A Curmudgeon's Perspective

Life Is Complex and Uncertain

By | Mar.07.12 | Curmudgeon's Perspective, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Management, Skills

Everybody’s talking about project management for lawyers these days. And I think it’s about damn time! Early in my law career, I had a conversation with a client that convinced me of its merits. He was quite a bit older than me, and had originally trained as an engineer. After we discussed his complaint and shifted to focus on the arrangements, he asked for a schedule. I began my usual uncomfortable explanation about the vagaries of the process and the complex nature of litigation, how it depended on the judge, opposing counsel and other uncertainties in the case. After a long silence, he shook his head, looked me in the eye and said, “Son, that’s just plain bullshit. Life itself is complex and uncertain, but we live it every day, anyway.”

Then he took me to school on how to think about the work to create a rough schedule—and manage the damn project.

“It’s Called Project Management!”

There was nothing surprising about his approach. But with the benefit of his engineering brain, he was able to explain it with a clarity that’s stayed with me ever since. It’s a simple logic flow that characterizes the variables and unknowns in a way that makes them manageable. Here are the steps he laid out for me.

  1. Define the project. What exactly is the problem and what are the possible end points? This is where you can be upfront with your client about the merits of the case, the attractiveness of settlement and potential unintended consequences.
  2. Identify steps. What do you have to do to go from the beginning to the end point. If there are several likely paths, define the steps for each. I learned that most of the steps for each option are similar if not identical. Knowing this makes the entire project less overwhelming and complex, and allows you to focus on a clear set of tasks.
  3. Find the connections. How do the tasks interconnect? Must some be completed before others start, or can some tasks be performed simultaneously? How many have a hard deadline that must be met?
  4. What do you need to know? Identify the information you need to complete each task. How are you going to get that information and what resources will be required? Are there optional ways to get it that should be considered? This information can be sketchy at the beginning, but having more detail will become critical as the matter progresses.
  5. Eyeball it. Now, look at each task and eyeball what level of effort it represents, who needs to do it and how long it will take. Rely on your experience, or ask others, to estimate the time and effort. Keeping an eye on any hard dates, lay this out and overlay onto a calendar. This can show you where you need more people to work on a given task. It can also show you where the schedule is clearly impossible—and in this case, yes, it’s back to the drawing board.
  6. Repeat periodically. As the case progresses, update your schedule or level of effort for tasks based on new information, resolution of uncertainties and the current status of the various tasks. This may help to avoid crises, or at least let you plan ahead for vacation time.

So, now you have a rough schedule that includes an approximation of level of effort, which is handy to estimate cost and what staff or outside services you may require. This is the baseline against which you can assess at uncertainties and measure progress as the matter moves along.

And, when it blows up, as it inevitably will, you can mark up this plan and try again. You did it in pencil, right?

Otto Strange has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.

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