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Law Practice Magazine

The Management Issue

Lessening the Administrative Burden of Developing a Succession Plan Through the Use of Legal Project Management

Sarah Megan McGrew


  • Attorneys who manage matters or clients need to have some form of a succession plan in place.
  • Most attorneys procrastinate the task of developing a succession plan and, when the task becomes necessary, they then find the task overly burdensome and do not provide the detail necessary to ensure a smooth transition.
  • One option to lessen the administrative burden of knowledge and process sharing during the transition of clients is to develop a system by which the attorney can capitalize on the information captured as part of the day-to-day management of their engagements
Lessening the Administrative Burden of Developing a Succession Plan Through the Use of Legal Project Management - Julia Amaral

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I have always enjoyed quotes, proverbs and adages. There is something about being able to succinctly convey tiny trinkets of wit and wisdom that appeals to me. Even more so, I love the fact that with the appropriate delivery, one can insert a quote into a conversation and be both insufferably correct and forgivably charming. Being seen as both wise and charming is a state most mere mortals cannot achieve. Plus, who does not love getting two for the price of one?

There are instances in our professional lives where other two-for-one opportunities exist, but we may miss those opportunities because of the primary emphasis we put on the tool/process/interaction. One such item that can serve a multitude of purposes is legal project management (LPM). Those of us who have implemented LPM tools and techniques can easily identify the compounded benefits of that application: better control of our internal processes and timelines, ease of ability to communicate needs within the team and with the client and an increase in client satisfaction. We know we can use LPM in the here and now to achieve a great deal; however, many of us have not taken the opportunity to devise ways in which LPM tools and techniques can assist us in times of transition.

Do not put off until tomorrow what can be done today.

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” While some may see this phrase as an admonishment, I simply view it as proof that people have been procrastinating for at least 200-plus years, so I am neither the first, nor will I be the last, to do so. While many of us may disguise our tendency to procrastinate by saying we work well under pressure, we must admit that there are instances where we may never be able to capture and communicate every nuance if we wait until the last moment. Succession planning is often something that we put to the wayside for “when we have time.” We never truly give credence to the concept of not being able to address the needs of our business or of our clients. All too often, however, we find ourselves in such a situation where we cannot easily hand off work or we only have the time to provide the highest levels of information related to the ongoing issues within our existing matters and/or practice. When we cannot hand over all information relevant to a matter or practice, the situation can end in an uncomfortable transition period, at best, and, at worst, malpractice. To ensure a more seamless handover, the easiest thing you can do is to take time to develop a succession plan long before you believe you will need it. Luckily, if you are already implementing some form of LPM, you may have a framework from which you can design and implement your plan.

Plan the work and work to the plan.

If you have ever been around any sort of project management––legal or otherwise––you have heard the phrase “Plan the work and work to the plan.” Obviously, this is an extremely succinct way in which to describe project management. In traditional project management, a project is devised by developing a plan that follows a certain sequence and, among other things, understands inputs, outputs, timing, monitoring and controlling the work associated with the plan. LPM was devised by adjusting traditional project management concepts to fit the nuances of the legal world. When it comes to LPM and planning the work, there are steps one must take to ensure the proper application of LPM tools and techniques so one can actually “work to the plan.”

While there is no set LPM standard employed by all firms and organizations, almost all iterations of the LPM cycle include some form of an engagement phase, development phase, execution phase, closing phase and evaluation phase. Regardless of the sequencing or amalgamation of these phases, they will have processes and tasks that roll up to one of these overarching phases. The types of tasks can include: identification of all relevant parties; confirmation of the scope and goals of the engagement; identification of deliverables; development of teams, assignments and schedules; development of communication, change management and execution management plans; performance of the work under the previously identified plans; review of the matter at the end of the engagement; perform an end-of-matter review with the client; perform all administrative closing tasks; capture all relevant knowledge identified during the engagement; and updating processes and plans as necessary. Even if you do not believe you are incorporating LPM into your practice, you are probably performing several LPM tasks, but you are just not doing so in a systematic fashion.

Regardless of whether you have access to a fully developed LPM technology solution or if you live off of notes in a file folder, one of the most important parts of having an LPM process in place is the ability to access, convey and update information related to the matter (e.g., timelines, spend, status, action items) at a moment’s notice. Though LPM is generally applied to a matter or portfolio for the life of the engagement, an LPM system can capture information in such a way that provides benefits for the overall client or practice. For example, you may be able to capture information related to certain judges or opposing counsel that will be beneficial for you or others in your firm in future matters, or you may be able to capture status updates and assignment outcomes from junior personnel for a particular client that helps you identify the best option for your second chair for interactions with that client. The ability to use your LPM system to aid your knowledge management means that, inherently, LPM can help you with your succession plan.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

As stated above, there are several reasons one may avoid developing their succession plan. In addition to the reasons previously mentioned, others may avoid developing their succession plan “too early” as it would require updating throughout the remainder of one’s practicing years. Unfortunately, the nature of legal work ensures a fully-fledged succession plan cannot exist as a static document. As such, the best practical option is to capitalize on opportunities to lessen the burden of updating the succession plan. One such way of lessening the burden is to “design in” elements of your succession plan into your LPM processes and procedures.

