October 23, 2012

A Quick Guide to Good Project Management

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September 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 6 |Page 60


A Quick Guide to Good Project Management

The matter is huge, with multiple components and deadlines. Here’s advice on organizing the tasks, time and people to get the job done.

You’ve just been given responsibility for managing a matter that is vital to an important client. The matter has multiple components with various deadlines. Because of the project’s size and scope, several individuals will be assisting you. How are you going to keep all the trains running on time so the matter is handled efficiently for your client?

When you’re in charge of managing a project, you may find that you have many balls to juggle. How are you going to keep track of which indivi-duals are working on what? How will you ensure that all the deadlines are met? What about new information that may come in from the client, events that alter the project schedule or budget, and other variables that can crop up midstream? The discipline known as project management is your solution.

Many industries use project management tools and techniques to ensure that projects are successfully completed. For our purposes here, project management means organizing tasks, time and people to achieve defined goals for a particular matter. In this scenario, you are the project manager—the individual in charge of making sure that the various components that lead to a successful conclusion are identified, assigned and completed within given constraints such as budget, human resources and required time frames. The table on the next page contains an overview of the six steps core to project management, with several tasks described under each step. This organized approach to a matter allows you to stay on top of the project during its various phases.

Now let’s take a look at how projects are typically managed, why difficulties occur, and what you can do to avert problems.

Beginning with Clarity of Vision

The biggest mistake a project manager can make is failing to develop a clear vision of the matter and plan out its component steps from the beginning—and it’s a mistake that happens all too often. It’s imperative that you think through what needs to be accomplished to meet the client’s needs and goals. Once desired outcomes are identified, you must then create a plan that sets out the various tasks and provides a timeline to make sure each task is completed properly.

This means (1) preparing a written list of all the tasks, (2) determining their priority and (3) giving each one a deadline. You can also design a chart to keep track of all assignments that will be involved in successfully completing the matter. You will want to distribute the chart to all team members as well, so that your team is aware of all tasks, deadlines and who has been assigned each one. Be sure to update the chart whenever new information or developments force the addition of new tasks.

Selecting Team Members

After the task list is completed, it’s time to thoughtfully consider to whom you can delegate each assignment. Properly matching the individual to the task will greatly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire project. Failing to make a good match, on the other hand, usually results in both the manager and the assignee being unhappy and a lot of time getting written off.

Consider each prospective assignee’s experience and strengths, as well as professional development needs, whenever possible. If you want the assignment to be an opportunity for professional development, determine what you want the assignee to learn, make it clear when giving the assignment, and look for ways to increase the learning along the way. Usually this means interacting regularly as the associate, paralegal or staff member tackles each new step in the task.

Laying Out Specifics

Before giving assignments to the selected individuals, you want to be sure that you map out the various components involved in each assignment—that is, all tasks and steps to be accomplished, dates they are to be completed by, possible resources to use in the work, and how the assignment fits into the big picture. If you don’t have it clearly thought through, you can’t expect the assignee to. Consequently, you’ll waste a lot of time while the individual goes down the wrong path or keeps coming back to you for clarification.

Remember, too, that you are probably not the only one assigning work to this person, which makes clear why deadlines are essential. Deadlines help supervisees prioritize their work. Absent due dates, assignments often go to the bottom of the pile, while other projects with specific deadlines are put on top.

Keeping Everyone in the Loop and Maintaining Timelines

At certain points in a project, a call from the client could mean a new task or a change in one already assigned. It’s imperative to keep the team apprised of any new information or event that affects the matter. Holding regular team meetings is the most effective way to keep everyone in the loop, as well as a means to find out the status of all assignments. As project manager, you are the one person responsible for ensuring that the timeline is followed. While it’s tempting to put the blame on the individual who might not have completed an assignment on time, the overall accountability belongs to you.

Of course, it is equally important to give your client ongoing status reports. Never forget that poor communication is a major reason for misunderstandings between lawyers and their clients—and why clients seek other lawyers to represent them.

Growing as a Project Manager

The preceding (owing to space considerations) provides only a basic overview of project management. In addition to what’s discussed here, it’s also important to evaluate your existing abilities in this area and look for ways to further develop the skills that will make you a more effective project manager. Among the resources to help you are Managing Projects Large and Small: The Fundamental Skills to Deliver on Cost and on Time (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), Project Management by Andy Bruce and Ken Langdon (Dorling Kindersley, 2000) and Project Management for Dummies by Stanley E. Portny (Wiley & Sons, 2006). However, the clear lesson presented in this column is: Planning the matter from the very beginning will make all the difference.

Download the Six Steps of Project Management checklist to use in your practice.

About the Author

Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is coauthor of Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent (ABA, 2000).