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Simple project management tools
for your practice

By Joshua Poje
ABA Legal Technology Resource Center

In the ongoing discussion about the future of the legal profession, some have argued that lawyers are destined to become project managers. While that may or may not prove to be true, there’s certainly room for lawyers to learn from today’s project managers and even to borrow some of their tools.

One such tool is Basecamp, a popular Web-based project management platform. Basecamp’s interface revolves around “Projects,” distinct collections of to-do lists, calendars, document libraries and discussion boards. Basecamp is a collaborative tool, meaning multiple users within a firm or organization can be assigned to the same project and access a shared set of project management resources.

If you’re interested in project management, but you aren’t ready for a comprehensive tool, a host of good options are also available to assist with discrete elements of project management.

To understand how Basecamp and other project management tools can be used in your practice, it’s best to consider it from this perspective: What problems can they solve?

Problem 1: Scattered to-do lists, missing tasks and duplicated efforts

Virtually everyone uses to-do lists, and we all seem to have our own to-do methodology. For some, that means entering everything into an Outlook calendar, for others it’s dedicated task management software, or in many cases, it’s simply a matter of scribbling to-dos on scraps of paper strewn about our desks.

These scattered task lists can be problematic, however, when multiple people are involved in the same matter or project. All too often we assume that a colleague is handling a task only to discover that he or she assumed that we were doing it — and the task was neglected. In other cases, multiple people work on the same task separately, leading to needless duplication.

Basecamp addresses these situations by centralizing to-do lists for each project. The “To-Do” area of each project in Basecamp supports multiple separate lists. In a legal practice, this might be used to set up lists based on the stage of a matter (e.g., client intake, billing, closing a matter, etc.). Tasks can be rearranged or moved from list to list with simple drag-and-drop functionality. Tasks can be assigned to specific users, and deadlines can be set to ensure that tasks are completed in a timely manner.

If you’re looking for better task management without the full commitment, two popular options are Remember the Milk and Wunderlist. Remember the Milk (often referred to simply as RTM) allows users to create and share task lists with a simple, no-frills interface. Wunderlist offers a more polished interface, but its sharing features are less robust and may be better suited to solo practitioners.

Problem 2: Over, Under and Miscommunication

Technology has given us numerous ways to communicate, but this can be as much a curse as a blessing. When communication about a project begins to divide between email, voicemail, texts, the firm intranet, handwritten notes and face-to-face conversations, it’s inevitable that some important communications will be lost or at least not shared as widely as they should be.

Basecamp helps address this problem because it’s fundamentally a collaborative project management tool designed to engage an entire team. Basecamp’s Discussion feature, for example, allows users on the project to hold ongoing threaded discussions. This can be used by the project administrator to post a brief introduction to the project, or users might post general updates about their recent work on the project.

In addition to this dedicated Discussions area, Basecamp allows users to comment on almost every type of content added to a project. If a user had a question or comment about a specific item on a to-do list, for example, he or she need only click on that to-do and fill out a simple comment form. Users can even attach files to a comment.

If you’d prefer to test the waters with a tool more exclusively geared toward communication, two alternatives include Sendgine and Yammer. Sendgine allows users to hold secure electronic conversations with several added features, like document sharing and limited task management. Yammer, recently acquired by Microsoft, allows users to communicate in a style reminiscent of Twitter or Facebook, but with a variety of added business features.

Problem 3: Arcane filing systems and the curse of inbox collaboration

Managing a firm’s documents is a major undertaking and one that, depending on the practice, may be best suited to a dedicated document management system. But for lighter duty, particularly relating to an ongoing project, Basecamp’s support for file uploads can be a tremendous benefit.

Basecamp users have the ability to upload documents directly to a file library dedicated exclusively to that project, or as discussed above, they can link uploaded documents to comments and discussions. Not only does this centralize the files related to a matter or project, but it also links the file directly to a specific moment in time. In other words, you won’t just have a copy of an old contract saved in a folder, you’ll have a clear record of why that contract was requested, who submitted it and when.

For discrete tools, the communication platforms discussed above will offer limited document functionality that may be sufficient in some situations. If you’d like to go further, consider a document management tool like Box, which offers robust collaborative features (e.g., sharing, comments).

Problem 4: Knowledge rot and forgetting what we’ve learned or done

In the course of a project, case or matter, we usually learn a considerable amount. We learn information about the client and his or her needs. We learn about best practices and how to tackle complicated issues. We learn about the law. But when we reach the end of the matter, that knowledge begins to deteriorate. A few months or a year later, we may be repeating much of the same work and experiencing old frustrations anew because we’ve lost track of what we learned previously.

Basecamp helps address this in two ways: searchability and preservation. Searching for a particular bit of information or a specific file related to a matter is usually a nightmare. To search thoroughly, you often need to search through separate email, file servers, individual computers and paper files. The process is time consuming, inefficient and often inaccurate. By centralizing much of this information in one place through Basecamp, however, search becomes dramatically easier. A simple search of Basecamp will simultaneously look at documents, tasks, discussions and files. Once a project is done, it can be archived and reactivated later if needed.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to achieve that level of searchability when using multiple tools. In that situation, be sure you adopt best practices like following consistent file naming conventions, using standard matter numbers and so forth.

Problem 5: When software and business practices collide

Most lawyers subscribe wholeheartedly to the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — and with good reason. Delivering quality counsel while adhering to strict professional conduct standards can be challenging, and once a firm has found the right balance it’s difficult to justify change.

Firms should be open to evolving their business processes, however, as technology evolves. Software like Basecamp and other project management tools include features based on considerable feedback from experienced project management professionals. By approaching new tools with an open mind (and a firm grasp of the Rules of Professional Conduct), firms have the opportunity to get the most out of their technology investments.

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