Using Project Management Skills to Stay on Task and Maintain Relationships

Sheena R. Hamilton and Bill Schnauffer
Over the weekend, your efficiency and high-impact engagement during the course of the week should foster uninterrupted and rewarding family time.

Over the weekend, your efficiency and high-impact engagement during the course of the week should foster uninterrupted and rewarding family time.

Moyo Studio via iStock

Professionals both across industries and all around the world specialize in project management. According to US News & World Report, an estimated 2.3 million project management job openings will exist in the United States alone through 2020. One does not, however, need to be a trained project manager to utilize the skills and techniques that make project management all the rage, and lawyers are no exception.

New lawyers are perpetually involved in a balancing act. It can prove challenging to balance things such as the need to spend quality time with family, the expectations of a supervising attorney, the desire to find a religious or spiritual center, and the necessity of staying #Fit2Practice in terms of physical and mental health. Throughout this balancing routine, new lawyers must continually develop new relationships while maintaining and growing existing relationships. Project management skills and tools can, therefore, be helpful in harmonizing the new lawyer lifestyle while keeping relationships at the center.

The Project Management Institute, an international organization for project managers, defines a project as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. Each new lawyer faces the “project” of the workweek on a cyclical basis. Key project management processes, knowledge draws, and general principles such as planning, goal setting, defining scope, scheduling, identifying resources, and delegation serve as useful tools in managing the workweek. All of the above have a component of communication, which is also a key area in project management.

The Goal-in-a-Week Setup

In project management, a charter is developed to start the effort—much like knowing and stating, “I’ve got a busy week.” For example, a new lawyer might have a hearing on Tuesday, a community event on Wednesday, a deadline on Thursday, and a family commitment over the weekend. Setting a goal and defining the scope at the beginning of the week will propel the project from the outset. The goal-in-a-week setup helps ensure that the new lawyer is likely to do it all and do it well.

Keep Making and Maintaining Connections

With so many things to balance, when a new lawyer wants to keep relationships at the center, planning requires making efforts to ensure that every move and every moment is high impact. One way to guarantee that all interactions are high impact is to involve as many people in your weekly activities as possible and sensible under the circumstances. In preparing for Tuesday’s hearing, once you are confident you will win the motion, there are several ways to get others involved. For example, the mentor-mentee relationship is essential in the practice of law which, as many of us may recall, began as an apprenticeship. Consider inviting a law student mentee to observe your hearing. If you were at one point a law clerk, you may also be appearing in a court where you used to work. Do not miss the opportunity to connect with your former judge and prior coworkers. You might consider scheduling a time to stop by your former judge’s chambers to say hello, calling the judicial assistant to see, and possibly observe, what your former judge will be hearing that day. You can also arrange a meeting with a former coworker for coffee before or after your hearing, as staying connected with the court need not always focus on the judge.

Delegate and Communicate

On Wednesday, when you have to spend some time out of the office for a community event, giving attention to communication and delegation techniques will be essential in maintaining cohesive relationships. Communicate with supervising attorneys to let them know you will be out of the office and be responsive to necessary email communications. You might also consider finding ways to get your assistant or paralegal engaged in laying the groundwork for your upcoming deadline on Thursday.

Value Your Support Staff

The attorney/support staff relationship is one of the most important for new lawyers. You will likely have less experience and time in the legal field as compared with the individuals to whom you are tasked with assigning projects. Giving clear instructions with lead time ahead of a deadline can go a long way in fostering relationships with more experienced support staff.

Keep in Touch with Your Social Circle

When focusing on these new areas of communication and delegation, do not forget to plan with high impact in mind. Depending on the type of community event you are attending, it might be advisable to invite a social friend from another industry or a client who might share interests similar to those being served in the community.

Report Out

Another often-missed opportunity for new lawyers is the report out. Take a moment to write an email to the leadership of your organization briefly detailing your successes and community engagement, and consider ways these results might create positive press for your employer. Remember not to send this email until you have responded to any communication received from the recipient of your email throughout the day.

Follow Up with New Connections

The next morning, do not forget to reach out to people you met at Wednesday’s community event. Share your contact information with new friends, follow up on potential collaborative work, and always find ways to connect with others.

Engage Colleagues

Friday is a good day to engage coworkers. Staying connected to coworkers is vital to understanding your organization’s dynamics from a variety of perspectives. You will learn about other work your firm or entity is engaged in, brainstorm regarding issues arising in your practice, possibly identify additional resources for completing your projects, and likely find new projects where your expertise can be of value. Coworkers can bond over a morning workout or meditation, a bite to eat at lunchtime, or a happy hour following a busy workday.

Weekend Downtime

Over the weekend, your efficiency and high-impact engagement during the course of the week should foster uninterrupted and rewarding family time.

This example of the Goal-in-a-Week model can be expanded to larger and longer projects where the project management skills would emphasize a need to identify sponsors, teams, stakeholders, and customers. Project management skills are easily transferable to managing litigation, preparing presentations, or assisting in a client business’s development or restructuring. Using project management techniques will result in a goal-and-plan, disciplined approach, documentation, and an engagement of the vested parties fostering positive relationships.

To learn more about utilizing project management in your practice, check out the Legal Project Management Series titled Basics and Advanced Techniques for Business, Litigation and Change Management developed by the ABA’s Law Practice Division in 2016 or read The Power of Legal Project Management written by David Rueff and Susan Raridon Lambreth and published by the ABA in 2014.

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Sheena R. Hamilton

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Sheena R. Hamilton is an employment lawyer at Dowd Bennett LLP in St. Louis, Missouri. 

Bill Schnauffer

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Bill Schnauffer is a senior program manager at Hewlett Packard Enterprise in Wayne, Pennsylvania.