In an earlier posting here, on halt.org, we talked about Tips for Lawyers to be Healthy and Happy. One tip discussed time management, something that is woefully underrated. In this blog, we thought we would dig deeper; leveraging some insights specifically from the world of project management.
We can all agree that any assignment given to a legal team is a project. While it will involve some aspect of the law, be it a trial, contract, disposition, or negotiation. In essence, it still consists of the key elements of a project: tasks, resource allocation, deadlines, and deliverables. These are the bread and butter of project managers. And while it helps that project managers know their particular industry, for example, a building project manager knows engineering. This helps in that it saves time understanding a particular task, spotting dependencies, and allocating the correct resources.
The same holds true for a legal matter. Having experience with the law, and in particular, the relevant sub-disciplines: say probate or mergers & acquisitions, helps to prioritize and estimate the time required.
The Key Elements Of Project Management
Being able to manage a project has grown in importance in the modern world. While in the Dickensian past management was the preserve of a few, today to survive in the corporate world one has to have more than just rudimentary organizational skills.
The critical skills are being able to:
- Parcel up work into tasks
- Estimate the time required to deliver that task
- Determine the best resource allocation to complete the task
- Monitor progress made on the task
- Clear the path in advance of the task
- Orchestrate resources to rendezvous
- Escalate exceptions and unexpected requirements
There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time. The thought behind this is something most of us learn early on. While complex problems are daunting, by decomposing them into smaller, simpler steps we find them approachable. The James Webb Space Telescope cost billions to build, and years to make. But it was not a single task. We can well imagine it was broken up into thousands of sub-projects and those, in turn, were also split until they reached a level that a resource could address and complete.
By setting up achievable tasks, we reduce the stress and improve the estimation of effort. Likewise, we benefit from being able to identify the resources and time required and can plot the dependencies allowing for prioritization.
Many think that simple commitment to a task is the key ingredient to its completion. But no amount of enthusiasm will compensate for a lack of experience and/or skill. That being said, resources are often allocated because they are the only people or contractors available.
When resources are untrained, one needs to add a buffer to gain at least the rudimentary skills to perform the task. Any estimate to do a task by one who is inexperienced must be revisited periodically as that resource gains awareness of both the area and what is demanded to do the task.
As mentioned in the introduction, good project managers know their profession and should be both better able to estimate the time, and also, they can coach those they manage who lack experience. When allocating resources, judge the level of skill and include coaching in the resource allocation.
While experience helps, the perspective of those planning a case is not necessarily the same as the resources assigned. If those tasked have the requisite skills and experience, then they should be the ones that give the estimates.
If not, then those with experience should estimate and also include coaching and training. Consider whether the task itself should be broken up into both a skill acquisition set of tasks and the actual application.
The time required should feed into the downstream, dependent tasks. And by following down the line(s) one should be able to forecast milestones. Milestones are critical both for sponsor reporting (be it a client or the senior partner) as well as for motivating resources.
Some project managers find that setting deadlines fail to deliver. If the team continually misses deadlines, malaise sets in and an overall pessimism will engulf the case. Instead, managers focus on setting specific tasks for a particular day or 2. This is a core feature in the successful software development, scrum methodology.
It is also important when managing any kind of endeavor to take into account the other mundane drains on time: administration, reporting, vacation, personal issues, and illness.
There are a host of ideas on how to keep a team actively engaged. Some industries include bonuses or time off. For those in the legal profession, recognition is a major allure. Many derive a sense of pride from participating on the team that delivered a case.
However, that only comes at the end. Throughout the daily grind of a project, those leading have to ensure that individual tasks are completed. This instead requires a sensitivity to the workload and pressures individuals experience. Managers need to evaluate the subtle messages emitted and mitigate dejection and frustration.
It is a myth to think that bravado will win the day. The beatings will continue until morale improves and do not deliver improved productivity; such only works in short stories.
So instead, outlets for pressure need to be built into the project plan. And, those managing a case need to listen carefully, possibly break up tasks, and also reassure those feeling stressed that the objectives are achievable.
A good project manager is akin to the conductor of an orchestra, ensuring that each element is in harmony, matches the tempo, and hands off to the next musician (i.e. task). This depends upon tracking progress against the plan and ensuring that those, dependent on earlier tasks are ready to start.
Managers also need to scout the approaching terrain for challenges, bridging unexpected challenges (that were not in the plan) before such brings the entire endeavor to a halt.
Atop all of this, managing any kind of endeavor must take into account the other mundane drains on time: administration, reporting, vacation, personal issues, and illness.
Contact with reality always reduces the best-made plans. Most project managers accept this and set about creating a culture that, even daily, assesses what was accomplished, and trawling through the incomplete task list, re-prioritizes what is outstanding.
A well-trained team will do such for themselves, reporting slippage so that others can also re-prioritize. This should filter back to the sponsors, and even if it is bad news, the transparency should foster trust.
It is not unusual to either have too much or too little work. It is rare to have just the right balance. That is reality and while that is beyond our control, what we can control is how we embrace those challenges. Hopefully, the above ideas, applying project management techniques, can help.