Weaving the needs of your succession plan into your LPM process and procedures will first require you to identify the necessary elements addressed by the plan. There are items you will want to have knowledge of as you are winding down your time with your firm or organization, and there are also items you will want to capture to ease the client’s transition from you to your successor serving as their lead counsel. If you find it difficult to develop the list of items you want your succession plan to address, you can use the LPM cycle identified above. For example, under the engagement phase, you may find tasks related to the confirmation of the scope of work, determination of the goals of the engagement and administrative items like running conflicts and drafting submitting the letter of engagement. While these are steps you take with every client engagement, if you were to tweak the way you capture information related to the scope of work, you could use that information to help with matter and data review in an historical analysis as this can help you identify the general business direction of the client or on a broader level, the identification of matter type means you can use the matter type as a filter to better understand regular spend, timelines and even tools used for that type of work. Additionally, if you capture the goals for the client, it can help you better understand your client’s basic business strategy and risk tolerances.

Other examples of areas where a simple addition of a data point or the adjustment of how you gather information can serve both your LPM process and your succession plan are:

Planning Stage: Communication Plan. Instead of just focusing on name, role and contact information, you can also identify the preferred manner of communication, links to their web-based professional profile and/or known professional organization memberships and other pertinent information shared by the point of contact. During the life of the matter, you will benefit from having the contact information easily available. But by capturing more robust information related to the client, you can either access it from your LPM system or have it feed to your contact management system to assist with marketing and other relationship building endeavors.

Planning Stage: Pricing and Billing Plan. Capturing information related to the rates, budgets and/or alternative fee arrangements in place will, of course, inform the billing on the matter. However, when used after-the-fact, the pricing, billing and any write-offs/write-downs that occurred during the matter can provide a better understanding to the business operations of the client as well as their preferred processes––both in billing and in practice. Also, capturing these items in the system ensures that the information is front and center, thus lessening the stress of reviewing the engagement letters and/or client billing guidelines to answer basic questions (e.g., does the client use a particular billing software, are there any special arrangements regarding net 45 payments, does client only pay at closing, etc.). That information is critical during times of transition as misapplied fees or bills can easily harm a client relationship.

Execution Stage: Date Capture. LPM systems focus on the here and now of the engagement and are designed to capture the relevant due dates for the life of the matter, whether that be hearings or proposed closing dates. However, you will also want to make sure that you identify any dates that occur after the completion of the main portion of the engagement. This can include items such as renewal or yearly filing dates. Whether you use an LPM or docketing system to capture these dates, you must inform your successor regarding the system and the existence of the dates prior to any transition. If this handover does not happen and deadlines are subsequently missed, it could lead to a malpractice suit.

Evaluation Stage: Capture of Reusable Resources. The truth is, you do not have to make any changes between what you capture for LPM purposes and what you capture for succession plan purposes. The application of knowledge management processes found in the capture of reusable resources means that you will, inevitably, identify and archive those tools and templates preferred and/or required by the client. This ensures that your successor will be able to easily access the baseline documents for the client engagement that will assist in smoothing the transition.

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

I always had an issue with this adage when I was younger. My problem stemmed from my assumption that if you really wanted the horse to drink, you just needed to make sure the water was good and that the horse was thirsty. What can I say? I am a natural problem solver. However, as I have garnered more experience in consulting on legal innovation, the existence of this adage makes more sense, but so do the remedies.

One of the issues experienced by those attempting to implement LPM tools and techniques is that regardless of the overwhelming benefits of implementing LPM, there is often some hesitancy by the legal team to prioritize the time it takes to develop an LPM plan or, even if a plan is developed, little effort is put in to provide the necessary updates as such tasks can be considered an administrative in nature. The way to counteract this hesitancy is to prove the water is good or, in the real world, showing the return on investment to the team members. The easiest way to show these benefits is to develop reporting that addresses the needs of the recipient.

There is a wealth of information regarding LPM reporting and how to use that reporting to assist the legal team during the life of their matters. These types of reporting include assignments and due dates, status updates and even financial overviews and performance to budget. Many LPM and case management platform vendors provide these reports as out-of-the box offerings. Reports used in succession planning will, of course, look slightly different than these matter level reports. That said, by walking through the LPM cycle and identifying where certain information can/will be captured (as referenced above), you have performed the first step in developing usable reporting for your succession plan. With those data points identified, you need only develop and run a roll-up report using a filter of your choice.

In practice, you can first run these reports as client management tools. As stated above, you can use the assignment and status update reporting to identify a potential individual(s) who would best fit your successor in your client relationships. You can then use the roll-up reporting as the logical tools to assist your appointee with learning the business of the client. Using the example data points provided above, a roll-up report for your whole book of business could easily provide:

  • Client names;
  • The type of matters for which the client engages you and which matters are still open;
  • Client points of contact, their roles, communication styles and any notes made regarding marketing and other potential interactions with client;
  • Rates, budgets and/or alternative fee arrangements;
  • Billing processes;
  • Fees per matter, any outstanding accounts receivable and other financial implications (trusts, etc.);
  • Important dates such as due dates and renewal dates;
  • Information regarding client’s business goals;
  • Tools and templates required by the client; and
  • Important documents related to client engagement.

With these reports in hand, you have the baseline playbook to use and discuss with your successor regarding how to operate with your clients. As this information changes and evolves, the report will automatically be updated. If your team updates the LPM system as prescribed, then these reports can give you an up-to-date snapshot of your client engagements, which can, of course, help streamline conversations and answer matter related questions.

Time and tide wait for no person.

Developing a plan for someone to replace you is something most of us do not want to address. However, a succession plan is a necessity for almost every attorney. Transition can come at any time––not solely when you are promoted to retiree. To ease the effort needed and stress experienced when developing and upkeeping your succession plan, you can make simple adjustments to the information captured in your LPM process and/or system that will eventually serve as a playbook not only at the time of transition but also during your continued business growth efforts.