Last week, we presented the 5 major stages of Legal Project Management:
- Design and Definition
- Planning (part 1, and part 2 here)
- Monitoring and Measurement
Today, we tackle the first stage: Design and Definition. One way in which LPM retains big picture-, strategy-level primacy is through flexibility. A flexible project format allows for repeated use of the same basic organizational framework to manage costs, time, task delegation, workflow, etc. The best way to retain that kind of generalized framework is to begin each project with an assessment of the project’s needs and goals. For example, ediscovery plays a huge role in LPM. Many ediscovery tools incorporate good project management principles, such as managed workflow. The repeatable, iterative nature of ediscovery tools makes them a natural fit for all project management, LPM included. In the design and definition stage, then, it is important to discuss the implemention of tech tools like ediscovery.
During the design and definition stage, several important aspects of the project need to be discussed. All parties on the project (lawyers, professional legal staff, client representatives, etc.) need to:
- Understand the client’s business and strategize in a way that plays to their strengths
- Discuss the relevant business problems and how best to solve them
- Develop a road map of important tasks and the timeframe for their completion
- Allocate work and responsibilities, ensuring that assignments are given efficiently and that realms of authority are clear
- Establish communication parameters
- Discuss costs, budget, billing
- Assess potential risks
Set The Table
Implementing LPM may involve combatting some inertia that your company, and the client’s company, may have. In the beginning of the design and definition stage, all stakeholders in the matter at hand should be asked for their interests and priorities for the project. You could schedule a giant meeting that everyone attends. Or, just as effectively, communicate with smaller groups to identify and organize priorities. What are the legal professionals hoping to accomplish on this matter? What are the client’s business goals? Finding and disseminating this information is essential to a smoother workflow. Once the design and definition stage is complete, and roles and responsibilities have been assigned, the project can get underway much more smoothly.
Unfortunately, sometimes clients do not always provide the information that you, the legal professional, need. Sometimes they don’t know where the information is. Or they may think you don’t need it. Sometimes, a client just doesn’t have the information needed to assess a matter and talk about their goals. Emphasize communication. The project manager should inform the client in a diplomatic way that the more information a legal team has – regardless of how unnecessary a client may think it is to share – the better the results will be. Use moments of friction with a client to educate them tactfully about the process behind LPM.
Notes on Cost
The design and definition stage is when a legal service provider should prepare a cost estimate for a client. Be ready to talk through the numbers with the procurement specialists at your client’s company. There are many pitfalls to avoid during this process. One method to avoid when implementing LPM is the pricing of services based on historical pricing of similar matters. The way things have always been done is not necessarily the only way, or even the best way. To avoid this tendency, assign team members to tasks based not on their billable rate, but on their particular strengths and weaknesses.
Legal professionals can also reduce costs by assessing their AI capabilities, and where AI resources will be most effective. On the client side, RFPs should outline how their business uses AI so that their legal project management team is fully informed. This is another area where greater transparency between clients and legal service providers will benefit everyone.
There is a lot of overlap between cost assessment and risk assessment. Too much risk may make your costs rise. LPM (and indeed all project management) is about controlling what will happen on a project. In an ideal world, we could foresee any challenge before it arises. That is unfortunately not the case in the real world, but a robust LPM method can accomplish the next best thing: knowing what to do when the unknown unknowns come knocking. Once again, communication is paramount. Talk to your client during the design and definition stage in order to determine their priorities when it comes to budget, time, schedule, and breadth of a matter.
Let’s say a project had insufficient design and definition. The team finds a roadblock one day: there is suddenly a lot more discovery that needs to be done than was initially expected. Does the client have room in the budget for extra discovery? Should you keep costs down, rather than balloon cost and upset your client? There may be a bit of panic over what to do.
Now let’s look at that same problem, but on a project where the design and definition stage anticipated this. Let’s say that that discovery workload is expanding, but you and the rest of the legal team know that the client wants the project completed by a specific date. Perhaps the client has specified that money is not as important as the deadline. Having known this from the earliest stage of the project, you can now allocate more time and resources to discovery without worrying about upsetting your client. You already know their needs because you took the time to walk through these hypotheticals during the design and definition stage.
If it sounds like we’re emphasizing communication too much, that’s because it is the cornerstone of effective LPM. During the design and definition stage, speak to all stakeholders about potential roadblocks to maintaining communication and transparency. There are many common pitfalls that don’t seem obvious until a serious miscalculation has already occurred. Groupthink is a big one. The planning fallacy and optimism bias are a couple other, equally dangerous but less famous complications. There is a seductive tendency to assume that detailed plans will lead directly to a smooth ride. But Murphy’s Law will almost certainly rear its head. And there will always be some unknown unknowns on a project.
Now, a healthy dose of optimism and confidence is always a good idea when negotiating for a client’s business. There is a time and a place for sweeping generalities and reassuring the client. Just don’t let that seep too much into the design and definition process. Remember that old adage: plans are useless, planning indispensable. Keep your client apprised of any changes in the expected outcome of your work. Use the design and definition stage to plan for contingencies, and to keep the client informed. Transparency with a client may sometimes mean delivering bad news, but being upfront is far better than trying to hide serious changes in the situation.
One simple way to increase transparency is to develop a flow chart of your project. Another way is for team members to brainstorm together and develop probability estimates for potential problems (e.g. abnormally long discovery, uncooperative parties and/or clients, legislation changes, etc.). Yet another way is to develop a litigation checklist that can be used on a wide range of LPM projects in the future. We will discuss this latter idea again when we talk about monitoring, measurement, and post-project review in the weeks to come.
The Big Picture
There is no set of rigid criteria that, once met, ensures a project’s success. Legal professionals should work toward the client’s business goals in a way that optimizes staff, resources, time, and budget. Legal project managers need to always check the blind spots. At the design and definition stage, take the time to look ahead at all aspects of the matter: those within your control, and those without.