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July 10, 2013

The top ten best practices in legal project management

 This post was adapted from the new Third Edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

When you begin to think about your first LPM action items, you may find it useful to begin by reviewing this list of the top ten best practices to determine what matters most in your situation:

  1. Make sure you understand client needs early on. What would the client consider to be a successful outcome? What are their priorities, both overall and for this particular matter? Also determine who the primary decision makers are on the client side, especially about cost issues.

  2. Divide a large complex matter into a number of smaller tasks. Then schedule a meeting of key team members to define the schedule and budget the tasks. Bottom-up planning (which is interactive and iterative) is more effective than top-down planning (which is linear and one-way). Remember that it is human nature to be optimistic; don’t underestimate how long tasks will take.

  3. Aim for a cohesive team approach, with one lawyer managing all assignments and monitoring the time of all lawyers assigned to the matter. Also assign primary responsibility for each task to a single individual. When specific people are assigned to tasks, each person will have a sense of ownership and you will have a clear view of who is responsible for what.

  4. Individual tasks should be easy to track. Each activity should be budgeted for a manageable chunk of time (typically 8 to 80 hours) to give team members freedom to perform the task as they think best while still assuring accountability.

  5. Communicate the budget and hourly expectations for each task to the team. Then ask the person who is responsible for each task to estimate how long they think it will take. If there is a large gap between their estimate and yours, discuss why and consider revising the estimate.

  6. Always know what you have spent so far, and what you expect to spend in the future. Check at regular intervals to make sure the work is being done within the projected budget. Compare the percentage of the budget you have spent with the percentage of work you have completed. Focus attention on the largest tasks that will require a high percentage of the budget.

  7. In large projects, schedule regular team meetings to review progress and remind members of the overall goals of the project and of upcoming tasks. Create status reports that are easy to review. Watch for roadblocks that interfere with team progress and remove them.

  8. If cost reduction is required, look for procedures that can be simplified or standardized. Also consider delegating some tasks down if they can be performed efficiently at lower hourly rates. But note that the cost will often be lower if you “delegate up” to more senior lawyers who need less guidance and feedback.

  9. Keep clients informed as the matter progresses. Consider whether it would be useful to send monthly one-page status reports which summarize what was accomplished last month, what is planned for next month, and any issues or challenges.

  10. Effective managers spend twice as much time planning as ineffective ones. Find the balance between planning too little and planning too much. (For the data behind this claim, see the book Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know that Everyone Else Does Not.)  

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