January/February 2021

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What You Need to Know About Project Management

Catherine Sanders Reach

Project management is a discipline used in industries including information technology, government and manufacturing. Recently, law firms have identified project management to manage risk, predict pricing and keep complex matters moving forward. Project management methods focus on assigning and tracking deadlines, identifying milestones and helping to ensure that a matter is completed in a timely manner.

The benefits of project management are that it can help control and predict costs, control risk (who was supposed to do that, did I forget . . .), supervision of lawyers and staff, create transparency, improve efficiency, streamline all aspects of a matter in one place, identify opportunities to unbundle legal work, and improve remote collaboration.

There are many project management methodologies. There is Agile, which focuses on an iterative process. Scrum is used to deliver projects as quickly as possible. Lean streamlines projects to deliver more with less. Kanban limits multitasking and creates visibility of work. Waterfall tries to plan the full project in advance and execute in phases. These are but a few of the options. For law firms it may be useful to read about these different disciplines and methodologies, but most project managers use a hybrid approach as they all have strengths and weaknesses.

Project management certifications are available, and getting a certified project manager on the law firm team can help with planning, scheduling, budgeting, executing and reporting on projects of all shapes and sizes. Some certifications are the entry-level CAPM (Certified Associate in Project Management), CSM (Certified ScrumMaster), CSSBB (Certified Six Sigma Black Belt) and PMP (Project Management Professional). While hiring a certified project manager for your team or having someone currently on your staff seek certification can be helpful, it is not a necessary step.

Legal Project Management (LPM)

In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute, Susan Raridon Lambreth, principal at LawVision and founder of the LPM Institute, described legal project management as “a process of defining the parameters of a matter up front, planning the course of the matter at the outset with the facts you have at the time, managing the matter, and evaluating how the matter was handled (from both the firm or law department perspective and the client perspective).” It is often led by a dedicated project manager with a team. Legal project management is used to help determine cost and time and eventually to create repeatable, consistent projects with predictability. In the same interview, Lambreth also explained that LPM helps develop a detailed scope of work document, clarify the objectives and expectations, etc., along with defining what work will be “in” and “out” of scope. Key deliverables, milestones and assumptions and at least a high-level budget are part of the scoping process. LPM helps create a project or work plan for the matter, including the resources and staffing, the steps (phases, tasks and activities), communication protocol, risk analysis and change plan.

Applied LPM can be useful in responding to RFPs, and occasionally an RFP will ask for demonstrated LPM processes. LPM often starts with a simple document called a BOSCARD, which contains seven basic questions that must be part of any scoping exercise (legal project or otherwise). These are: Background, Objective, Scope, Constraints, Assumptions, Risks and Deliverables. If you cover these items, you will have the beginnings of a very good scoping document.

What About Smaller Law Firms?

If you have heard about LPM and thought that was it was just for large law firms or corporate law departments, think again!

Applying project management principles and techniques to your matters can help improve how you get work done. It can be applied not only to your matters and cases, but to any projects in your firm. Anything from your marketing to monthly billing to year-end reporting can use project management to make sure it gets done effectively and efficiently.

Here is how to think about it. Your firm likely already has some documented workflows and checklists. These are processes.

Processes are incorporated into a project, to accomplish the steps necessary to start and finish work on a specific matter or endeavor. For instance, you may have a client intake checklist and a matter closing checklist. These would be incorporated into a new project for an estate plan for a client. You may have workflows for the generation of an estate plan including gathering information, generating draft documents, document review with client, approval, signature/witness/notarize and finalization. Combine the checklists and workflows into a project plan. Identify milestones (first draft, client approval, signed and witnessed), then add in the tasks necessary to reach each milestone and finalize the matter. Then you will assign the tasks and add deadlines. Some tasks may have subtasks, and some may have dependencies. For instance, a subtask for getting a will notarized is scheduling time on the notary’s calendar. A dependent task would be getting client approval on a draft before finalizing a document. Once you have developed a good project plan for a matter type you can turn it into a template and reuse it! Be patient. It will take a while to document all the moving parts and pieces into a systematized template.

Project Management Technology

There are dozens of purpose-built project management applications to help you keep your projects moving forward. However, the tools are only as good as your plan. It might help to sketch out a sample plan for a common matter type in your firm, like a real estate closing, before making any decisions about technology. Once you have some sample project templates, you can see how the technology fits your needs in terms of features and functions, interface and usability.

Many lawyers may focus on a list-oriented project plan that flows in a mostly linear fashion. However, boards offer a different approach. A project board uses a more visual orientation that consists of “swim lanes” or columns representing different types of work or different teams performing the work. Each column has tasks, often represented as a “card,” that details the task with assignments and deadlines. The columns can be as simple as “to do,” “doing” and “done,” though you can be far more creative in how you design your columns. Then you move your cards to a new column as the work progresses. Boards have a place in many project management methodologies, including Lean, Scrum and Kanban.

The all-purpose project management tools on the market have several common features, though exactly how they work and if they work for your needs will vary. Functions that you will need to assess for different project management tools include:

  • Dashboard. Does each user need a personal dashboard? Can they view tasks assigned to them and tasks they have assigned to others? Do project leads or admins need different dashboard views? How much customization is available?
  • Reporting. Can you create reports to show outstanding tasks and recently completed tasks? Time spent on a project? Can you get a report on budget spent versus budget remaining? Drill down to a user? Can you create goals and measure success?
  • Milestones. Does the application provide a way to track milestones? Is there an alternative to milestones that would let you group tasks in such a way that you can measure key completion dates?
  • Tasks. Is there a need to assign a task with collaborators or supervisors? Will you need to create subtasks? Will there be dependencies for tasks?
  • Integrations. Do you need your project management tool to integrate with document storage, email or practice management applications? In addition to integrations through application programming interfaces, many products leverage automation tools like Zapier to synchronize information between two products in a limited fashion.
  • Views. Are there options to view a project in different orientations such as a list, a board or deadlines on a calendar?
  • Collaborators/Roles. There may be project owners, supervisors and an internal team assigned to tasks. Do you need to invite people from outside the firm (consultants, contractors, clients, co-counsel, etc.) to see the project with restrictions on what they see and if tasks can be assigned to them?

