We have all sat in the relative calm of a late Friday afternoon, ready to wind down the week, when our phone buzzes with the text that not-so-innocently asks “what’s the status?” Suddenly, everyone on the legal team is on high alert, scrambling in all directions trying to gather the data needed to send the latest update to the client or senior partner. “Who touched this last?” “Are they in the office?” “Do they still have the file?” “Did anyone ever send this draft to the client?” Collective hours and endless expletives later, a shaky response gets sent back and is all too often met with deafening silence. The precious hours wasted in this scenario are lost forever and, along with it, the potential for greater profitability. As late-night advertising would say: “There has to be a better way!”
Enter project management tools, which have been proven to improve team communication, reduce errors, and increase efficiency by opening accessibility and creating repeatable and measurable workflows that align your resources in a thoughtful manner. In essence, these tools have the power to reduce the stress of a status response from wholesale hours-long panic to a calm click of a few buttons. Ranging from software solutions to process methodologies such as Lean or Six Sigma, project management tools have been long available to the largest firms and, of late, have become more readily accessible to smaller firms.
This accessibility can be a boon for the legal industry, particularly as more reliable AI solutions enter the marketplace. While the benefits are great, it is important to remember that project management tools, much like legal technology solutions, are not magic beans. They are tools that need to be properly implemented and require a proper foundation to work. Additional tools laid upon an already-wobbly technology stack will likely cause that stack to collapse. Similarly, software solutions implemented in a firm that has not addressed the waste in its internal and external processes is, at best, setting itself up for disappointment in the performance of that software. These tools have the potential to be revolutionary for a firm, but will not be given the chance to reach their potential if they are not properly implemented.
One of the first steps in a successful implementation is cleaning your house – in some cases literally, but in most cases – figuratively. Dust off that desk, then look at the three primary areas that need to be addressed to maximize your likelihood of success: getting buy-in; assembling data; and auditing your finances.
Before you can embark on adopting new tools, you need buy-in across different levels of the firm, from those bringing in the business to those working on the business. Most important, however, is getting buy-in from the administrators and operations professionals supporting the business side of the firm. The administrative side needs to be engaged in the process. Not only will most of them be implementing and using the tools most directly, they are also the group that has historically had “things just happen to them” – meaning they seldom had a voice heard by firm leadership.
As for the lawyers, many lawyers already have a productivity mindset, but their definition of “productivity” is often limited to “activities that bring in revenue or clients.” Therefore, getting a lawyer to buy in to something outside of that box can be a hard sell. While the lawyer’s standard definition of “productivity” shows an admirable dedication to the pursuit of a client’s interest, it is often short-sighted and fails to recognize the pursuit of the firm’s or the attorney’s own interest. An investment of time – and usually minimal money – will invariably yield far greater amounts of time to dedicate to client pursuits or “making money.” While lawyers generally desire to focus on productivity, many spend that productive time inefficiently, be it unnecessarily searching for the latest status on a project, repeating processes at varying points throughout the day, or spending too much time on tasks that would be better suited for administrative or operational staff (because lawyers are known for needing to do everything ourselves). The lawyers’ view on being “productive” means they are doing anything related to servicing a client; when in fact, there is a great opportunity to optimize what it means to be “productive” by aligning the task at hand – whether it is in service of a client or in service to the firm – by making sure the right person does the right job at the right time using the right tools.
Two issues are important to consider when getting buy-in: who is influential; and what are the economic realities. First, locate your influencers. Take a look around your office and see who is open to new ideas. Usually these are the same team members who IT will install updates with first because they will provide quality feedback. If you do not have a dedicated IT team, consider who carries influence in the firm – who has a voice that leadership will listen to and who has a natural curiosity to try new initiatives – or who is the loudest voice of dissent? Include these team members early on in the project and let them spread the word for you.
Second, arm yourself with the economic reality of what being “productive” means for your office. Lawyers are known for decrying “we’ve always done it this way, so why should we change?” Economic realities can help shut this down. Today’s reality is that clients are increasingly taking the driver’s seat when it comes to legal spend and technology selections, placing lawyers under pressure to find efficient ways to handle their matters. Client pressures pushed many firms to adopt alternative fee arrangements. If you are one of the many firms that have adopted flat fees or other AFAs, carefully consider what changes, outside of invoicing and collection practices, your firm made to address the changes in fee structures. Did your firm adjust how work is assigned or identify time limits to complete certain phases? Has your accountant or accounting department walked through the margins you are seeing on these flat fees? If you aren’t looking at how much time is spent on each phase of a matter, how does your firm know you are priced correctly or that the firm is actually making money on that flat fee arrangement? If a firm is not making money, the knee-jerk reaction is that flat fees are garbage and we need to raise rates or get our client back on an hourly bill. This is where firms need to take a pause and come back to the question armed with data before making decisions like this.
