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May 14, 2014

The most critical issues in legal project management (Part 3 of 3)

Assign tasks and manage the team

Like communication, management is not a strong point for many lawyers:

We did an internal survey where we asked, “How do you communicate caps and fixed fees to your team of associates?” Some said by email. I think only about 10% of them said that they actually talk to the group, get them together on a call, and explain the project. It doesn’t really happen. And when you don’t manage things well, it affects more than just the profitability. It affects the associate’s confidence in working with you in the future, because they get their time written off since they weren’t told the parameters.

Negotiate changes of scope 

In light of the problems with communication and management, it is not surprising that when the moment comes to negotiate a change of scope, many lawyers have problems:

We have people who recognize that the scope of a project has changed, but you would think they were 15 years old again and asking a girl to a dance. They never get around to making the phone call.

As far as negotiating changes of scope, there is enormous room for improvement. When something has gone bad, there is tremendous reluctance to have that discussion with the client.

When scope changes, the first thing you’ve got to think about is talking to the client and making sure that you’re on the same page as to what’s changed. That’s an area we still struggle with.

This widespread problem goes directly to the bottom line, as seen in these comments, the first from a managing partner, and the second from a CFO:

In the real world, almost no project is defined in advance so clearly that there is no need for changes. And it is in that need where the law firm’s expectations about profitability and return get thrown out the window. So if you’re not really careful on a management level about how the assignment changes, you very quickly go from, “Yup, we’re going to make money on this engagement” to “How much am I writing off again?” It is that time of year when I get the memos from people that say “Time for the write-offs.” And it’s astonishing to me, first of all, how many there are. And when you ask people why it happened, invariably, the answer is, “Well, we started out doing X, but really, it turned out the client wanted Y.” And unless you deal with the client up front about how those changes are going to be negotiated, you have that kind of mission creep all the time, and it’s costly.

We had a small criminal engagement on a fixed fee, and we went over it. I saw it and didn’t deal with it in a timely fashion, and we ended up with a lot of extra time. The original fixed fee was based on some local lawyer doing a lot of the leg work, which he didn’t do. We stepped in and did it instead. We won. But we never communicated that the other guy didn’t do his job and that we did the work, so we ate the money.

Identify and schedule activities

You can’t plan a project until you know exactly what needs to be done. One C-level executive highlighted the problem:

Identifying and scheduling activities: that’s where I feel like we immediately fall off a cliff. Even if we do the budget down to the level of timekeeper and task code, I know very few people who out of the gate start managing the case that way. Instead, people say, “I’ll monitor how we do against the overall budget, and if I start to see that we’re eating up too much of the budget too quickly, I’ll stop, and maybe I’ll go back and dig into this stuff.” A lot of it is backwards looking, where once they’re off track people ask what happened. And then we dig into the task codes and find a motion that they budgeted X hours for. We say, “Look at all the hours.” Then they realize the problem, but it’s too late because they’re not doing it in real time.

Assess risks to the budget and schedule

Lawyers specialize in assessing and managing legal risks, but when it comes to risks that affect time and money they are not nearly as effective. One senior partner used a football analogy to stress the importance of this type of planning:

Years ago, when Bill Walsh was still the coach of the San Francisco 49ers, he had his thing where he scripted out the first 25 plays of every game, which he stuck to no matter what. If they were down 21 to nothing, he still stuck with the script until he got through the first 25 plays, because he found that then people panicked less. Those were the Super Bowl years. I just think that in litigation sometimes we are much too reactive. A project manager would help us be much more proactive. They would allow us to resist the temptation to say, “Gee, we’re really busy on this case right now. Let’s just bring in another timekeeper to bill 40 hours,” and then that timekeeper falls off, all of which has inefficiencies.

Manage quality

If a client sees that the drive for efficiency leads to an unacceptable drop-off in quality, he will find a new firm. In the words of two managing partners:

Making sure we keep the client happy on quality is still, in the end, the highest requirement.

If you can’t manage quality, nothing else matters. But, it’s not sufficient. That’s the new paradigm that lawyers need to get through their heads. Quality is not enough, and it’s not a tool for getting better client value.

Meanwhile, many lawyers are still married to the perfectionism they learned in law school:

We’re focused on delivering the highest quality, and we are turning over every stone. I think it should be about delivering just enough quality. We’re not there at all, because we’re just trying to deliver the highest quality, at some level, without caring about the cost. We haven’t gotten to the part where we don’t turn over every stone.

It is going to take time for some lawyers to get the message:

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but if anything we need to get better at focusing on what we need to do to meet the clients’ business objectives, not what we need to do to make ourselves feel good that we’ve just produced the greatest brief in the history of the law. And that is a monster hurdle to get over with successful lawyers at a top firm. Isn’t it amazing that you could produce a world class brief, and if it’s due at midnight tonight, you’ll work right up till 11:55, and you will be ready to file it and everybody will be high-fiving. But if at the last second, somehow there’s an extension for two days, you will work the next two days to try and make what was perfectly good, if not great, even better. That is what many lawyers do. It sometimes has absolutely no value to the client, but that’s what they’ll do.

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