This blog is the last in a three-part series on legal project management. If you missed the others, you can read the first one on why improving legal matter management is so hard and the second one, on how to start smart if you want to improve legal matter management. In today’s blog, I offer some suggestions on how to achieve an agile execution on your legal projects.
Use a time blocking approach with standing meetings.
If you are not going to produce an elaborate schedule, using some kind of software, such as Microsoft Project, how are you going to manage the schedule? Hopefully, you have created the activity breakdown (also called a work breakdown structure or WBS) that I referenced in my second blog and described in more detail here. So, you have a pretty good idea of the different pieces of work that are needed on your matter.
It may be helpful to think of each of these blocks as work that solves a particular problem on your matter, not a little task that needs to be done. The best part about that approach is that solving each of these little problems adds value for the client.
Now, you just need to work in sprints, or time blocks. Typically, I recommend two-week time blocks, but it depends on your project, and how fast things are moving.
At the beginning of each sprint or time block, the team selects the specific activities that it will be working on. It focuses on finishing those activities. The team should resist working on the other activities in order to stay completely focused on the activities that were selected for this time block. You don’t want to partially finish a bunch of activities and then not be able to talk about the value you delivered at your next meeting.
One way to improve your team effectiveness is to use standing meetings. The concept is simple.
A standing meeting is a short (typically 10 – 15 minutes), regular (typically daily) meeting where team members answer three questions:
- What have I accomplished since our last meeting?
- What do I plan to accomplish next?
- Are there any problems that are keeping me from moving forward?
While many would advocate that standing meetings should be held face-to-face, and standing up, that is not always feasible. There are alternatives. Used well, standing meetings build accountability on a team, focus in the individuals, and a culture that encourages supportive working relationships and the early disclosure of problems. This meeting is NOT a meeting for discussing legal matters, or how to move forward on the case. If you want some more suggestions on how to use standing meetings well, read this blog.
Close your time blocks with a client meeting during which you deliver something of value.
Engage with your client, early and often. I can’t say whether your clients are really pushing hard for LPM or not. But, your clients want to receive value for the large bills you are sending them every month. I recommend that you meet with your client at the end of every time block (or two), and review, in person when possible, the value of work that has been delivered.
Thinking about work from the perspective of how that work adds value for the client is a major mind-shift for many people. Senior lawyers, working with clients on a regular basis, might be more used to that mind-set. But getting younger lawyers and paralegals to think about their work that way can be a switch. This is particularly true if you have a difficult client.
Be accountable for your budget.
The meeting, at the end of every time block, is a good time to review the budget. Did the activities that were completed come in under, over, or on target? Budgets are estimates. I’m not saying that teams necessarily need to work without billing the client when their estimates are off. I am saying that you need to be able to explain why an estimate was off.
What did you underestimate or overestimate? Was it because you needed to spend more time than you predicted researching a matter? Did you decide that a particular research tangent was serving no value, and thus, you abandoned that work? Or, was it because opposing counsel or a judge threw a monkey wrench into ongoing conversations? These meetings, at the end of every time block, are a good time to have budget conversations.
Manage the risks and issues.
I recently read the greatest definition of risks and issues, which many people get confused. Issues are the project problems you have to solve. Risks are the project problems you may need to solve. (Thank you to Dr. Andy Silber, Adaptive Project Management: Leading Complex and Uncertain Projects)
How are you tracking these issues and risks? Have you assigned someone to be responsible for each one, or are you just hoping that they will disappear? Is someone actually reviewing them regularly? Issues need to be resolved in a timely fashion. Risks need to be managed. There are some very specific methods to managing risks, which involve quantitative and qualitative analysis. You can read my blog on that here, but the key is to have a disciplined approach that dedicates time to actually think about this.
A recent Law 360 article reported on a study, done by Exterro, the developer of E-Discovery Software. Their 2017 Law Firm Benchmarking Report noted that “Partners are still considered the primary project manager, up 16 percent from 2016.” It’s easy to understand why the report notes this as a “huge red flag” when you begin to focus on the administrative details that are needed to run a project well. Managing administrative details is not the highest and best use of a partner’s time.
Learn from the past and adapt quickly.
Trained project managers use the expression “lessons learned.” Agile proponents believe in regularly meeting for a retrospective, in order to become more effective, and to be able to adjust quickly. That meeting that you are having with your client at the end of every sprint (or two) is a good time to talk about what you have learned. And then, do you have a system for documenting those lessons learned so that you don’t make the same mistake every month?
Use a documented change management process that everyone understands.
We live and work in a rapidly changing world. We need to be able to adapt quickly, particularly when new opportunities present themselves. We can’t be locked into a 40-page schedule that takes hours to change. And at the same time, when things change too frequently, it causes teams to spin out of control. No one wants to wake up every single day and have to rethink his or her entire agenda.
There has to be a balance between having a plan that works and being able to capitalize on change when appropriate. Use an approach that allows you to add tasks – not activities. Tasks are small to-do items that are directly linked to your activities. Adding an activity is a change in scope and requires a project change. If you don’t have a change management process that works you can read about how to set one up, here.
That’s it. I’ve given you some easy suggestions requiring no sophisticated project management training. Use these suggestions to improve pricing predictability, and make your clients happier.
If you or someone in your firm is interested in talking about how Smart Projex might help, give me a call.