Ten Things: Legal Project Management for Beginners

Managing a legal project is not an easy task.  Not for in-house counsel or for outside counsel.  There are simply too many ways for a project to “come off the rails” and turn into a disaster.  Usually, the disaster has to do with cost/budget.  While blowing the budget is definitely not good, a worse scenario is when the disaster results in the project failing, be it a contract, and merger or acquisition, or a piece of litigation where the stakes are high.  A project “fail” can mean big problems for in-house lawyers, all the way up to being shown the door.  This is why it’s so important for in-house counsel and outside counsel to be on the same page any time there is a project of material size or risk.  The key for in-house counsel is understanding that you cannot simply turn the project over to outside counsel and “hope for the best.”  Successful legal projects require the involvement and input of in-house lawyers every step of the way.

Over the past decade or so, “Legal Project Management” has grown into an accepted (and in-demand) way to manage legal work sent to outside counsel.  However, it can be a rather involved process and while I am a big believer that it does pay off not all in-house lawyers are ready to step up to the level of commitment required to really do “LPM” right.  That’s okay.  I think any in-house lawyer can apply the basic concepts of LPM and even a cursory application of the basics will lead to better project management and better results.  This edition of “Ten Things” discusses the basics of Legal Project Management and how you can utilize them as a “beginner” to the process:

1.  What is Legal Project Management?  There is nothing fancy about Legal Project Management.  At its core it is simply a structured way to manage legal projects, from litigation to mergers and acquisitions, to strategic contracts or high volume matters (e.g., high volume litigation or transaction work).  It borrows heavily from project management principles used for decades in construction and technology projects, where “on time” and “on budget” are table stakes.  While used primarily when engaging outside law firms, it also works for projects that are 100% insourced.  In addition to structure and cost control, LPM provides benefits from a formal post-project evaluation, where in-house and outside counsel (and the business client) share what worked well and what did not work well with the goal of constant improvement over time. The process relies heavily on complete and honest communications between in-house counsel and outside counsel. The more communication, the better the process.  The ultimate goal of LPM is to set up a process that ensures consistent results along with reduced costs.  To achieve this, in-house counsel need to dedicate sufficient time to LPM with every engagement.  Further, the process works best if your outside counsel is dedicated to using LPM.  Even if they do not, you can still reap some of the benefits so long as you and the firm work in good faith to utilize the basic principles during the project.

2.  The “kick-off” meeting.  Every LPM matter starts with a “kick-off” meeting where the applicable stakeholders (i.e., in-house counsel, outside counsel, and business clients) sit down in-person (ideally) and discuss the goals and objectives for the project.  This is also the time to discuss generally what work needs to be done, by whom, and how in-house and outside counsel will jointly manage and communicate with each other regarding the project.  Additionally, it’s the time to discuss how the legal work will serve a clear business objective, along with any concerns or special considerations that the team must take into account.  This kick-off is the foundation of the project and the time to “measure twice and cut once.”

3.  Scoping a project.  Closely tied to the kick-off meeting is the scoping plan.  This is the process where in-house and outside counsel document, among other things, the following:

  • Goals to measure project’s success
  • The clear expectations of the client
  • The legal work that must be performed
    • including an early assessment of the case in litigation
  • The steps that must be taken to perform the work
  • Who is responsible for each task
  • The timeline to complete the project, broken down by phases
  • The budget
  • The assumptions (and unknowns) that have gone into the plan and the budget – the goal here is no surprises down the road
  • Staffing (in-house and outside)
  • Reporting and tracking procedure

There is a simple document called a “BOSCARD” which contains seven basic questions that must be part of any scoping exercise (legal project or otherwise).  These are: Background, Objective, Scope, Constraints, Assumptions, Risks, Deliverables.   If you cover these items, you will have the beginnings of a very good scoping document.

4.  Planning a project.  Critical to any LPM project is a detailed work plan.  The project plan takes the scoping document and puts it into action, i.e., a plan setting out the “who, what, where, when, and how” of the project.  The three core elements involve identifying the work activities, allocating the right task to the right person, and setting the budget.  In-house and outside counsel need to be realistic and honest about the work involved and the time required to get the work done.  Hiding the ball or overly optimistic deadlines or spending predictions will cut strongly against a successfully managed project.  Equally important is for in-house and outside counsel to get the business client to sign-off on the work plan, costs, and deadlines as well.  If the business expectations differ materially from those of the legal team, you have a day of reckoning coming that will not be pretty.  A very common tool for LPM is the Gantt chart.

GANT

If used, the project Gantt chart will set out the timeline for the project along with all of the key deliverables as well as dependencies, i.e., what has to happen to allow other parts of the project to happen.  You can find Gantt chart templates online.  A related tool is the LACI chart which is a roles and responsibility matrix for each task.  The LACI chart sets out who “Leads” (is accountable) who “Assists” (must contribute), who must be “Consulted” (approval or input needed) and who must be “Informed” (“kept in the loop”) about each task.  To be clear, while Gantt charts and LACI charts can be very helpful, they are not required for all projects and, especially if you are just beginning to utilize LPM concepts, you can find other (simpler) ways to set out your project plan deliverables and “to do” list.

