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 5 year absence from full-on practice myself). One of the things that always sticks in my mind is, “how could we improve project management in law?”.
How is project management done 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 vast, vast majority of legal projects do not have dedicated project managers.
On a complex dispute, transaction or project, a bunch of legal and non-legal workstreams will be flying around. There needs to be some sort of glue between these workstreams. To achieve this, there are two prevailing practices:
- Trackers. A lawyer (usually a junior one) “holds the pen” on a Word document. This often contains a table that has three columns: (1) name of work stream or task, (2) responsibility, and (3) status. You might hear of things like “CP checklists”, “closing checklists”, “closing agendas”, “action lists” and “issues lists”. They are all the same thing — Word documents with tables in. It is common for teams to arrange regular calls to run through the tracker, line-by-line, to get updates on work streams.
- Ad-hoc. Where a tracker is not deployed, project management is done in more of an ad-hoc manner, with each team member holding their own individual task lists (most often, in pen and paper and re-written each day as a way to assess priority and urgency). The glue between these individual task lists are emails with updates to work streams. But crucially, there is no central source of truth.
Arguably, the ad-hoc method is more of 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 that 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 found that I was 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 etc). 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.
Tools exist that can mitigate some of these issues. At a very basic level, firms with a modern document management system can turn on “co-authoring” for the tracker document. This means that anybody can make changes to it. This can mean that complex German tax updates are written into the tracker itself. This might mean the person in charge of the tracker sees less of the detail (there’s probably something to say for being the gatekeeper of any and all changes made to the document). But in my view, this is a trade-off worth having to stop lawyers being mere typists.
Transaction management tools (see, e.g. iManage Closing Folders, Legatics, Litera Transact etc.) solve both of these issues. They largely replicate the tracker format online, allowing a wider group of people to make edits while also becoming an access point for the underlying documents. In my view, these platforms should be a complete no-brainer for transactional lawyers to use and I struggle to understand why they are not universally adopted. (Actually, I do understand the reasons, but that’s not for this article).
However, all of these techniques still rely on lawyers running the show. And lawyers are not trained to be project managers. So, should we be thinking about using trained project managers?
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 timezones.
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:
- Ever-changing. It is often challenging to map out and anticipate every step in a legal project. For example, it is not possible to predict how the other side is going to react to something in a complex dispute. Many struggle with inflexible project managers who do not understand the nature of the work and try to make impossible predictions.
- Always-on. We all know that lawyers work hard. This can be for a variety of reasons, including culture, client expectation and tight deadlines. It often means that status updates or documents need to be sent around in the middle of the night. Some lawyers are scared of involving project managers who might “bunk off” after 5pm.
- All-consuming. An agile software development project often assumes that when faced with challenging demands, you cannot compromise on quality. Instead, you can extend timeframes, increase budget or reduce scope. But in legal projects, timeframes are often impossible to extend. Client dynamics mean that law firms are often expected to absorb increased costs. And with legal work product, the line between “complete” and “incomplete” is often clearer than it might be for, say, a decision on a new feature in a software build. (There is an interesting discussion to be had around the existence of “minimum viable product” in legal work product, but I will save that for another day).
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.
Three ways to improve project management in legal
There are three things we can do to improve project management in legal.
First, lawyers should use the right tool for the job. There are a few stages of evolution here:
- Microsoft Word (or Excel). It works for basic matters, but for all the reasons listed above, it does not scale to more complex ones. Teams can consider using co-authoring to help, but more forward-looking lawyers should try to avoid using Word altogether.
- Legal specific tooling. There are tools, such as the transaction management tools listed above, and case management tools, that are specific tailored to legal projects. They also lead into other workflows such as bundling and signings, that will produce ancillary benefit.
- Non-legal specific tooling. You don’t 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 very 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 (1) to grab and own all work, and (2) 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/time-boxed exercises.
Especially as a junior lawyer, a lot 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.
An abridged version of this article was originally published in the Solicitors Journal