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Implementing project management in your firm: A few tips to guide you

Project Management Flow ChartMarch 2, 2015 | Peggy Gruenke | Practice Management Consultant | ABA Legal TechShow Speaker 2015

Project Management = Matter Management

Project Management is quite the buzzword these days. The ABA recently published a new book, The Power of Legal Project Management, which has resulted in a number of articles and new CLE programs related to this topic. Legal Project Management is a very broad and deep topic, (the book has 517 pages!), the focus of this article is to create the mindset that legal project management is nothing more that matter management. I’ll explain the basic components of matter management and how it can bring a competitive advantage to your firm.

While Legal Project Management (LPM) has been adopted by most larger firms, a new trend is developing where smaller firms are looking to improve profitability, billing realizations and gain a competitive advantage by designing and using matter management tools. The practice areas best fit for project management are litigation cases and even larger transactional cases. Over the next 5 to 10 years, matter management tools will become a normal way of doing business just like today, how client intake and fee agreements are part of every current law firms’ tool bucket.

At the basic level, matter management involves defining, planning, executing and evaluating. The reason it is growing rapidly, is it can be a competitive advantage in the following areas:

  • Enhance current client relationships by showing them your proactive approach to handling their matters
  • It provides a better way to monitor fees and costs
  • Improve communication with clients and eliminate surprises
  • Deliver greater value to clients by reducing clients’ total legal costs
  • Reduce the average cost of certain types of cases through the development of processes
  • Manage and share the risk
  • Increase profitability and realization rates
  • Improves financial reporting because you are capturing more and better data – key metrics
  • Develop better internal business practices and increase efficiency
  • Build good processes to increase productivity
  • Gain a better understanding of how you are getting things done

All of these benefits lead to gaining a competitive edge in today’s increasingly competitive environment. And the really cool thing is that these tools level the playing field between the bigger law firms and the smaller ones. Everyone can implement some form of matter management tools.

Manage the project: Scope out the project

This step includes developing a plan that collects the core information you will need in order to know what success looks like. This plan is not cast in stone. It is a workable, breathable document that may need to be re-scoped as the matter evolves. This is an important mindset to have about the plan. It must be agile.

Some questions to be asked and discussed with the client include:

  • What is the business problem we are working together to solve?
  • What are the important deadlines for both the client and the firm and how will you internally manage these deadlines and accompanying tasks?
  • Breakdown the case into stages
  • What people will you use to complete each stage of the project? Assign a cost to each resource
  • Estimate the time required at each stage and the cost for each resource being used at that stage
  • Will you be using a fixed price, hourly rate or a hybrid alternative billing options? Maybe each stage will use a different billing method. Provide the client with different “value packages” to choose from. With different process attached depending on the value and benefits provided.
  • What costs are involved?
  • What major risks can you foresee and maybe avoid? Discuss and document these up front.
  • And a very important component is to agree on what you won’t do

TIPS Use technology to enhance the plan process:

Either in Word, Excel or Adobe, create a document template/form that contains all of these key discussion points and has areas where both the client and the firm can enter information. It is important to be very transparent with this initial plan. Use document collaboration tools to share this plan so that all parties have easy access to viewing and updating the progress. Box.net has wonderful document collaboration tools, through a very secure portal (way better than emailing documents back and forth.)

Manage the time

Use a timeline. Visual tools are powerful. The old saying “seeing is believing” has never been more meaningful than with this step of your matter management. The timeline should outline each phase of the matter, expected deliverables and deadlines.

TIPS A few nice tools for building timelines are:

  • LucidChart
  • Smartsheet
  • Visio from Microsoft (not free)
  • Or good old Excel has some nice timeline templates

Another aspect of matter management that is rarely discussed is the need to manage your own productivity and become more strategic and intentional about what you are going to do and how you are going to do it. Identify what interruptions are preventing you from reaching your “flow” or that seemingly effortless production of high-quality work for your client.

Manage the client: What are the client expectations

This set of questions is part of you master matter plan document and enhances the engagement by encouraging open discussion about items that are most often avoided and never addressed. Read through these questions and you will probably realize you internally think about these but never formally document them.

