Legal Project Management
By Nancy Jessen and Bret Baccus
Good project management helps law departments manage legal matters more efficiently and cost effectively. An integral tool of corporate business units for years, project management has become important to law departments because of expanding client expectations and the evolving role of in-house counsel. Clients now expect more than substantive legal knowledge; they require in-house counsel to have business acumen andto provide legal services in an efficient, predictable, and consistent manner. Project management helps law departments fulfill this broader role because it engenders more effective planning, cost control, resource allocation and risk management.In general, the same principles used by other business units are applicable to legal projects, but with certain refinements because of the nature of the work. This Quick Counsel provides a brief overview of legal project management. For a more detailed discussion, please see the ACC Primer –Legal Project Management, on which this article is in part based.
Many organizations offer resources on the principles of project management – for example, the Project Management Institute. In general, project management involves applying these principles to a “project” – the creation of a unique product or result, having a finite beginning and end – through the organized process of initiation, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling the process. In the legal department, projects can involve the execution of specific legal matters(for example, a lawsuit, an acquisition, an SEC filing, or an investigation) or a departmental improvement. Legal project management requires formal and deliberate integration of planning, budgeting, and communication – more than simply using matter management software.
Project management encompasses working within the bounds of several major constraints on the project, a change in any of which is likely to affect at least one of the others. Traditional project management theory defines three constraints: scope, time, and cost. Because legal work is by nature people-intensive, for legal projects it is important to consider people as an additional constraint.
The project management process requires clearly defining these constraining factors to develop the project plan, then executing the project in accordance with the plan while continuously monitoring, controlling, and adjusting as necessary. The phases of legal project management can be categorized as follows:
Every project requires a project manager. Whether the legal project manager should be a lawyer is an open question. It can be argued that a lawyer’s understanding of substantive issues can be helpful when making judgment calls and balancing priorities. On the other hand, most lawyers are not trained in project management and arguably may be predisposed to focus on thoroughly carrying out the project without being sufficiently attuned to the effects on budget, timing, or staffing.
Defining the project’s scope is the starting point for effective project management. The scope identifies what the project is to encompass and what it is to accomplish, and is the foundation for subsequent planning and project management. A clearly defined scope will make it easier to determine the project’s phases and timeline, staffing, and budget.It is useful to create a project charter (see Legal Project Management Tools below) to set forth the scope and related, overarching key matters. The outset of the project is also a good time to develop a communication plan(see Legal Project Management Tools below) setting forth how, to whom, and how often progress of the project will be communicated, to make sure that all stakeholders are sufficiently informed and aware of developments.
Development of the project plan is the next step after defining the project scope. Identify the tasks and activities required to achieve the specified outcome. Begin with the major divisions – project phases and milestones. Once the project manager, which could be the lead lawyer or her designee, determines the major phases, the team can break them down into specific tasks and activities, and determine the sequence in which those tasks must be done. (Don’t forget to include planning and administration as a specific phase.)
All of these factors – tasks, schedule, people, and budget become part of the project plan, although the budget may be a separate document.
Conducting the matter (project) includes:
When the project is complete, the lead lawyer and/or project manager should review the final product with the client. This review will:
It is also important to capture and communicate lessons learned.Every project yields information that will be useful for future project planning, for example, information regarding the resources used and time required to complete the project, as well as its cost. There may be some activities or tasks that could be better done or performed in a different sequence. Issues to examine at the project wrap-up meeting may include the following:
The steps above are easily managed using the right tools, including the following:
Project Charter. A key document that defines the scope and related key issues. The charter identifies the team members and leadership and lays out the overall project description, the goals and scope of the project, key assumptions and risks, and timeline and dates for key deliverables.
Communication Plan. A document that identifies:
Project Plan. The master document that integrates the project scope, milestones, schedule, responsibilities, and estimated cost and is the primary tool for managing the project. The project plan is a living document – it is updated regularly to show the percent of the project that is complete.
RACI Diagram. A document describing the roles of teams or people involved in delivering a project. Acronym for the four key task responsibilities, which are then assigned to different roles in the project:
Budget, Variance Reports. The budget sets forth in detail what the project is expected to cost. Periodic budget-to-variance reports demonstrate the financial status of the project. Using accrual accounting methods for these reports avoids surprises as the project unfolds.
Status Report. Periodic report on progress of the Project, which provides information such as tasks completed since last update; upcoming meetings and tasks; questions/issues/risks; and timeline and budget updates.
It is possible to develop these project management tools using existing law department tools such as Excel, MS Project, matter management and e-billing systems, and law firm billing systems. Other corporate groups can also provide project management resources and tools such as IT resources, Quality Control systems, Six Sigma programs, and Process Improvement programs.
For examples of some of these tools, see the Appendix to the ACC Primer - Legal Project Management.
Legal project management is a disciplined approach to legal work, resulting in improved use of resources and improved performance against budgets. The following are some suggested best practices to ensure that the law department’s project management program is as effective as possible:
Law departments that engage in these practices will make project management an inherent part of their cultures.
Published on January 1, 2012
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