Project management and the in-house lawyer

Project management, as a distinct discipline has, in recent years, become increasingly prevalent. From communications agencies to the construction industry, from public services to software development, the project manager, is more often than not, at the heart of the action.

The legal profession is no exception. Run an internet search for legal project management jobs, for example, and you’ll see that some big names are hiring. And not just the major law firms. Many household names also have a need for project managers in their in-house legal departments.

None of which has been missed by The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). In Section D1 of its Solicitor Competence Statement, the SRA requires solicitors to commit to continuing competence in areas that project managers in any industry would recognise:

  • Clarifying instructions so as to agree the scope and objectives of the work
  • Taking into account the availability of resources in initiating work activities
  • Meeting timescales, resource requirements and budgets
  • Monitoring, and keeping other people informed of, progress
  • Dealing effectively with unforeseen circumstances
  • Paying appropriate attention to detail.

Source: http://www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/competence-statement.page

As an in-house lawyer, you may find yourself having to operate as a project manager. As a GC you may need to recruit and manage one - or more.

So what does legal project management entail?

The Project Management Institute defines a project as:

  • · ‘… temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources’; and
  • · ‘… unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal.’

It follows then that project teams may bring together people from different parts of an organisation, with a multitude of different skills and behaviours, perhaps working in different cultures and time zones.

The project manager’s job is to get these people working together effectively so as to achieve the goals of the project.

Where to start?

With project management so widespread nowadays, it’s no surprise that a wide range of methodologies have been developed. Which one is right for you will depend largely on the type of project you’re managing and, to some extent, the industry sector your organisation operates in.

If you’re not trained or certified in a recognised methodology, follow these six key steps in legal project management.

1. Create your project initiation document

Once your organisation has decided it’s going ahead with the project, the project manager’s first task is to write the Project Initiation Document (PID). This doesn’t need to be long or detailed. It just needs to set out concisely and clearly:

  • The name of the project;
  • Who the project manager and main contacts are;
  • Who the project is for – for legal project management by in-house lawyers, this is usually an internal client;
  • Why the project is happening;
  • What the project will deliver;
  • Any significant risks that could affect the project, together with what you’ll do if one or more of them materialise;
  • Who you need on your project team and what resources, such as technologies, office space, etc the project will need;
  • The important project milestones, their target dates and acceptance criteria;
  • How – and how often - you’ll report to the stakeholders;
  • A budget estimate, based on everything you know at this stage;
  • Final project acceptance criteria – what constitutes a great result for all stakeholders; and
  • How you’ll manage any changes to the scope of the project once it’s up and running.

Once done and agreed by all involved, sign your PID and ask your internal client do so too.

2. Track your progress

From the outset of the project, commit to tracking your progress at a specified interval, say every Thursday morning. Then use that time to measure what’s been done against the milestones you listed in your PID.

Be brutally honest with yourself here. This is your early warning system for anything that could cause a significant delay or hamper your progress further down the line.

3. Adjust the plan if necessary

If at any point things start to diverge significantly from your plan, it’ll be your job as the project manager to get them back on track.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to ensure that you have the authority you need to make decisions that affect both the scope and the financials of the project before you start.

If you feel it necessary to take a course of action that’s beyond your authority, discuss the issues with your internal client or line manager as soon as you can.

4. Keep everyone updated

You’ll probably spend more time communicating with stakeholders than on any other aspect of legal project management. Report regularly to everyone involved using a format that will give them the essential details at a glance. Set out the key headlines at the top of the report and show whether they are:

  • On track or exceeding targets – no remedial action required;
  • Behind schedule / in slight difficulty but being managed – state how they’re being managed; or
  • In urgent need of action or a decision beyond your authority – state what decisions need to be made and what extra resources you’ll need.

Support every statement with hard data.

Also, list any risks you see ahead, along with your plan to avert or mitigate them.

Finally, summarise the report by reaffirming the milestone dates, along with a short commentary explaining any changes or alterations to the information in the PID.

Aim to submit the report weekly – or in line with your progress tracking intervals (see 2 above). Whatever frequency you agree on, keep to it. It’s better to send a report with very little in it than to skip it and leave stakeholders chasing you up for it.

Beyond your regular report, ask your stakeholders about their communication preferences. Some, for example, may insist on video conferencing, while others prefer telephone calls or email. Respect people’s preferences as far as you possibly can.

5. Get it signed off

Once your project is complete, ensure your internal client signs off on it. This confirms that you’ve done everything you promised to do and delivered on your commitments. Your organisation may have processes for this when serving its external clients, however this step is just as important when an in-house legal team serves an internal business unit.

6. Document what you learned

While the project is still fresh in your memory, document what happened and what you learned from it in a departmental legal project management learnings file. By adding to this document at the conclusion of every project, you’ll build up a valuable resource that you – and your colleagues – can consult when you need a precedent for a tricky situation.

As a minimum, get these details into the document:

  • The project name;
  • Its goals;
  • How well you met those goals in terms of time and expenditure;
  • What affected your ability to deliver on the goals;
  • What went well; and
  • What aspects of the project you’d handle differently next time – and how.

Conclusion

Legal project management is increasingly important across all sectors of the profession – including in-house. Give yourself the best platform for a successful project by creating a PID before you start. Then, keep your progress under regular review so as to deal with any problems as soon as they arise. Keep your stakeholders updated and always get them to sign off on your project when it’s completed. Finally, document your learnings for future reference.

To read the next article titled 'How to stay relevant in a changing legal landscape' click here.
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