A recent trend in law firm management is to bring the practice of project management and law together.  The motivation for this appears to be to maintain firm profitability in fixed fee arrangements.  If a firm’s lawyers spend too much time on a matter, it reduces the firm’s profitability.  The goal is to maintain quality in the shortest time possible.  To do this, many law firms are looking to project management to improve efficiency.

If you think your law firm might benefit from project management tools and techniques, here are some ideas on how you might incorporate project management in your practice.

Legal Project Management

  1. Introduction to Project Management
  2. What Is The Agile Method?
  3. Business Environment and Law
  4. Choosing Planned Project Management
  5. Consider An Agile Approach
  6. Bring Project Management To Your Law Practice

Introduction to Project Management

Project management is a discipline where a project manager uses a series of tools and techniques to efficiently manage a project.  A project is an endeavor that has a discrete beginning, middle and end. [RMC Crash Course in Project Management] A piece of litigation could be thought of as a project as could the purchase of a business or the drafting of a will.  In fact, given the nature of the practice of law, project management is well suited for use by lawyers in managing their practice.

Project management got its start the first time somebody tried to build something.   Some say it started with the pyramids.   As project management grew and developed it became more complex and document intensive.

What Is The Agile Method?

In early 2001 some software developers, frustrated by what they saw as the over bureaucratization of project management created what they called the Agile Manifesto.  This manifesto emphasizes individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation and responding to change over following a plan.

Over the years agile has expanded into other areas and is not exclusively used in software development.  It also has become more document and process intensive to the point where some types of agile (there are many) are almost indistinguishable from traditional project management.  There are also hybrid approaches which incorporate aspects of traditional and agile project management.

Business Environment and Law

An important project management domain is called “Business Environment.”  As the name indicates, this is the ecosystem in which the business operates.  It includes the competitive environment, corporate culture, business governance and the regulatory environment in which the business operates.

This is especially relevant to a law practice.  The above elements of the business environment all apply to a law firm.  By its nature, a law practice needs to be especially sensitive to the regulatory aspects of a business environment since it is the focus of the work – the work of a lawyer is to deal in that regulatory environment.

Litigated matters are governed by the rules of civil or criminal procedure.  The purchase or sale of a business is governed by a myriad of rules and regulations, including tax, corporate and business law, intellectual property law and others, all of which play intricate and essential roles.  Estate practices must deal with probate law – procedural and substantive.

Choosing Planned Project Management

In many ways, the business environment will dictate the project management process used by the firm.  As lawyers we would tend to gravitate to more predictive types of project management.  The linear process approach to project management could fit with the nature of the laws and regulations governing most legal matters.

However, in some areas a more agile approach would be appropriate.  I could see this in situations where the firm is dropped into the middle of a situation where it doesn’t have a lot of information or is required to move quickly. An example would be where the firm represents a client a legal action involving a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction.  I could also see an agile or hybrid approach used in situations involving a hostile takeover or an unforeseen enforcement proceeding.

Planned or predictive project management is very linear and planning intensive.  It is broken down into five knowledge areas:  Initiation, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing.  The most time-consuming knowledge area is planning.  There are over a dozen process groups within that knowledge area.  They include scope management plans, stakeholder management plans, risk management plans, quality management plans, communication management plans and a long list of others.  This type of project management is most often used in areas where there is a well defined scope such as building a bridge or factory.

Intensive planning simply didn’t work in the software industry.  Plans were often outdated before there was ever an attempt to implement them.  Agile was created by software developers to allow for change oriented project management.  Projects were conducted through a series of “sprints,” which typically lasted to weeks.  After a sprint, the project was re-evaluated.  Work completed, hopefully resulted in the creation of something useful.  The results of the sprint formed the basis for a new sprint.  The results of a sprint required changes in scope of the project along with a new set of tasks to be performed during the next sprint.  Tasks that were not completed in the prior sprint were usually carried over to the next sprint.

In terms of firm efficiency, while you may not know how long an entire matter will take, an experience lawyer can have a good understanding how long particular tasks will take.  In putting together the number of tasks to be performed during a sprint they can estimate the total amount of time necessary to perform the work necessary for that sprint.  Granted, it will be a rough estimate, but it could be a basis for a lawyer giving the client an estimate of the cost of performing a certain amount of work.

Consider An Agile Approach

An agile approach may be better in dealing with situations where, for example, a client walks into a firm with a pile of papers, advising that someone is seeking to enjoin their sale of a new product and that they are seeking something called a preliminary injunction that is set down for a hearing in a couple of days.

You call opposing counsel, ask for a delay (continuance or adjournment depending on where you are).  They agree provided you consent to cease and desist selling the product pending the hearing.  Your client refuses.

Now you have your first sprint.  It will last two days instead of two weeks.  If you’re using agile, you are writing notes, which in the agile world are called work packets or tickets, as you read.  These work packets are discrete pieces of work that can be assigned to lawyers and paralegals.  They can relate to fact investigation, legal research, or obtaining information from third parties. The agile process also calls for daily, check-ins to determine where people are with respect to their work packets and where they will be going.  Given the tight deadline, you may want to have check-ins more than once per day.  In the agile world these would be stand-up meetings or scrums.   The point is, in this kind of situation, where you need to move fast, you can’t sit down and put together a project charter or detailed planning documents.

Agile may not be appropriate in other situations where there is ample time to plan.  The purchase or sale of a business or a merger come to mind.  A legal audit of a client could also be a good application for a planned or predictive project management approach.

The point is, project management can help attorneys more efficiently manage their work.  Using these tools, a lawyer can gain predictability of the time and effort necessary to complete a matter.  This will benefit the firm as well and the firm’s clients in the long term.

Bring Project Management And Your Law Practice

Interested in bringing project management skills to your work? You could hire a project manager and build their legal understanding. Another option is to dedicate a member of team, such as a paralegal or a managing partner, to develop project management skills and bring those to key projects.

RMC PM Crash Course in a book guides the non-project management professional through predictive and agile concepts to give you a practical foundation in the predictive and agile project management methods.  This content is also available in an online interactive PM Crash eLearning course with games and exercises to learn at your own pace.

RMC also offers a Project Management Tricks of the Trade course that teaches you real-world project management application with a expert project management trainer.  Contact us to find out about our class schedule