Streamlining Your Law Firm's Project Management Systems
Using a manual approach to managing legal projects is fraught with potential issues, as stated in a 2014 ABA article: “… such a seat-of-the-pants approach can place a lawyer at a significant disadvantage, make the work unprofitable and even risk the loss of the client relationship.”
Legal project management systems and tools, when used effectively, can help law firms reduce errors, improve efficiency, improve resource allocation and increase things like accountability and transparency. So, implementing a project management system is a good first step, but taking deliberate action to make the most of that system is critically important if you want real, measurable results.
These tips are designed to help you streamline your firm’s project management systems, paving the way for firm wide efficiencies.
It's All in the Details: Scope, Schedule, Budget and People
When it comes to practicing law, details matter. That’s true for cases themselves, but it also applies to any task or project undertaken by members of the firm. While traditional project management theory says every project hinges on a project’s scope, time and cost, the Association of Corporate Counsel suggests adding “people” as a fourth constraint for legal projects.
The first step with any project is to clearly define your project plan. What is your ultimate goal and what are the expectations for client deliverables? Ask key questions to help define and narrow the project’s scope. Then, document both the tasks and deliverables that are within the scope of the project, as well as identifying what’s not included. This information will help set a reasonable budget for the project.
Project budgets should include things like personnel costs, as well as court and filing fees, the cost of photocopying and collating materials, travel fees, courier/delivery fees, and any other related expenses.
When the project’s steps have been identified, use them to come up with a realistic schedule for completion and delivery. Promising a speedy turnaround time may sound great to the client, however if you are not realistic about the time that will be needed to accomplish each step, considering potential issues that are outside your control, you will quickly have frustrated and overworked personnel and a disillusioned client.
The schedule should be clearly defined, identifying deliverables, target completion dates and responsible parties.
Finally, your project plan should also clearly identify who is the sponsor, or leader, for the project. This isn’t necessarily the lead attorney on a matter, but should be someone who can devote enough time and energy to understanding the project’s goals and scope, and who can be the “point person” throughout the duration of the project.
Reporting for Duty: Regular Project Status Reporting
Progress reports are important to keep every stakeholder informed of the status of each project and to identify and address any potential hiccups along the way. Make reporting a regular part of the project plan from the start to demonstrate your commitment to getting it right. At the outset of the project, identify who should receive regular updates, how those updates will be made/delivered (i.e. in person, email, “hard copy” paper reports, or through team collaboration apps like Slack).
Generate reports with the information your stakeholders actually want, and need, to receive. You may have different types of reports for different people involved in the project, each information relevant to its specific audience.
Forecast Looks Sunny: Budget Forecasting and Analysis
The initial project budget represented your best estimates of expenses for in-house and external counsel, rate increases, materials, filing fees and other potential costs. However, as the project moves through its various steps toward completion, you will likely find those budget numbers need to be revised to reflect unanticipated delays or expenses. Or, maybe your forecast for staff hours or for external counsel was too high, in which case you may be able to adjust the budget for remaining tasks downward.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: Collaborative Project Management Tools
When a project involves teamwork, getting and keeping everyone on the same page is critical to the project’s success. Use workflows and reporting to keep steps moving and to hold team members accountable and on task. If your project includes external counsel, set them up with a separate access to the project to help make sure communications and tasks are clearly defined and captured.
Don’t Go Out of Bounds: Manage Scope Creep
You identified key deliverables and project scope at the outset of the project, clearly defining tasks and steps, and providing regular reports to key stakeholders. It is completely normal and, indeed likely, to expect that related issues and requests will come up during the project. Sometimes, folding these requests into the original project makes sense because it can help further define and address the original reason for the project. However, watch for issues that would be better served using a completely separate project plan, or “scope creep.”
When the scope of a project begins creeping too far from the original plan, it likely means that the planned schedule and budget for the project will be negatively impacted. When there are questions about whether or not to include new requests in the original project plan, the best course of action is to meet with all of the stakeholders to discuss it. Use that meeting to clarify the original project’s goals and determine the best way to move forward.
Legal Project Management Efficiency
Certain elements of project work are going to be out of your control. However, taking action to do everything in your power to make projects run smoothly will result in efficiencies all around. Creating paperless workflows, storing documents and information, generating reminders and reports that will help keep team members on track and stakeholders apprised can result in time and resource savings.