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September 09, 2015

Legal project management software (Part 1 of 2)

By Jim Hassett, Steve Barrett, and Jonathan Groner

 

In our experience, when lawyers get serious about legal project management (LPM), the first question many ask is, what software should I use?

For most lawyers, that is the wrong question. You should start by looking for low-hanging fruit, and instead ask, “What can I do today to provide clients with greater value and to protect profitability?” You can’t know what software would help until you first figure out exactly what you need to do.

In our recent survey of AmLaw 200 managing partners and other leaders, we asked “which of these LPM issues do you consider most critical for client value and/or profitability in the short term?”:

  1. Set objectives and define scope
  2. Identify and schedule activities
  3. Assign tasks and manage the team
  4. Plan and manage the budget
  5. Assess risks
  6. Manage quality
  7. Manage client communication
  8. Negotiate changes of scope

As one managing partner summed it up:

There are two that I would rank the most critical: the setting of objectives and scope, and managing client communication and expectations. Those, to me, are linked at the hip. You really have to understand what the client’s expectation is, and you also have to have a good relationship to be able to tell them whether or not their expectation is real and achievable. A lot of things can happen in litigation that can change the scope of an engagement. You can run into difficult parties and unforeseen problems, and that’s where an understanding between you and the client has to be solid enough that you can have those kinds of conversations and work your way through it.

Most respondents agreed with him.  50% said defining scope was most critical and 38% named communication, making these the top two issues named in our survey.  Note that these two critical issues involve changing lawyers’ behavior, and buying new software will not help.

Scott Rosenberg is Corporate Counsel and Solution Group Leader at Project Leadership Associates (PLA), the largest US business and technology consulting provider focused on the legal market.  (Full disclosure:  PLA and LegalBizDev are strategic partners.)  One service they provide is helping law firms select and install software, but Scott does not recommend starting there with LPM:

The legal industry is undergoing change, and clients want law firms to have more formalized processes such as LPM. But law firms are just groups of individuals, and it’s much more important to start by changing individual behavior. That has proved very hard to do if the firm jumps right into new technology. You definitely need to learn to walk before you can run.

For any management problem, the solution will involve people, process and technology.  For LPM, process is the most critical element, not technology. Our approach is to view software as merely a tool to support best practices and behavioral changes by attorneys.

Indeed, focusing on software too soon can be a distraction.  Any law firm COO or head of IT will tell you that busy partners have a very limited bandwidth for learning new software or technology, as seen in past conversions of accounting systems, WordPerfect to Microsoft Word, GroupWise to Outlook, new voicemail systems, CRM, knowledge management, and other roll-outs. Most senior law firm administrators will also agree that partner appetites for the training and behavioral changes necessary with new technology fall somewhere between limited and non-existent.

The good news is that if you work at a large firm, you probably already have accounting software such as Elite, Aderant (formerly CMSOpen), or another system that has under-utilized capabilities to provide cost estimating aids, load matter budgets, task assignments and responsible parties, and provide periodic or ad hoc reporting on time/dollars worked/ billed/remaining/collected.  It may also have the ability to calendar and track matter sub-tasks and to generate budgetary or deadline alerts.

And let’s not forget the powerful calendaring, meeting scheduling, and individual or shared task and “To Do” tracking capabilities available even in the oldest versions of Outlook.

Once you master all the existing features, if your software is an older version, the firm may ultimately be required to upgrade or update the software at an additional cost or purchase add-ons to provide the scoping, budgeting, calendaring, tracking, and reporting you’ll need. But at least you won’t have to double-clutch when you want to integrate your project management approach with the firm’s existing accounting time and billing data.

These programs may not have the sophisticated critical path and dependency analysis capabilities that come with powerful project management packages, but they can output data and reports in formats usable in Excel or PowerPoint. In most cases, once the overall scope, detailed tasks, timeline, and responsibilities are delineated for a new matter, an experienced partner can quite easily see which tasks depend upon the completion of prior tasks and which do not.

Paula Uscian, director of quality assurance at PLA, offered this example:

One important step in LPM is simply to develop a checklist for all associates to do discovery in the same way, a way that ensures predictable results and saves considerable time, effort and money. But you can create this checklist in a Word document.  Similarly, Excel can do budgets and spreadsheets, and law firms already have those programs. In fact, some lawyers are becoming more aware of these capabilities, and using  Excel’s presentation and workflow tools.

When law firms were adopting knowledge management systems, we told them that the solution was not the technology. The technology was only a tool.  Precisely the same thing is true with LPM. There are very useful software programs available, but we advise clients to first look at the tools that they already have and to leverage the investments that they have already made in software, without buying anything new.

This series will be adapted for the fourth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, which will be published next year.

 

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