Project Management Applications for Solos and Small Firms

There are many cloud-based products on the market for small business project management. They come with a variety of price points and features. They are not specific to the legal market. However, they can be great tools at a low price point to manage legal projects, especially if the goal is to track and assign work on a matter, a marketing campaign, a technology upgrade or other work that requires a way to track progress across a distributed team in an organized fashion. These tools help you corral all the information in one place instead of having to comb through calendars, emails and documents.

Trello uses a board orientation to create and track projects. There is also a calendar view inside Trello. You can integrate Trello with your email and calendar apps. Trello has sophisticated search operators to search across your project boards. You can upload file attachments to boards, or link to a document in cloud storage like Dropbox or OneDrive. You can have discussions within a task and add a checklist to create subtasks that show progression of a task. There is a free version, with limited file attachments. Paid versions start at $10 per user, per month and offer far more functionality, including integrations and automation. Integrations in Trello are called “power-ups,” and unlimited power-ups are part of the paid features. A time capture tool called Harvest is available if you want to track time with Trello.

Asana offers board views, as well as list and calendar views. It too offers discussion and notes within a task, and you can interact with tasks via email. There are automations via rules. You can create project and task templates. Tasks can have subtasks and dependencies. You can link to documents, upload documents or integrate with your document storage. User dashboards show you your tasks, tasks you have created, tasks you have assigned, recently completed tasks and more. While there is a free version, the limitations will quickly have you looking at the paid options, which start at $11 per user, per month. Integrations include Harvest for tracking time and Zapier to share data with other applications.

Basecamp has most of the features of the other general use project management tools but offers some interesting options for lawyers. Basecamp has more in the way of communication, with message boards and group chat, in addition to task-based comments. It also has more robust reporting through its proprietary “Hill Charts.” It also lets you identify and interact with clients and outside parties at a granular level. You do not pay for clients. However, free versions of the software only allow 20 users; you can give them access to as much or as little as you want. Basecamp integrates with Harvest and Zapier. There is a very limited single user free plan; otherwise it is $99 a month for unlimited projects, features and users.

Zoho Projects has most of the features a small firm would be looking for in terms of views, tasks, reporting and communication tools. It also leverages other tools from the Zoho offerings, like Zoho Meeting for videoconferencing. One outstanding feature for law firms is built-in time tracking, timesheets and invoicing. You can track time estimates to actual time spent. There is a free plan. Paid plans with more features start at $3 per user, per month with a minimum of six users.

Technology You May Already Have

For many lawyers, the tools you need to create tasks, deadlines and assignments for a project are already in your tech stack. If you have Microsoft 365 you can use Microsoft Planner, To Do or SharePoint to manage projects. You can even use Microsoft OneNote as a project management tool. Planner, OneNote and SharePoint lists can be displayed through Teams to add chat and audio/video capability. For true solos, Microsoft To Do is an interesting option because it turns flagged Outlook email into tasks, and you can create matter-based projects with these email tasks incorporated with a drag and drop.

Explore the practice management application your firm uses. Many have workflows, task lists and process management features built in. Explore how these features work and whether they are just what you need to stay on top of matters.

LPM-Specific Technology

For firms competing for corporate clients who need robust cost tracking, reporting and metrics in addition to the standard project management features, there are several tools on the market that are excellent for legal project management.

Redbooth is a project management and collaboration portal that firms and their clients can use to manage tasks and communication. It helps consolidate correspondence and incorporates videoconferencing. It includes robust integrations, including Microsoft Outlook. Pricing starts at $9 per user, per month.

Exterro Project Management is designed “specifically to orchestrate the workflows and activities associated with e-discovery and other legal processes.” Your firm can coordinate all the tasks and activities associated with discovery and trial preparation. The application integrates with big company systems like Oracle and SAP, as well as Microsoft 365 and legal specific products from Wolters Kluwer and Thomson Reuters. Pricing is not published, but you can request a product demo via the website.

HighQ from Thomson Reuters incorporates workflow and process automation, document management and collaboration/communication tools. It has a risk tracker per project and spend-versus-budget dashboards. Pricing is not published, but you can call 888-728-7677 for more information, or submit an information request via the website to connect with a sales representative.

ProofHub serves multiple vertical markets, not just law firms. It does offer time tracking, lots of communication features, robust reporting and more. The product offers flat fee pricing at $45 a month (billed annually) with some limitations and $89 per month for unlimited projects and users.

Conclusion

Any firm of any size can benefit from project management methodologies and discipline. It can help you stay on track for matters, keep your team in the know and generally help organize organic processes into a system. First focus on how you would leverage project management, and then pick a tool to try out a matter and see if it can make a difference in your firm. 

Catherine Sanders Reach

Director

Catherine Sanders Reach is director of the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association. Formerly she was director, Law Practice Management and Technology for the Chicago Bar Association and the director at the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center. She served on the ABA TECHSHOW Board from 2007-2009 and 2014-2016, and was co-vice-chair in 2019 and co-chair for 2020. csandersreach@ncbar.org

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