Four ways lawyers should improve project management – A litigator’s view

Four ways lawyers should improve project management – A litigator’s view


This guest post was written by Jonathan Cooper, a partner and trial lawyer at Tucker Ellis & West.  It is an edited version of an essay he wrote as a participant in our Certified Legal Project ManagerTM program, after completing readings from several leading project management textbooks.


Project managers are required to plan and to set objectives, up front, in detail. I think that we as lawyers fall down on this. Often we do not sit down, with our clients and with our teams, and discuss how to solve the issue. What is the objective? To win at all costs? To settle the case early? To settle the case between X dollars and Y dollars before the end of the year? We often dive right in and just start working.  The second area for improvement is that I do not believe that we as lawyers budget with the team in mind. Budgets are drafted with almost no thought to how to implement them or measure whether they are being followed or will be accurate. Budgeting needs to be done after a "road map" of the case has been at least sketched out. It then needs to be done in conjunction with the team of players involved.  Third, we do not do much to reassess how we are doing in the middle of the matter. We get some data, but we often do not get useful data. The budgeting that we do is seldom revised.  In fact it is seldom reviewed at any point after it is drafted.

We need to start letting the budget drive our decisions which means we need a better way to interact with it. This is difficult when you have team members that are not dedicated to only one project. We need to track time spent on a case or a matter and then put it in the right bucket.

Currently, most budgets are built along topical lines to set forth dollar values for various portions of the case. But billing software often does not work that way. It is therefore hard to extract what Associate A did on the XYZ case that relates to drafting the first set of interrogatories without examining time entries. The best solution that I can come up with is to create the budget using the ABA task and activity codes and to require billing according to those codes. That way, at least we would know what was billed to that particular task.

The fourth and last area for improvement is that I think we need to do a much much better job at the end to see if we achieved the client's goal.

Part of the problem is fed by the fluidity of litigation. You are never sure what the case will look like at the end. Facts will come out that were unanticipated. Rulings will be made. Strategic choices will be made. However, I think for the reasons outlined above, we make this harder than it should be.

Better planning and orientation would lead to a better understanding of the case and fewer surprises. The possible results could be narrowed and ranked and there could be certain "check offs" like a wide receiver and a quarterback learn depending on how the defense sets up.

With better budgets, and better ability to see where we are midstream with the budgets, we could have a much better chance of steering toward the expected or hoped for result. With better budgeting and better accountability, we would know whether we came in under budget.

This is not just a budget issue. We also need to do a better job of holding people accountable for doing tasks in a timely manner. If the plan says that associate A is going to draft the opening set of interrogatories within the first month, we ought to know if it happened on the right timeline as well as whether it was done "on budget." Without that you cannot really tell if you succeeded. All you may have is the sort of subjective belief that the client seemed pleased. Maybe the client is polite and doesn't really know.

The best thing for the client is to be shown that you did what you promised.  You changed strategy when events dictated and kept the client informed.  The result was within the anticipated range and the budget was met. Then clients will know what they got. 

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