Legal Project Management (Part 17): Warning signs

Legal Project Management (Part 17): Warning signs

This post was written by LegalBizDev Principal Steve Barrett.

In an hourly billing environment, few incentives exist to be alert for warning signs of threats to matter schedules or costs.  More than a generation of lawyers has practiced without the pressures of creating and tracking budgets.  With the recent client pressures on value, outright costs and timeliness, this is changing.

Even lawyers who are good matter planners and budget estimators rarely watch for early warning signs.  But business analysts see such signs as critical, and sometimes use the phrase "canary in a coal mine," as explained at one popular website:

Early coal mines did not feature ventilation systems, so miners would routinely bring a caged canary into new coal seams. Canaries are especially sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide, which made them ideal for detecting any dangerous gas build-ups. As long as the canary in a coal mine kept singing, the miners knew their air supply was safe. A dead canary in a coal mine signaled an immediate evacuation... Many business and political analysts use the term "canary in a coal mine" to describe a harbinger of the future. A melting glacier in Alaska, for example, may be described as a canary in a coal mine for global warming. One small event in an isolated area may not seem especially noteworthy, but it may offer the first tangible warning of a larger problem developing.

Just as miners needed to look for signs of silent, odorless, and lethal gases, lawyers in the "new normal" must be especially alert to precursors of trouble that can upset the best plans and budgets, including:

o Missed internal deadlines
o Over-researched tasks or issues
o Hours spent well in excess of pre-set quotas, without warnings
o Miscommunication
o Delays in people being released from prior or competing assignments
o Increased numbers - whether number of deponents, witnesses, experts, parties to receive copies, regulatory questions/clarifications, etc.
o Typos
o Missing time entries
o Last-minute personnel substitutions
o Unexplained absences
o Long silences
o Work delivered that doesn't reflect the project or matter goals

Many of these symptoms can be addressed or rectified in real time.  Improved communications are vital.  Too many problems are detected after it's too late to cure or correct them.  Solutions include:

o Improved time/dollar data updates, at least for the lawyer managing each matter, and maybe for the whole team - for example, "pre-bills" that are daily or weekly, not just monthly
o Daily time entry integrity.  Without it, projects can stumble and write-offs can result
o Group communications discipline
o To Do list tracking/status tools
o Schedule monitoring
o Better internal communications
o More efficient brief meetings
o Better client communications, starting with small communications, rendered steadily

Ultimately, these vital skills must become automatic.  One way to start is with project management training.

Read more on the Legal Business Development Blog.