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Jack Shepherd

Principal Business Consultant, iManage

Quotation Marks
" the ad-hoc method is a recipe for project chaos than a project management discipline. However, it often works well with smaller matters involving simple work streams."

Is it time to properly embrace project management?

Is it time to properly embrace project management?


Jack Shepherd explores the benefits of adopting alternative project management strategies

In my years as a practising lawyer, I never once worked with a project manager. To those outside the legal industry, it might seem bizarre that my firm was implementing multi-million dollar transactions without this kind of resource. But there was a good reason for it…often, lawyers are the project managers.

Now that I have transitioned away from my traditional legal position (probably, for good), I often look back at the way things are done and continue to be done in legal practice (despite my five year absence from full-on practice myself). a question that always sticks in my mind is: how could we improve project management in law?

I'll say at the outset, that dedicated project management roles are on the increase in legal projects. This seems especially to be the case for very large projects (e.g., mass claims or large-scale litigation) or discrete work streams that can be done by dedicated teams (e.g., due diligence or discovery). However, I am under no illusions that the majority of legal projects do not have dedicated project managers. 

Different approaches
In the midst of a complex dispute, transaction, or project, multiple legal and non-legal workstreams are in motion, creating a whirlwind of activities. However, it is crucial to establish a connection between these workstreams. There are two prevailing approaches have emerged to achieve this synergy.

The first is using trackers. A designated lawyer, often a junior, takes charge of a Word document that acts as the central hub. Typically, this document consists of a table with three columns: the name of the workstream or task, the assigned responsibility, and the current status. Various terms may be used, such as ‘CP checklists,’ ‘closing checklists,’ ‘closing agendas,’ ‘action lists,’ or ‘issues lists,’ but they all essentially refer to Word documents containing tables. It is common practice for teams to schedule regular calls to systematically review the tracker, line by line, in order to obtain updates on the progress of workstreams.

Secondly, there is the ad-hoc approach. In cases where a formal tracker is not employed, project management takes on a more flexible ad-hoc style. Each team member maintains their own individual task lists, typically jotted down on paper and rewritten daily to assess priorities and urgency. The exchange of emails becomes the adhesive that holds these individual task lists together, providing updates on the progress of workstreams. However, a critical drawback of this approach is the absence of a centralized source of truth, making it challenging to ensure consistency and accuracy across the entire project.

Arguably, the ad-hoc method is a recipe for project chaos than a project management discipline. However, it often works well with smaller matters involving simple work streams. The last thing clients want to see is lawyers over-engineer simple work streams with large trackers. The point is that not all legal work needs to be managed like a project.

With the tracker method, the person ‘holding the pen’ is essentially acting as a project manager. They are the gatekeeper to all changes made and will be over all work streams. As a trainee, I actually loved performing this role because it meant that I was the only person close to every detail. It meant I was the first port of call on questions, and I was often involved in client conversations because I knew a little about everything.

The tracker method is in a universal format:?Microsoft Word (or, sometimes, Excel). This means everybody can access and view it. It can be run through document comparison systems, meaning updates can be seen. Nobody needs a separate login or to learn to use a new tools.

The format of project management

There are, however, a few issues with these approaches. At a very basic level, the person ‘holding the pen’ on the tracker can spend more time on document formatting and comparisons than they can adding value to the project. If you've ever tried to un-merge cells in a Word table or encountered one of those tables where the lines sort of don't align, you'll know exactly what I mean.

As a regular ‘pen holder’ of trackers, I often myself acting just as a postman. I'd ask the team working on German tax law for their update. I'd chase them when I hadn't heard anything for a couple of days. Then when they responded, I would copy and paste what they wrote into the tracker. Hardly value-add, is it?

The format of these trackers presents another issue. When you are the person in charge of the tracker, you are often in charge of sending out documents or locating prior versions. But you cannot easily store documents in a Word document. You can have the work streams as well-organised as you like, but if it doesn't exactly reflect the structure in your document management system, you're going to run into trouble.

Furthermore, lawyers are not trained to be project managers. So, should we be thinking about using trained project managers who can use the right tools for the job?

Trained project managers

I have heard some great success stories in legal projects where project managers have been highly beneficial. Many people suggest that it was simply not possible to deliver complex projects involving lots of overlapping deadlines and urgent tasks- especially in situations that cross multiple time zones.

But many lawyers challenge the inclusion of project managers in legal work. Many of these relate to classic traits of a legal project, for example their ever-changing nature, the always-on culture and the all-consuming nature.

Many take stock of these things and conclude that legal projects are simply too difficult for project managers to become involved: they aren't always there, they don't understand the domain and they are too rigid in their ways. While I certainly agree that legal projects are different, I still think there is a huge place for project management, and project managers in legal.

Improving project management 

There are three things we can do to improve project management in legal. 

First, lawyers should use the right tool for the job. Beyond a Word document, teams can consider using co-authoring to help, but more forward-looking lawyers should try to avoid using Word altogether.

There are tools, such as the transaction management and case management, that are specifically tailored to legal projects. They also lead into other workflows such as bundling and signings, that will produce ancillary benefit. You don't even have to use tools only designed for lawyers. Your firm will likely have access to Microsoft Planner, for example. These compare favourably to a Word document because they are collaborative, can be used to link to documents and can proactively notify people of impending deadlines. 

Second, recognise that when lawyers are in-charge of things like trackers, they are carrying out a project management role. Project management is a discipline that requires training, and few if any law schools currently provide that training. 

There are two ways of meeting this challenge. Either train lawyers on the basic tenets of project management (e.g. developing/implementing project plans, managing budgets, resolving competing deadlines, assessing risks etc.) or train project managers in the legal domain.

Third, choose the right people for the job. As a lawyer, I spent huge amounts of time chasing people for updates, organising administrative processes (e.g., bundle preparation), giving fee updates?-?even organising catering for client meetings. Lots of people tell me that this is atypical of a modern-day lawyer, yet these kinds of tasks still regularly feature on lawyers' to-do lists. Even the senior ones.

A lawyer's instinct is often to grab and own all work, and to push all work to other lawyers. Maybe they should reverse that instinct, e.g., by only involving lawyers where necessary. My point is that not all aspects of a legal project are ‘legal.’ It might be useful to have lawyers running the legal parts, and project managers running things like bundling, budgets, due diligence and other repeatable/timeboxed exercises.

Final thoughts

Especially as a junior lawyer, much of what you do essentially boils down to project management?-?especially if you get involved in disputes and transactions. This can be a stressful and time-consuming exercise, that you often have to figure out for yourself on the job. 

I am convinced that by incorporating project managers and project management principles into legal work, lawyers can deliver a better result more cost-effectively and stress-free for everybody.

Jack Shepherd is principal business consultant at iManage