  • What outcome is the client expecting?
  • What does the budget look like? Offering a budget is not he same as negotiating a fixed rate. It is simply an agreed upon guideline to be measured and monitored.
  • In the client’s eyes, what will success look like? Success may have many different faces. For example, this could include:
    • Turnaround time
    • Cost savings expected
    • Performance expectations
    • Budget tolerance
    • Service expectations
  • How will you communicate?
  • What are 3 or 4 critical success factors absolutely part of the client’s expectation of success? This question is really important for the client to verbally communicate to you and discuss. These 3 or 4 factors will become core to measuring the success of the matter and the overall profitability.

Manage and execute the plan

Once the plan is written, stages defined, resources assigned, and timelines created, how are you going to implement the plan and keep things on track? With the increased demand from clients for predictability and shared risk, implementing a matter management process lets a firm be more proactive when communicating with clients.

A good place to start, without having an expensive project management tool in place, is to think about it in terms of task management using the matter timeline. Task assignments and accountability are crucial to dividing work up among resources. This division of work by resources is also an integral part of managing the profitability of the matter. One of the biggest causes of rework and unplanned write-offs relate to ineffective task assignment. Make sure you have the right resources tied to each task with expected deadlines.

  • Create descriptive and attainable tasks
  • Assign tasks to the resources identified in the plan
  • Create task deadlines that tie into the timeline
  • Monitor task statuses
  • Capture all time spent on every stage/task of the matter. This is a very critical piece of the puzzle and if you do not have a good system in place for entering time, you might as well ditch the plan and the use of project management in your firm
  • Who will be responsible for monitoring the performance and ensuring the matter is on schedule and the client is alerted in a timely manner if conditions change

Evaluate the project

Like other small businesses, many law firms don’t evaluate their business situation in real time. Either they review their results after they’ve occurred or not at all.

By collecting data up front and during the process, a firm now has tools to evaluate the matter and make better decisions for future similar cases.

It is also important to setup an evaluation process with the client. How will the client evaluate you on successful completion of the matter? Knowing how the client defines value and how they will measure and determine it is a crucial piece to your plan.

How is matter management a competitive advantage?

In an initial meeting with a client regarding a litigation matter, from a simple eviction process to a divorce or complex wrongful discharge matter, sharing your matter management process with your clients sends a message that you are a savvy businessperson in addition to being a great lawyer. It shows you have adopted business processes within your firm that set you apart from the law firm down the street.

Also, today’s clients have an enhanced communication expectation and the law firms that can live up to these expectations will rise to the top.

For firms using matter management tools, it allows them to prevent a matter from going over budget without first communicating it to a client and controls or eliminates write-offs, an area that has a huge affect of profitability and realization rates.

Matter management is actually much simpler for a solo or small law firm to set up and implement. The team is smaller and easier to manage.

In the end, with a written plan, expectations are managed, project scope is clarified and documented, and each phase of the matter managed to a budget. You will end up with a happier client, fewer write-offs and a more profitable engagement. It’s truly a win-win.

TIPS A few project management tools

  • Basecamp is the Goldilocks of managing projects–not too much or too little, but just right (integrates with Clio)
  • Mavenlink (integrates with Clio)
  • Clio has a wonderful task and matter management system built into the software and the ability to create custom workflows and it integrates with a lot of other project management software
  • Asana (Free and integrates with Clio)
  • Smartsheet is a dream come true for Microsoft Excel fans

Like all project management software and apps, you get what you put into it. My advice: really try a system, and if you don’t like it, move on. So for 2015, make one of your goals testing the water in the area of matter management.


I am owner of LegalBizSuccess, a company whose mission is to help solo and small-firm lawyers build better businesses. I am active in the ABA GPSolo Division, where I  head up the technology committee and am vice-chair of the national conference committee. Follow me on Twitter @PeggyGruenke.

LegalBizSuccess GPSolo Technology Committee, Chair | GPSolo National Solo & Small Firm Conference Committee, Vice Chair

pgruenke@legalbizsuccess.com