Learning the legal project management process: Here’s how to get set up with your first project and workflow boards and check-ins.
Table of contents
In my first post about getting started with legal project management, we talked about the big-picture goals:
- Managing all the firm’s projects/matters.
- Managing each project/matter.
- Managing your tasks within each project/matter.
We distinguished workflows (ongoing projects) from “regular” projects or matters (projects with an end goal). In this post, let’s look at how to manage each project and get you set up with your first project and workflow boards and check-ins.
(As in the first post, I’m not going to continue to write out projects or matters. Client matters are projects, so when I refer to projects I also mean client matters.)
Modern Project Management Mindset
There are a couple of important shifts you may need to make to your mindset to take advantage of modern project management.
First, Work the System
In a typical busy law practice, it is easy to just keep putting out fires, going from one urgent task to the next, cranking out work and billable hours. And it never ends.
Work smarter, not harder. Your projects and workflows are your firm’s legal productivity machine. You feed tasks in one end of your machine, and they come out the other end polished and perfect. If they don’t, you turn off the machine, open it up, make a few adjustments, close it, and turn it back on. What you don’t do is bypass the machine and do work by hand.
Keep working on your system.
Make the Invisible Visible
Operations manuals can be useful, but as much as possible you should build procedures into your workflow. Instead of burying your call scripts and intake checklists in an operations manual, build them into your project and workflow boards.
Your goal should be to create projects and workflows that someone new could understand at first glance, even if they will still need some training. Lawyers are used to digging into obscure chapters of statute books to resolve conflicts between different rules. That’s a waste of time, though. If something needs to get done, make it obvious; don’t hide it on page 13 of your firm procedures document.
The goal of modern project management is nothing less than perfection. Regularly review the way your projects and workflows work to see if you can find ways to improve them. Test your ideas to see if they actually result in better outcomes, and adopt the ones that do.
Always be on the lookout for the opportunity to improve.
Your First Project Board
Let’s get you set up with your first project board. Pick a project from the list you created after reading my last post and use that to get started.
If you are a solo or if everyone responsible for working on the project is in the same office, start your first board on the wall in a place everyone can see. Use blue painter’s tape to outline three columns and label them “To Do,” “Doing” and “Done.” Or, use a tool like Trello to create a board online if your team is distributed or you just prefer to use the high-tech solution.
Now, using Post-it notes or Trello cards, write down one task on each note or card. Each card should contain a complete sentence that explains what needs to be done, clearly and concisely. Put those cards in the To Do column with the most important cards at the top. Make sure everything that needs to be done is on the board.
Now, start moving cards. Pull a card from the top of the To Do column, move it to Doing, and do it. Then move it to Done and start on the next one.
At Lawyerist, we use a slightly different set of four default columns: Inbox (Not Prioritized), Backlog (Prioritized), In Progress and Done. The inbox is useful because anyone who wants to add a task to the workflow can drop it in, and then we process our inboxes once a week by renaming the cards and prioritizing them in the backlog. It’s just a helpful tweak for working with a team.
If you are using a physical board in your office, you might want to use different colors or labels for different projects. If you are using a digital tool, consider creating a separate board for each project.
Over time, you will probably come up with a few templates for different kinds of projects. Your cases, for example, could probably have several in-progress stages.
Your First Workflow Board
Now, pick one of the workflows you identified and outlined during my last post, and start a new board. This one will probably be more complicated.
To Do, Doing and Done work for pretty much any project or matter. But you also need to keep track of all your firm’s cases. For example, a litigation firm might use a set of stages like these:
- Prepare and Initiate Lawsuit
- Trial Prep
- Final Client Meeting
- Close File
Now you can create a card for each client or matter, and everyone in the firm will be able to see at a glance where things are in the workflow (especially if you can put it in a central location). If you don’t see many cases in the Intake column, it’s time to work on marketing. If you see a lot of cases in Trial Prep, it’s probably a good idea to make sure you aren’t going to get overwhelmed in a few months.
With a digital tool you can keep track of how long cards sit in each stage so you can identify bottlenecks. You can automatically trigger emails to the client, reminders to the responsible attorney, or other things when cards move from one column to the next.
Once you get the hang of your cases workflow board, create workflow boards for your client acquisition and other systems, too.
Project and workflow boards are deceptively simple and very powerful.
Check-Ins and Retrospectives
While your project and workflow boards will help you see work moving through your systems, they need some care and feeding. You should have a brief, 10- to 15-minute weekly check-in for each of your workflows and active projects.
The check-in is a chance for those working on each project to review the status, identify new tasks, and note any issues that need to be resolved, either with the particular project or workflow or with the system.
I like to structure my check-ins starting with a brief status update, including a discussion of anything we need. For example, during your check-in you might notice that the Intake column of your Cases board is looking thin. That’s an issue that needs to be resolved, probably by bringing it to the marketing team.
I also like to do a retrospective modeled on the Agile retrospective. That means asking three questions. In software development, the retrospective would come at the end of each two-week sprint. But since two-week sprints aren’t usually well-suited to client matters or ongoing workflows, I like to just do them every week or two.
A retrospective is just three questions your team should consider:
- What is going well on this project that we should keep doing?
- What is not going well on this project that we should stop doing?
- Going forward, what should we try?
The retrospective keeps you in a relentless-improvement mindset.
Further Reading and Listening
You cannot learn modern project management adequately from a few blog posts. There’s just nothing I can do about that. What you can do is take what you have learned here and seek to learn more. Here are some additional resources to help you:
- Use Google and Wikipedia to read more about lean, agile, scrum and kanban.
- Listen to the podcasts I recorded with John Grant and Jordan Couch.
- Check out the project management resources on Lawyerist.
Next time we’ll talk in more detail about managing your tasks within each project and workflow!