July 2018

Why good project management is key to solo success

Project management and its elements of creating an action plan, task delegation, time management and effective feedback are all key elements to improve the performance of your small or solo law firm, according to Susan Letterman White.

White is a law practice adviser with the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program and an adjunct professor teaching organizational leadership and leadership ethics at Northeastern University. Her advice on practicing project management, “But I’m a Lawyer, Not a Project Manager!” ran in a recent issue of GP Solo.

“Almost every solution to improve the performance of your small or solo law firm has an element of project management involved,” says White.

She gives the example of three partners at a small law firm whose office manager has abruptly quit. While the partners quickly drafted and posted a description of the position on a national job board, they realized that they weren’t attracting the right person for the job.

White stepped in and asked them three questions:

  • Why did the office manager quit?

  • What responsibilities and decisions do they need their new office manager to own to keep the firm running effectively and efficiently?

  • What experiences and skills do they want in their new office manager?

“Once they slowed down their process and approached it as a project to manage, they improved their chances of solving their problem,” says White.

Project management is a key skill for solo and small firm lawyers to learn and practice, even if your title isn’t “project manager.”

Project management is the process of taking a complex task, breaking it into small, discrete tasks, assigning due dates, delegating tasks and improving peoples’ performance and task outcomes through effective feedback. While the process can seem intimidating, all it takes are four simple steps:

  • Action plan: Make a list of the series of tasks required to achieve the goal, including what must be done, what must be in place and what must happen for you to attain it.

  • Time management: Prioritize tasks and then follow through on your commitments to yourself and others. Each task must be discrete, measurable, specifically described and time-bound.

  • Task delegation: Clearly communicate what needs to be done by each person involved and your performance expectations.

  • Effective feedback: Provide specific information about your expectations of others.

Each of these plays a role in the project management process, although time management – the ability to identify the key goals and specific tasks in the near and long-term future to realize your vision and prioritize your individual tasks – is perhaps the most important one.

“Time management is the process of repeatedly answering the question: How do I divide my time to attain my goals?” says White.

Time management can be broken down into strategies, including:

  • Identifying your challenges: Create your first set of tasks and plans to address these challenges.

  • Prioritizing your projects and tasks: Assign goals and tasks to due dates monthly that can be easily organized through any calendar function such as Outlook, Apple’s Calendar or a paper calendar.

  • Delegating assignments: Clearly communicate and assign tasks to the people on your team.

White closes by advising a review of the outcomes and reflecting on your project management. By taking time to do so, you learn more about yourself, the project and others involved in it, she says. You’ll find the problems in your strategy and ways to improve it for a better performance on the next project.

White says the hardest parts of learning a new skill are the obstacles that come along with it, which may test your beliefs, assumptions and preferences.

White concludes by emphasizing the upside of each lawyer’s uniqueness. “This uniqueness means that project management that works for someone else may not work as well for you,” she says.

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