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LPM, Part 4: Planning

At first glance, one may wonder about the distinction between last week’s topic – design and definition – and this week’s topic, planning. The distinction is quite simple, though. The difference between the two is like the difference between strategy and tactics. The design and definition stage lays out the grand strategy of a legal project. Planning, meanwhile, is when a project team gets down to the street level, organizing tasks and processes and figuring out how best to execute the project.

Review

Last week, we discussed the main components of the design and definition stage:

  • Understanding the client’s business in order to develop an optimal strategy
  • Understanding the business problem the client needs solved
  • Allocating work in an efficient, clearly communicated way
  • Establishing clear lines of communication between team members
  • Assessing potential risks and preparing for unknowns

With these fundamental elements of the strategy laid out, the planning stage is when you determine how to accomplish all these interlocking goals. The best way forward is to create a physical plan, a living document describing all aspects of the matter outlined above. This document will probably need to be curated and maintained by the project manager, updated as facts change. This document should lay out the following details, gleaned from the design and definition stage:

  • Names of parties
  • The project manager(s) (or their alternate title)
  • The purpose of the project
  • The project stakeholders
  • Estimated date of completion
  • A general outline of the project, its objectives, and potential risks and roadblocks
  • Team member work assignments
  • Budget estimates
  • Monitoring process (e.g., conference calls, email updates to clients, etc.)

Work Breakdown

From building a Lego set to finalizing an M & A deal, every project is comprised of multiple phases which are in turn comprised of discrete tasks. A key part of the planning stage of LPM involves keeping track of all these tasks.

Generally, a work breakdown shows the temporal steps of your list of project tasks. A simple checklist can sometimes accomplish this. You may need more complex work breakdown structures for more dynamic projects. Generally, a work breakdown structure lists phases in a process moving from left-to-right, and a list of tasks in each phase moving from top-to-bottom. A good example of a work breakdown structure can be found in Gantt charts. This style of work breakdown is frequently used in other types of project management, but is common in LPM as well.

Whether you use a simple checklist, or a Gantt chart, or something of your own design, they all share some common features: display of project phases and tasks, alongside a time component. In the planning stage of LPM, project managers and team members need to choose the system that’s right for them (or even invent their own that works best for the team’s unique goals and needs).

Task Codes

In the past, lawyers and legal service providers relied heavily on the somewhat nebulous concept of the billable hour. But in recent years, the billable hour has lost its primacy in the changing legal marketplace. Newer, more efficient methods are being used. Hand in hand with visual aids like Gantt charts, task codes are standardized sets of codes used to describe any and every task that might go into a legal project.

The ABA developed a widely used standard called the Uniform Task-Based Management System (UTBMS). Many billing platforms support use of UTBMS, but it is also possible for your team to develop your own unique code set. The planning stage of LPM is when you and your team need to make these choices.

Budgeting

The next part of the planning stage is also arguably the most important. You and your team will need to make detailed estimations of the cost of each process and task in the work breakdown structure. This kind of budget detailing and planning is relatively new to legal. In the not-too-distant past, law firms and legal departments did not comprehensively track their costs and hours billed, and clients accepted this ambiguity. New tools, and a changing legal market, have increased the amount of available knowledge about billing practices and how much work is required to complete any specific task. Clients track this data as well, and it is now common for clients to compare billing practices between and amongst different legal service providers in order to choose the best one.

Estimating a budget – especially under an AFA – can be hard work. There are two approaches for putting a budget together. The first approach is a bottom-up approach. A bottom-up budgeting style takes all possible costs into account (with the help of your visual work breakdown structure) in order to make an accurate budget estimate. Top-down budgeting, meanwhile, is needed when, for example, a client sets a budget cap in an AFA. In this case, you may have a set dollar amount that must be allocated across all tasks and personnel, with little room to maneuver. In either case, a careful and thorough planning stage will ensure a robust and detailed billing structure.

Continuing the Planning Stage

When finalizing a budget, analyze past matters to look for patterns and for ways to improve. Stay in contact with your client about their financial situation so that there are no surprises. Use work breakdown structures and other visual tools to keep your strategy updated on paper. Decide whether the project budget should be bottom-up or top-down. As always, some risks are unavoidable. But the more you know about past history and present conditions, the better your legal project will be.

Next week, we will talk more about a few other aspects of the planning stage of LPM.

This is Part 4 of an ongoing series about Legal Project Management (LPM). Part 1 is here. Click for part 2, part 3, or part 5.

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