Legal project management (Part 15): The power of sharing

This post was written by Steve Barrett and Jim Hassett.

Any lawyer who has ever had a mentor knows how valuable it is to have access to information about what has worked in the past, and what hasn't.

But lawyers are busy, and sharing is not their long suit.  Knowledge is often passed on haphazardly, or not at all. 

Many firms are approaching this problem by instituting formal knowledge management programs.  Wikipedia's definition of the term suggests just how broad this movement has been: "Knowledge Management comprises a range of strategies and practices used in an organization to identify, create, represent, distribute, and enable adoption of insights and experiences." 

In June 2010, the Knowledge Management peer group of the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) published the results of their second survey of trends in legal knowledge management.  141 professionals responded to the survey which "was provided to the members of ILTA's Knowledge Management Peer Group, various local KM groups, and was also sent out through social networking channels by several KM bloggers and tweeters."

They were asked to name up to three primary areas of focus for their firm's knowledge management initiatives in 2010.  The top ten answers included two that are particularly relevant to this blog: 20% said "Supporting fixed fees and other AFAs" and 23% said "Supporting matter management (e.g., checklists, project planning, status tracking and reporting)."  Several of our clients have programs of this sort, such as Squire Sanders' Project Management Global Toolkit which is designed to increase efficiency by providing their lawyers with "one stop shopping" for engagement letters, forms, and more.

Whether firms have formal knowledge management programs in place or not, we've found that when it comes to project management, sharing successful tactics is very productive.  While many lawyers have never used the term "project management" nor read a book about it, they have in fact been acting as project managers since the first time they calculated a budget or assigned work to an associate. 

Many have developed forms, spreadsheets and a variety of "home brewed" tools and techniques to assist them in getting their own, their team or their practice group's work done better.  Some take these tools/techniques for granted, or assume that everyone else in the firm does the same. They may not realize that what's automatic to them may be totally foreign to others.

For example, we know of one partner whose secretary routinely gets from accounting a week-end "pre-bill" for all his active matters, and he reviews them on the train-ride home each Friday evening.  This way, he's better prepared to address surprises on Monday morning - or even to text queries to team members over the weekend - and to keep his matters on track.

Sharing even the simplest "Rube Goldberg"-like tools and techniques may be just what another partner needs to gain a better grasp of his/her pending workload.  This most basic level of legal project management costs far less than investing in project management software, hiring certified project managers, or training lawyers on a formal process improvement system.  It simply requires firms to collect information about best practices, and share them.  If a best practice works for one lawyer, it may work well for others.  And most or all of these ideas have already been integrated with the software lawyers already have and know how to use, whether it is the firm's existing time/billing software or the e-mail, calendaring and task tracking capabilities of long-time firm-wide programs such as Outlook and Lotus Notes.

When we begin working with firms on project management, one of the first things we usually do is to simply collect existing tools and templates, including certain types of engagement letters, budget spreadsheets, time/billing reports, and checklists. We then share these informal project management tools with seminar attendees and include the tools in a customized version of our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, for two reasons.  First, lawyers become more receptive to learning about project management best practices when they understand that this is not a new fad, but rather a refinement of tactics partners have been using for years.  Second, when lawyers have easy access to these documents, they can often adapt them quickly to their own practice. 

Thus we begin a steady stream of small improvements and client communications, which in many cases can create far more value than a costly "big bang" initiative.

Read Legal project management, Parts 1-14 on the Legal Business Development Blog.