Sustaining progress in legal project management: The case of Gray Plant Mooty (Part 1 of 2)
One of the major challenges for any law firm that has mastered the basics of legal project management (LPM) is to keep the momentum going. Attorneys can be trained, CLE credits can be granted, online certificates can be awarded, books and articles can be scrutinized, meetings can be held, and assignments can be made. But what happens when the phone starts ringing and lawyers return to the fray? How can a firm assure that the lessons learned are put into practice?
No firm has found the ultimate answer, but Gray Plant Mooty, a Minneapolis-based firm with over 150 lawyers, has made substantial progress on this over the past year.
It all started when Mark Williamson, the co-chair of the M&A practice and a member of the firm’s board of directors, attended a two-day Legal Service Management Workshop put on by the Association of Corporate Counsel. Mark walked out of that session convinced that Gray Plant Mooty and its clients could substantially benefit from LPM, and began to plan how.
Last September, they began with a pilot test of our just-in-time training workshop. Six participants, including Mark, applied our proprietary process to identify action items. LegalBizDev principal Steve Barrett then followed up with each of the six for thirty days to assure success.
Mark’s action items revolved around creating action plans for a regulatory filing he was working on at that time, including a master schedule, task assignments, and budgets. Among other things, he used simple tools already available in Outlook to share calendars, schedule meetings, set reminders and more.
The results convinced Mark and key partners that both clients and the firm could benefit if he expanded the approach to a variety of types of deals. Since then, M&A has become one of the most active practice groups in applying LPM in the firm. In the eight months since the initial program was completed, he has been developing and refining systematic processes to improve initial fee estimates and cost structures by breaking down complex matters into smaller tasks, planning and tracking the time spent on each task, and communicating better internally. They have become particularly interested in using task codes to budget, plan, track and manage the work, and are increasingly using this new knowledge to offer clients innovative fee structures as alternatives to traditional hourly billing. “It’s being talked about more and more,” Williamson said. “We are increasingly using these techniques on deals, and even lawyers who were skeptical initially are starting to use them.”
According to the firm’s executive director, Karen Reynolds, one of the reasons the first pilot test was so successful was that finance director Shelbie O’Brien was one of the six participants in the initial training. Like many great ideas, this happened by accident. The day before the first video workshop, one of the six lawyers who was scheduled to participate dropped out due to a last minute demand on her time, and Shelbie took her place. Shelbie decided to focus on improving the use of the tools and reports already available in the firm’s financial software (Aderant) to help lawyers plan and manage budgets.
“Having Shelbie as part of the project management team means that she is actively involved on a daily basis in supporting the initiatives that developed as a result of the training,” said Reynolds. “To cite just one example, Shelbie and her finance staff are now working in a partnership with two attorneys in our Business Advisory Group and our IT staff to develop templates to gather information for alternative fee arrangements (AFAs) and make it quicker and easier to create engagement letters for a variety of AFAs.”
Based on the success of the first just-in-time training workshop, the firm began a second program with six more lawyers in February (again with Steve Barrett), and then a third with six more in May (with Tom Kane).
The expansion of the program highlighted the need to plan an LPM Sustainability Initiative to produce follow-up plans targeted to each of the firm’s practice areas, to ensure the specific, actionable, and efficient use of attorney time, to bring about the continued sharing of best practices among attorneys, and to provide accountability to keep the LPM momentum moving. “We didn’t want legal project management to be something that we trained, and then put on the shelf,” Reynolds explained. “We wanted a way to continue the momentum, to drive this into firm culture without having to pay consultants on a continuing basis.”
When the first just-in-time program was finished, Reynolds and Williamson began by holding monthly meetings in which the six participants talked about how to “spread our knowledge base.” When they added six more from the second workshop group, the meetings became harder to schedule and to run. Jim Hassett and Karen then brainstormed alternatives and decided to break the large group down into several smaller monthly meetings of just two or three key people who shared common interests and goals.
Reynolds now meets once a month with each small group to talk about their projects, discuss the outcomes of their LPM work, and review the resources that they need. The core members of each group bring selected other attorneys, including associates, into the project management work, in order to spread the knowledge base. Reynolds “connects the dots” between the groups, and avoids overburdening the attorneys with long discussions that don’t relate to their practice areas. She also plans to hold occasional meetings of all LPM participants so that everyone can be informed in a broad sense about what’s going on.
Gradually, LPM is being woven into the fabric of the way that the firm serves its clients. When LegalBizDev trained the second and third groups, we were excited to note that each group seemed more motivated than the one before, and that the action items they identified were increasingly sophisticated. Very simply, best practices are spreading, because Gray Plant Mooty lawyers and their clients are rapidly seeing the benefits.