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A Curmudgeon's Perspective

Project Management Basics: A Refresher for Lawyers

By Otto Sorts

The recent Attorney at Work compilation about time management and productivity (“A Matter of Time: Time Management and Productivity Tips for Lawyers“) got me thinking about how lawyers are drawn to chasing new trends and technologies. It reminds me of my grandkids playing in the yard at dusk, when the fireflies come out. Soon, the kids are scrambling through the dark chasing, but seldom catching, those shiny, ephemeral glowbugs.

While I have my own beefs against some of the new technology, much of it can be vital to your performance. Sometimes, though, we lose sight of the fact that any technology is a tool, not an end in itself. What makes the technology valuable is the users’ ability to use it effectively to get their work done. That requires a fundamental understanding of what your objective is and how to reach it.

“Just Do It” Only Works If You Know What “It” Is

Given the variety of terms in use — practice management, case management, client management, trial management and so on — I’ll use the generic term “project” to represent something to be performed.

Here are the concepts that I see in getting the project — any project — done:

  1. Define the objective.
  2. Define the necessary steps.
  3. Define the resources required.
  4. Define a schedule.
  5. Get the participants involved.
  6. Get the right tools.
  7. Know when you are done.

What’s the Objective?

What are you doing? Are you acquiring a patent for a client? Trying to implement a new filing system in the firm? Defending a client against a criminal charge? Each has a definite end point. You need to define what that is. That is the objective, the goal of the project. Write it down.

Often your clients won’t know what the objective is, so being able to help them define it will help them understand and agree to what is happening.

It’s easy to get lost in the work and forget why you are there. As an engineer friend of mine likes to say, “When you are up to your ass in alligators, it is difficult to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp.” Attorneys live and breathe in alligator-infested swamps and shark-rich seas. Don’t lose sight of what you came for.

And, anyway, if you don’t define your objective, how will you and your client know when you are done? How dry does the swamp need to be?

What Has to Be Done? Make a List!

You’re pretty sharp, and this isn’t your first rodeo. So you’ll start “here” and then, depending on what happens next, you’ll move on to “there” and so on. Okay, you’ve got it figured out. Now write it down. Every bit, every turn, every obstacle. Maybe it’s simple and straightforward, but most likely it has turns and traps that can derail your optimistic plan and send the whole thing into unexpected chaos. (“I know I can get that lightning bug, just a few more minutes, Grandpa.”)

So, make a list of the steps you will take. It’s easy enough, and you can adjust the level of detail to the certainty of the process and the simplicity of the problem. But in writing it down, you also have a chance to see the gaps and think through how to fill or avoid them. It’s a lot easier to identify solutions ahead of time, before the alligators get ahold of you.

How Will It Get Done, and Who Will Do It?

That’s easy, you’ll do it. Or maybe you’ll have one of your people do it. (In “A Matter of Time,” several attorneys explain how they balance work and life by having their spouses, paralegals or junior attorneys go do stuff for them, so they don’t have to work late or do those pesky chores.) Of course, you will only delegate work to people qualified to do it, and where you have plenty of time to appropriately oversee what they are doing — and at a time when they aren’t doing anything else important anyway. (See “Is Your Staff Putting You at Risk?”)

Now, take that list from above and put a name next to each step. If there are options, you can insert several names. But before you actually reach each given step, you need to be explicit about who’s gonna do it. Being vague is one of the major traps you want to avoid in this process. Be explicit, write it down.

How Long Will It Take?

As with all legal work, it takes as long as it takes. But you know stuff (after all, you are a lawyer!), so you can look at each thing on your list and estimate the level of effort required of the person doing it. Also, since you know which tasks need to be sequential and which can be done concurrently, that makes it pretty easy to lay it all out in a schedule. While you are making that schedule, you will also be able to add in your other matters, the conflicts your staff may have — and little things like vacations. Again, write it all down.

Now, you’ve got a task list, assignments and a schedule. This all translates to an estimate of the project’s cost, which you will need to evaluate in light of the arrangements you have with the client and the client’s expectations.

Step back. How does the schedule and cost translate to an end point? Is the end point, schedule-wise, consistent with your objective? Is your client prepared for the project to take that long and cost that much? Are there costly steps that are optional or could be done in an alternate manner? Can you substitute less-expensive staff for your heavy-hitters? Does the overall cost seem reasonable?

If you are looking at alternative billing, then the way that you have now defined the project will give you a sense of the cost, and thus, the fee you can charge. The certainty, complexity and scope of the project will be factors in any billing arrangement you employ, so make sure that the task list, assignments and schedules reflect what you know and, most importantly, what you don’t.