Which leads to the second pre-work that needs to be addressed – data assembly. Much like lawyers use caselaw to support decisions on legal strategy, it is imperative for your firm to use data to drive and support decisions your firm’s business strategy. The most important data, at a high level, comes down to your most precious resources: your people, your time, and your tech. How are you spending them and how do you best quantify how you’re spending them?
Your Time: We all generally tend to have a biased recollection when it comes to how we think we are spending our time, but the reality of how we are actually spending our time tends to be quite different when we review, on an aggregate level, the hard data on the time each person is spending on certain tasks. A calendar audit is the most straightforward method to assess each person’s individual productivity. Odds are if you are at a large firm, this data is most likely already available for attorneys and probably for administrative staff as well. If you are not at a large firm, generating a calendar audit is easy enough, particularly with the advent of AI solutions (including tools within Outlook) but these require reliable entry and tracking of time on the front-end, otherwise you end up with garbage-in-garbage-out. Even absent AI tools, these audits are not difficult to create. However, if you have a manual calendar system, an audit will be cumbersome and time consuming. At a high level, all you need to do is collate your calendar entries for legal and administrative matters. Look at the amount of time you actually spend on each type of administrative task and each phase of a legal matter. Compare that to what you think you are spending on these tasks and decide where too much time may be getting spent on truly non-productive activities. A couple of notes on this process. It should go without saying, but the more micro-level you record your time entries, the more micro-level your data will be and the more general your entries, the more general (read worthless) your data will start looking. Secondly, if you are not entering your time for administrative work, this should be implemented and collated when you have a critical mass of data – call it a month at least to be a reasonable sample. In the end, however, the results will be telling, if not shocking.
Your People: Your people are your firm’s most valuable resources. To optimize the firm’s performance, your people, like all resources, need to be assigned tasks in a logical and efficient manner. In order to know who should do what by when, the firm should conduct a thorough assessment of each person’s skills, expertise, and desire. The data collection here is a bit softer than with a calendar audit and starts with talking to each individual, learning what they view as their strengths and weaknesses. Follow that up by talking to their coworkers and your own experience to confirm their own views. Taking these views, align this with the tasks that need to be completed on each matter or to run the firm. Compare these interviews with information from HR (to the extent allowable) on performance in certain areas. The goal is to allocate tasks in a way that maximizes the possibility for each team member to contribute in a way that matches their talents and ability to operate efficiently.
Senior attorneys and firm leaders should be aware of who in the firm are the “go-to” people in various areas so they can delegate tasks appropriately, with consideration of individual strengths and workload. Where possible, outsource non-core legal functions, such as administrative tasks, compliance, or research, to external professionals or legal service providers. This allows lawyers to focus on the core aspects of the case.
Tech Audit: All too often, firms have brought in the latest tech solution thinking it is a panacea. While numerous wonderful tech solutions can strongly augment project management, many firms commit without clear purpose and goals, and end up buying to solve one problem and wind up creating three new problems. Before bringing on any new tech, get focused on your purpose and audit what you currently have in-house. Is there an existing solution in place that will do the thing you need done? Some firms have locked into a year-long agreement then later discovered that an Excel macro could have done the same thing with less problems in implementation, training, and ramp-up. The importance of this is to recognize the tools you have and ask your users what problems they are individually and collectively having. The right solution will solve many problems but, outside of true custom-built solutions, you will likely never solve all of them. The net effect of the tech audit should reveal where your gaps need to be filled and what your true needs are from a tech perspective.
Money: The third primary area to address is your money. While you should have an audit function in place anyway as part of your accounting or regulatory requirements, the audit you want to run here is focused on where your money is going – what buckets are getting the most – what investments are available?
From a compliance perspective, regular audits will uncover any discrepancies or errors and allow them to be promptly rectified. From a project management perspective, auditing provides firm leadership with valuable insights into their financial position and performance. By analyzing audited financial statements, they can make informed and strategic business decisions. Audits shed light on areas that require improvement and identify opportunities for growth.
This is just the minimum requirement prior to launching a project. Before implementing any project management tools, the firm needs to minimally scrutinize and verify financial records, transactions, and accounts to ensure accuracy, transparency, and compliance with accounting and professional responsibility rules and regulations. The ideal state is aligning your cashflow and pipeline with your process improvement plans, which should all be tied to the firm’s short and long-term goals.
All legal matters should be treated as legal “projects,” and project management tools as a way to help your firm run more efficiently on both the matter management side as well as the business side. But proper implementation is critical to maximize the likelihood of success as well as optimizing the process strategies. Proper implementation includes cleaning your house before launching a set of tools that will be set up to fail if they are merely dropped on top of your existing processes. Some of the greatest house cleaning tools: getting buy-in and arming yourself with data collection and audits, will set you up for greater success. Taking the time upfront and start your implementation properly will relieve the panic your team will feel on the next Friday afternoons when you get that “what’s the status” email.
About the Author
Tim O’Brien is an attorney and the founder and managing principal at Eighty 20 Partners, which helps lawyers embrace strategic process improvement changes. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org