Login to MyACC
ACC Members

Not a Member?

The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) is the world's largest organization serving the professional and business interests of attorneys who practice in the legal departments of corporations, associations, nonprofits and other private-sector organizations around the globe.

Join ACC


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 and to 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.

Back to top

Project Management Principles

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.



Back to top

The Legal Project Management Process

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:

  • Define the Scope Identify the goals and deliverables for the project
  • Establish the Project Plan “ Establish the parameters for time, people, and cost within which the project will be accomplished
  • Conduct the Legal Matter  Carry out the project within the established parameters, making adjustments as required
  • Review the Process and Outcome“ Assess the project results and lessons learned after its completion

Back to top

The Legal Project Manager

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.

Back to top

Define the Scope

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.

Back to top

Establish the Project Plan

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.)

  • Schedule Estimated Time. The project manager can develop a specific schedule based on the sequence of activities. The schedule should include begin and end dates for each task and also for completion of the project as a whole. Past experiences, estimates from outside counsel and vendors, and contingencies can be used to estimate time. If the project has a fixed due date, such as a trial date, discovery deadline, deal closing date, or other target event, the due date is an end-point from which to work back to develop a schedule.
  • People Roles and Responsibilities. Determine who will be responsible for completing the specific tasks and activities. Take into account all of the people who could contribute to the project: attorneys, paralegals, support staff, other resources within the company, outside counsel, and vendors. Also consider preset factors that may affect project staffing; for example,fixed deadlines might create the need for extra personnel. Many find a RACI Diagram(see Legal Project Management Tools below) to be a helpful tool in defining roles and responsibilities.
  • Budget Estimated Costs. Develop the budget based on estimates for the individual tasks, taking into consideration schedule and staffing requirements. Budget drivers include hours, rates, and expenses. It is important to work with any involved outside counsel and consult external vendors when developing the project budget. Consider internal costs as well internal team members' time has a value and opportunity cost, and other company personnel may have actual dollars associated with their time, e.g., IT personnel or a trained project manager.The scope of the project should govern the level of budget detail:the larger the project, the greater the budget detail.

All of these factors tasks, schedule, people, and budget become part of the project plan, although the budget may be a separate document.

Back to top

Conduct the Matter

Conducting the matter (project) includes:

  • Project Initiation/Set Expectations. A formal project initiation lets all affected parties know the project has begun and clarifies the expectations of all team members. Each member of the team expected to have a role in the project should attend the kick-off meeting. Other stakeholders having an interest in its outcome may also attend. At the meeting, clearly articulate each member's role and responsibilities so that all parties understand what is to be done, by whom, and when, as well as the applicable budget.
  • Manage the Team and Communications. Manage the team as the project proceeds through periodic team meetings. The frequency of these meetings will depend on the length of the project and how fast it progresses - for example, daily for projects with a relatively short deadline, weekly or monthly for longer term projects. During these regular meetings, the project manager should assess, address, and communicate to the team the project's progress in terms of task completion and variances in any of the relevant parameters. To keep all other stakeholders in the loop, manage communications according to the communications plan. As the project unfolds, it may be appropriate to amend the communications plan, for example to add to the audience, change the frequency of communications, or make other appropriate changes.
  • Managing the Schedule, Budget, and Quality Control. The project plan is the primary reporting tool the project manager can use to manage the project. The project plan illustrates the progress of the tasks in terms of timing and percent complete. Periodic budget-to-variance reports document the use of financial resources and allow the project manager to make sure spending is on track. Regular project status reports can provide snapshots of the periodic progress reflected in the more comprehensive project plan and budget.
  • Assess and Mitigate Risks. Evaluating risks at the outset and periodically throughout the project and taking action where necessary will keep the project on track and minimize extreme variances in the project's scope, cost, or schedule. Identify each risk and evaluate both the probability of it occurring and the impact on the project development if it occurred,such as impacts on scheduling, costs, or people. For high probability and high impact risks, a preliminary mitigation plan should be developed to protect against those risks. Routinely monitor risks and control them by taking the appropriate remedial action when necessary.
  • Refine the Project Plan as Needed. A change in any of the four constraints on legal projects - scope, schedule, people, and budget - may affect one or more of the others. New information that becomes available as the project develops may necessitate adjustments to the project plan. The project manager must evaluate the new information, the scale of the issue, and the pros and cons of adjusting the plan or budget, recognizing the interrelated impact of changing any of the major plan parameters. It is important to communicate the adjustments and their ramifications to the project team and the clients. The team members must understand how any adjustments will affect their continued work on the project, and the client must understand how any adjustments will affect their business objectives.

Back to top

Review the Process and Outcome

When the project is complete, the lead lawyer and/or project manager should review the final product with the client. This review will:

  • Satisfy the client that their needs are being addressed;

Allow the client the opportunity to provide feedback regarding the project; and Potentially educate the client regarding issues that will improve communication and expectations for future similar projects.

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:

  • What went well
  • What was unexpected
  • The accuracy of the original project plan (including estimates of schedule, people, and budget)
  • Learning for future projects
  • Evaluation of outside counsel

Back to top

Legal Project Management Tools

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:

  • The goal of each communication;
  • The target audience for that communication;
  • How the communication will be made, whether by meeting, email, report, or other;
  • The desired frequency; and
  • The party responsible for initiating and tracking the communication.

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:

  • Responsible - Those who do work to achieve the task. There can be multiple responsible persons or groups.
  • Accountable - The individual ultimately answerable for the correct and thorough completion of the task.
  • Consulted - Those whose opinions are sought. Consulting implies a two-way communication.
  • Informed - Those who are kept up-to-date on progress of the project. Recipients of one-way communication.

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.

Back to top


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:

  • Define criteria for when formal project management is expected, to avoid only large "ticket" items being formally project managed
  • Make project management an explicit process within the expected case management activities
  • Conduct project management reviews independent from case strategy reviews
  • Define the project management role instead of assuming someone will take it on
  • Define project management as a job expectation and include it in performance evaluations
  • Tailor tools to specific practice/matter type needs, but make them flexible enough to be adapted and changed to meet the program's needs as requirements change or grow
  • Provide training that encompasses initial guidance, hands-on work, as well as specific project and ongoing support. Use testing and refresher training to keep skills sharp

Law departments that engage in these practices will make project management an inherent part of their cultures.

Back to top

Additional Resources

Back to top

Published on January 1, 2012

Region: Global
The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.

This site uses cookies to store information on your computer. Some are essential to make our site work properly; others help us improve the user experience.

By using the site, you consent to the placement of these cookies. For more information, read our cookies policy and our privacy policy.