So, you now have the enviable task of discussing this with your client. But first, you’ve got some more people to consult.

Communication with Others

Throughout this process, you have been writing everything down — not just for your own sake, but so you can communicate your expectations to your staff, your client and, in some cases, your management. At every step, you need to have someone else look over your ideas and plans. Here’s why.

First, others may not be as optimistic as you are about the traps and pitfalls. They also can offer their insights into the vagaries of the process. They may have worked with that client or court, or had a recent similar project. Listen to them.

Second, others, particularly if they are on the team, may have conflicts you do not know about. Other lawyers may also have designs on a key associate’s or paralegal’s time, for example. And, importantly, people doing various steps in the work may have an opinion different from yours about what it takes to get the project done. They may know details about timing or availability of resources that you’ve not dealt with.

Third, getting others’ input (and listening to it) gets them to buy in to the project. They’ll usually have a greater commitment to making it work if they feel more a part of it, including the client. (Who, by the way, is going to appreciate updates on the project budget, among other things.) It’s a whole lot easier to reach your objective if someone else is covering your back. That gets really important when the alligators arrive.

Organizational Tools

So, by this time you’ve accumulated sheets of paper, even a few computer files, with the objective, a task list, assignments, schedules and level of effort, not to mention identification of options, ways to avoid pitfalls and traps, and the cost or pricing of the project. That can be a big pile of information for even a medium-sized project.

Here’s where all that technology comes in. You already know and use various programs and apps to manage your time, billing, communications and documents. Don’t waste time trying to reinvent your approach to fit a new technology. Use the technology tools that fit into your concept for the project, and try to keep it simple.

By the way, absolutely no one gives a rat’s ass about your technology problems. They want the project done, the objective reached, for the appropriate amount of effort and cost. Both fireflies and alligators live in the swamp, but it’s your job to get the work done despite them.

How’s It Going?

So, you figured it out, got your team on board and got the right tools for the job. Now, you just have to sit back and relax as the project purrs along as a result of your superior planning, organization and wisdom. The hard part is already done, right?

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but all the planning, organization and wisdom in the world are still subject to the universal law that transcends all others: Murphy’s. People, tools, weather, politics, utilities, traffic, illness and other catastrophes are lurking about, waiting to strike. Sometimes they do.

Your job is to be engaged, know what is going on in your project, monitor the progress being made by others and yourself — and adjust as necessary. If you’ve planned well, that should help you address problems when they arrive. Just remember the old saying, “Getting knocked down isn’t the problem, it’s how you get back up.”

And don’t forget the adage (a favorite of my secretary), “A failure to plan on your part does not constitute a crisis on mine.” Face up to the issue, engage the team and client as appropriate, and do what is needed to get the project back on track. This may require more resources, more time or a revised approach. You can be creative, but don’t try to be too cute.

Above all, keep your eye on the objective you established back in step one. If the objective changes, then it becomes a new project that requires you to work through the planning process again, knowing what you now know.

Finish the Project

Okay, you did it. The fat lady sang, the project is done. But is it?

One of my uncles was very particular about others using his workshop and tools. When you finished whatever you were doing, he made you put all the tools away where they belonged, put the leftover materials in their proper places, clean up the work space and yourself, and then go show off your accomplishment.

We need to do the same. There’s lots of paperwork to deal with (not all of it should be dumped on your secretary), billing to complete, loose ends to tie up, and a need to reward your team and congratulate your client (or commiserate with them).

It is important to acknowledge your team and the support the project received, particularly those who kept things working behind the scenes. If a project is successful, you need to share the success. If it tanked, it’s on you.

But you aren’t done yet. There are still two more things to do.

First check in with your client. It’s easy to do this after a successful project, but more important to do it after an unsuccessful one. Face up to the issues — find out what the client’s perspective was on the planning, performance and outcome. This is where your character shows through, and where you keep or lose a future client.

Second, meet with the team individually or as a group and discuss what worked and what didn’t. This will not only improve your planning for the next project, it will show your team that you value their perspective. And by the way, this is not where you talk; this is where you listen — and learn.

I like this quote attributed to John Wayne: “Life is tough. It’s tougher if you’re stupid.”

The alligators and sharks are out there. And fireflies roam the night. Deal with it.

Otto Sorts 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.

Illustration ©ImageZoo.

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Otto Sorts Otto Sorts

Otto Sorts 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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