5.  Executing the project plan.  Among the key roles in the LPM process is that of the project managers, i.e., the in-house and outside counsel responsible for the day-to-day planning and execution of the project.  In addition to having the right expertise and legal skills for the project, the project managers must be able to:

  • Budget accurately and manage the budget
  • Ensure the work gets done and gets done correctly
  • Manage the team and coordinate work
  • Innovate and adapt to changes in circumstances, resources, etc.
  • Recognize (early) when circumstances are changing such that a formal change to the plan is required
  • Communicate regularly to the team (legal and business) with regular updates and analysis of “where things are” in the process

6.  Monitoring the project.  The most important task of the project managers is monitoring the project.  In particular, focusing on the Gantt chart, LACI chart, or other project plan documents to ensure everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing, that the work is getting done on time (and done correctly), that spending aligns with the budget, that the assumptions are holding true (or if not, understand what is changing), looking to flesh out any of the unknowns identified earlier during the planning process, and ensuring that communications are going out on schedule and to the right people.  As should be clear by now, monitoring the project is a daily activity and generally not something that can get a small amount of attention at the end of the week.  In-house and outside counsel should speak several times per week (if not daily) re the status of the project and how things are progressing vs. the plan.  In addition to the day-to-day management, there will also likely be some type of steering committee set up that will set overall direction and strategy for the project and will be consulted for “big” decisions.

7.  Communication plan.  When it comes to LPM, communication is the grease on the skids.  With it, things move smoothly.  Without it, things screech to a halt.  Successful projects require: regular meetings/conference calls for the team to discuss the project, a process for updates between meetings, and development and utilization of standard report templates to communicate important information in a consistent and easy to follow manner.  An important aspect of the communication plan is identifying who needs to know what information and when.  For example, the CEO of the company may only need to know about certain major developments on an ad hoc basis.  The General Counsel, however, may need a weekly report on everything.  Finding the right level of information delivered to the right person and the right time takes practice and flexibility.  One often overlooked tool is to simply ask people what they want to know, how often, and in what format.  Lastly, do not overlook the need to ensure that all communications take into account the rules around attorney-client or work product privileges.  Both must be preserved to the extent possible at all times.  Ensure that everyone on the team (business people included) are trained in how the privileges work and how to properly draft and mark a document that seeks legal advice or forms part of any litigation strategy or thought process.

8.  Change management.  Even under the best of circumstances, it is unlikely that all of the assumptions made in the scoping plan and project plan stay static.  Likewise, there were likely a number of “unknowns” when the project began.  As circumstances change or facts become known, good LPM must plan for and have a process to capture changes and to avoid/contain “scope creep” (i.e., unapproved/un-vetted deviation from the project plan).  Through monitoring the plan and constant communication amongst the team, you should be able to spot “changes” well before they become a significant problem.  Regardless of when you see them coming, material changes will require that the team adjust the project plan and related documents to account for the change, and ensure that changes are communicated to all of the people who need to know and – most importantly – changes are approved in advance by the right people.  The hardest changes will occur around increasing the budget.  Obviously, any material increase in cost will not be something in-house counsel or the business will get excited about.  The key here again is open and honest communication between counsel.  It also underscores the need for the significant amount of work “up-front” that must go into planning and thinking through the assumptions and unknowns of the project.  The more time spent up front, the less surprises there will be down the road, especially as to the budget.

9.  Post-mortem.  I always found this to be the most interesting part of any legal project, that is the “post-mortem.”  After the completion of any material legal project it is important for the team (in-house, outside counsel, and business clients) to sit down and discuss what went well and what did not go so well during project.  For example: Did we meet the plan objectives? What are the things that need to be fixed going forward?  Is more training needed to avoid litigation problems?  Did we create forms or templates that can be re-used going forward – saving time and money?  Did the communications plan work?  What caused us to miss the budget projections? What are the lessons learned – good or bad? The in-house team will likely want to discuss amongst themselves the performance of outside counsel and then share that feedback in an appropriate manner with them (as you imagine that most outside counsel are desperate for such feedback and want to hear from you even if you are unhappy about something).  Likewise, the General Counsel may want a report from outside counsel about how her team performed during the project, not as a “calling out” process but rather as gathering constructive criticism to help her team grow and learn.  A post-mortem meeting is certainly easier when the project went well vs. one that ended badly.  But you can learn ways to improve even from projects that exceed expectations.  There is always room for improvement and a post-project review is essential to this process.

10.  Resources.   If you’d like to learn more about Legal Project Management, here are some excellent resources to get you started (and don’t forget to ask the law firms you work with regularly if they practice LPM and are willing to share/teach you and your team the process):

*****

The above is not intended to give you a degree in Legal Project Management.  Rather, I wanted to touch on the basic concepts of the process because I believe utilizing these concepts in even the most informal manner, still results in benefits on both the process and cost sides of the equation.  Plus, dipping your toe in the water makes it easier for you to dive more deeply into the LPM process down the road where bigger payoffs await.  Additionally, while most of the above is written with a “one-off” project in mind, LPM works equally well for developing and enhancing legal processes such as subpoena responses, trade secret audits, litigation holds, trademark prosecution, high volume litigation (patent, product liability, non-compete, franchise), and so on.  Just about any legal task can benefit from LPM.  Make it one of your goals for the remainder of 2017 or for the start of 2018 to take one project or process and put it through some type of Legal Project Management process.  You’ll be glad you did.

Sterling Miller

July 31, 2017

Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel: Practical Advice and Successful Strategies is now available for sale.  Described by the American Bar Association as “The one book all in-house counsel need to own!”  Click here for details on how to order. Perfect for your library, or as a gift to clients or members of the legal department (or your next legal offsite).

Cover

Follow me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and LinkedIn where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel daily.  

 If you find this blog useful, please click “follow” in the top right and you will get all new editions emailed to you directly.  “Ten Things” is not legal advice or legal opinion and represents my views only. It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers. If you have questions or comments, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net

My first book, “The Evolution of Professional Football,” is available for sale on Amazon and at www.SterlingMillerBooks.com.

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