—with definitive milestone completion dates—by a formal court-set scheduling order.

Similarly, a merger or acquisition transaction has definable stages (e.g., term sheet, due diligence, agreements, closing, and so forth), and the legal documents that are triggered during the stages also tend to follow generally accepted patterns. An acquisition agreement will typically recite the consideration, the respective representations and warranties, covenants, and so forth. Each situation has plenty of potential uncertainty involved, but the process itself can be reasonably well defined.

This is far from saying that the professional skill required to successfully complete these projects is subject to commoditization. However, it is a recognition that much of what lawyers do is indeed subject to viewing from a traditional project management standpoint, and doing so can result in overall efficiency gains to all stakeholders (in other words, higher profit margins).

A Glimpse of Project Management
The software industry has helped lead the way in developing some of the techniques and iterative processes that can facilitate the successful completion of complex projects. After all, software development itself can be—at its core—highly uncertain. Software development is complex, requires a high degree of professional acumen and logical thinking, and can be simultaneously affected by numerous conflicting forces—from user requirements changes to changing laws and regulations to unforeseen consequences of code modifications.

And before you say to yourself, “Come on! This could never work in legal,” realize that the very techniques employed by software professionals originated from manufacturing. There is precedent to business techniques leaping industries.

One way to apply software development practices to the practice of law is to draw analogies to their individual components. For instance, legal problems are often referred to as matters. A matter can be seen as its own individual project. A project, in turn, has identifiable start points, milestone events, and then a conclusion. Each stage of the project presents an opportunity to evaluate progress and measure key metrics. (In the case of a legal matter, the key metrics may be professional hours invested, fees or costs expended, changes in potential settlement positions (in the case of litigation), client time or client’s employees time invested, and so forth.)

Oftentimes, it is helpful to set objective target metrics up front so that valuable perspective can be gained while measuring performance at each stage. In the case of litigation, a simple example may be for the attorney and the client’s general counsel to set an explicit budget (in terms of attorney time, client time, cost, etc.) for stages in the project. Treating matters as projects, with explicitly defined checkpoints, not only yields valuable metrics, but also tends to improve communication and ensure that entire litigation team is all working toward the same goals. And by team, we’re talking not just about attorneys, but clients and other resources as well.

From the law firm perspective, at the tactical level, treating matters as projects can also be greatly assisted by adopting Agile Project Management techniques. Agile is essentially the notion of working projects in a highly flexible, interactive manner. This is opposed to a strict “waterfall” or rigid, top-down approach, where things are “set in stone” and not regularly reviewed or questioned.

Attorneys frequently work closely in teams that consist of other attorneys (e.g., associates), paraprofessionals, administrative staff, and—in complex transactions—accountants, expert witnesses, and other professionals. Ensuring that everyone stays on task, consistent with the breakdown of the project, is critical to achieving success. A few simple tactical processes can be useful in this regard; namely, a Daily Standup and a periodic Retrospective.

A Couple of Techniques to Put You on the Path to Project Management
A Daily Standup is a short meeting, usually held first thing in the morning, where the key members of the team assemble and each give a simple oral report consisting of: (a) what they worked on the prior day; (b) what they’re working on today; and (c) what, if anything, is in their way or inhibiting their progress. This is typically done with all team members physically standing to ensure a quick and efficient session (after all, who likes to stand?). Conducting these short sessions, particularly while in the midst of a complex project, can have an enormously beneficial impact. First, the team leader (e.g., the lead partner) can quickly identify progress from a 10,000 foot view and, if necessary, make quick course changes or resource reallocations to ensure that the overall project goals can efficiently proceed. Second, the team members get a regular opportunity to hear what is happening from different angles, yielding perspective and sometimes getting an early “heads up” on something that could inadvertently negatively impact the project as a whole. Similarly, duplication of effort is minimized with regular communication among teammates.

The Daily Standups are supplemented by less frequent Retrospective meetings. A Retrospective, which may occur once every few weeks or upon completion of a milestone (depending upon the time between milestones), is a meeting among team members that reviews progress on a particular project and results in a list of suggestions for processes to “stop,” “start,” and “continue.” The meeting is led by the team leader, but each team member is encouraged to participate equally. It’s critical, particularly at a law firm, that org chart formalities are truly put aside for this process.

At these meetings, the team takes a broader view of the prior period’s events and evaluates actions at the process level. For example, suggestions may be “start tracking time spent by administrative staff by matter” or “stop doing business with XYZ Process Servers.” Task-level issues—“order a lien search on the Jones matter”—are reserved for Daily Standups. The Retrospectives are intended as a way to ensure that team is sharing high-level goals and objectives.

Benefits of Legal Project Management
Viewing matters as projects and embracing techniques like Daily Standups and Retrospectives can yield immediate benefits in several areas. Clearly, communication is improved. In addition, taking a “project” view of a legal matter also helps to put order and organization around a complex problem with many moving parts. By doing so the lawyer, and often the client as well, gain a better perspective of the overall goals being pursued.

Taking a project view and setting a definitive structure and process to execute on also helps ward off the psychological feeling of being overwhelmed that can often accompany a complex problem with rapidly changing facts. Moreover, it’s not uncommon at all to find that once a matter is organized into a project view, it becomes much easier to focus on pro-active rather than reactive tactics. For example, breaking down a matter and then applying Agile tactics often has the effect of being able to better see the “big picture” which, in turn, often results in the emergence of new ideas.

By providing a sweeping vista of the high-level overview of a matter, project management can enable the decision makers to avoid getting caught up in simply responding to what’s happening or the emergency-du-jour and, instead, find new ways to drive the matter to better achieve the objective at hand. “Why are we doing it like this?” is a question much better answered in the context of a closely managed project than in the midst of an environment where triage seems to rule the day.

Finally, using project management techniques can also benefit the law firm itself, from the standpoint of its own business operations. By collecting more data, and measuring it more frequently, several opportunities to increase efficiency and productivity emerge. For instance, a better understanding of the internal resources applied to a particular aspect of a particular matter can even—in theory—present opportunities for alternative fee arrangements. If the firm better understands exactly what it takes to successfully complete something, the opportunity for more definitive pricing emerges. The uncertainties of hourly billing, in addition to the perceived inherent inefficiencies, can be a major disincentive for clients to seek out more legal assistance.

Moreover, when this type of project-level data becomes more available (which enables a deeper understanding of the resource metrics involved in particular matters), what often happens is that firms will start looking more seriously at evaluating the new technologies that boost legal productivity. Document assembly, legal practice management software, contract lawyer services, and many other tools become much more valuable when project management techniques are utilized—all of which are ultimately geared not to displace lawyers; rather, to better enable lawyers to focus on giving clients what they need: the very best, insightful legal advice delivered in a deliberate, organized, cost-effective manner.

So, take a look at some of these techniques with an open mind and see if you experience the same benefits that some of our law firms have told us they’ve gained from trying out some of these project management techniques.

Mike Moore is the CFO and VP of Business Affairs of Rocket Matter, a purveyor of online legal practice management software. More information on project management is available in their free e-book Legal Productivity.

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