Just a decade ago, legal project management was unheard of. Whether you were in-house counsel or an outside lawyer, the lawyer responsible for the case managed the tasks and people involved in it.
But client expectations have evolved. Businesses use project managers and project management software internally to keep their product development, marketing campaigns, and other important initiatives on time and under budget.
Clients have seen the benefits of applying the principles of project management to these processes, including improved efficiency, greater cost-effectiveness, fewer mistakes, and better communication. And now they expect to get the same benefits in their legal matters.
Not every law firm uses legal project management principles. But those that do may have an easier time meeting deadlines and keeping clients informed.
Read on to learn some of the key concepts and benefits of applying legal project management processes and personnel to your law firm’s work.
What Is Legal Project Management?
Project management is the process of coordinating your firm or legal department during a large, complex project. When you have multiple people working on a project with multiple tasks to complete, project management can ensure that your people, time, and money get allocated in the most efficient way possible.
Legal project management also helps you visualize the project’s flow so you can make sure that tasks get completed within the time and budgetary constraints. In complex projects like a corporate merger or class action lawsuit, you might even have multiple law firms working on the project.
A legal project manager and legal project management software can coordinate tasks within your firm and between firms.
A project manager can provide input or guidance to those working on the project and improve communication internally and with the client. They can also make sure the workload is allocated efficiently. If legal research on an issue has progressed more slowly than expected, the project manager can add paralegals, law clerks, or lawyers to that task assignment.
Historically, the lead attorney would manage matters associated with a project. They would assign tasks to other partners or associates who report directly to them. After receiving their assignments, the other lawyers would be on their own to complete their tasks.
They would also coordinate among themselves if their work depended on someone else completing a task. By having someone with the sole role of managing the project, you can work out conflicts and dependencies before they create a logjam.
Reasons to Use Legal Project Management in Law Firms
Clients like the results that firms and in-house legal teams produce when they use project management techniques. Project management gives clients:
- Predictability in the time and costs of a complex legal project
- Efficiency in the allocation of resources, giving the client more bang for their buck
- Transparency in what the lawyers have done and still need to complete
Involving the client in the planning and execution of the legal work brings greater satisfaction. Instead of sending their concerns into a black box with no understanding of when or what will come out, clients can adjust their expectations based on the tasks, their time frames, and their costs.
Client communication also creates a feedback loop where your team can adjust its work based on client input. If a client wants you to spend more time on a specific issue, you can adjust your project planning.
Not all benefits of legal issues project management belong to your client. Your law firm or legal department will also reap the benefits of using legal project management principles to coordinate projects, including:
- Fewer or no missed deadlines
- Better internal communication about the project timeline
- Greater accountability for team members and their progress
- Fewer surprises in the work or on the path to completing the work
By creating a project plan ahead of time, you can even build in time for senior lawyers or the lead attorney to review work before it gets filed. This can reduce your firm's exposure to court sanctions or legal malpractice lawsuits.
Skills Required for a Good Legal Project Manager
Law schools don’t teach project management for lawyers. Some attorneys learn how to manage matters from a mentor or law firm that uses management principles. But most lack formal training in management principles.
Practitioners approaching project management for the first time could benefit from outside help, including:
- Hiring a legal project manager
- Acquiring legal project management software
- Receiving legal project management training
One attractive option for many firms and in-house lawyers is to hire a legal project manager. By bringing in someone who specializes in managing projects, the lawyers and legal staff can focus on providing legal services rather than learning project management skills.
Some skills you should look for when hiring a project manager include:
Social skills aren’t always learned. In many cases, they’re just part of someone’s personality. A few personality traits beneficial for project management include:
Legal project managers understand the principles of managing large and complex projects. But they don’t necessarily know the law in a firm's legal field.
A good project manager will work with lawyers and paralegals to create a tailored project plan instead of rigidly applying general project management principles. The resulting plan will satisfy the constraints of the law firm’s policies as well as the legal processes and rules that apply to the project.
A project manager must have the ability to look at a legal process with a critical eye. Project managers often find better ways of doing things by challenging how law firms and corporate law departments traditionally handle matters.
And as managers learn more about the substantive law and procedural rules in a legal field, they will have a greater ability to refine and improve legal workflows.
Working with lawyers and the law can frustrate even the most patient person. But legal project managers provide support to essential work whether your lawyers are litigating a class action lawsuit or taking a client’s business public.
As you develop and execute your project plan, you will run into problems. A good project manager will work through them to produce an outcome that meets the client's expectations.
Soft skills are those that a person develops through repetition and practice. Some important soft skills for a legal project manager include:
A project manager must communicate effectively throughout the project planning process. As they develop and implement a plan, they’ll need to get and keep the project team, from the new associates to the senior partners, on the same page.
Finally, the project manager will need to communicate with clients to manage expectations and maintain transparency.
A project manager will have to take requests and demands from lawyers and clients and find a solution to accomplish the project’s goals. This is where establishing clear project objectives can help.
The project manager must provide a plan that accomplishes the client’s goals. But at the same time, they shouldn’t derail the lawyers’ work to chase something outside the project’s scope.
Leaders set a path and get people to follow it. Leadership requires many of the skills already covered.
A project manager must set clear goals and waypoints to reach them. They must communicate with those who have tasks to accomplish along the way. And they need to manage expectations for what the team can accomplish based on its resources.
A good project manager needs organizational skills, including:
- Creating logical workflows
- Managing multiple tasks and people at the same time
- Holding lawyers to a time and resource budget
Once they organize the tasks involved in a legal process, the project manager must communicate the plan to the lawyers and clients and monitor the project to keep everything on track.
The days of yelling and screaming to get results have passed. An effective manager must understand the people working on a project and find ways to motivate them.
A manager must also resolve conflicts that arise. Whether the conflicts are personal or professional, a project manager must find ways to keep everyone focused on the project instead of dwelling on disagreements.
A good legal project manager anticipates problems before they happen and moves proactively to solve them. For example, if one of the project’s lawyers has surgery scheduled, the project manager will have to create a backup plan in case that lawyer can’t complete their assigned tasks.
A legal project manager also needs to react to problems and create solutions in real-time.
A legal project manager can acquire hard skills through training and education. Some hard skills for effective project management include:
Knowledge of Legal Project Management Software
A legal project manager must know how to implement a legal project management system, including software for organizing and managing people and tasks. Legal project management tools provide a platform for project management and communication for legal teams.
The legal project manager must set up the system, create the task cards and project timeline, and train the team members in using the software.
Planning requires a manager to think through the sequence of steps required to accomplish project goals. The manager must have enough knowledge to understand the components of a legal project and which steps depend on others.
For example, filing a lawsuit requires:
- Getting a signed retainer agreement
- Investigating the claims
- Identifying evidence to support the claims
- Researching legal issues
- Drafting pleadings
- Filing the complaint
A plan that skips any task will not achieve its goals.
Lawyer work schedule is one of the most difficult processes in legal projects. A project manager must understand how long each task will take and the lawyers and staff needed to complete the task. They must then schedule around the work already docketed to the lawyers and staff members.
Legal project management software provides the ability to create a Gantt chart, which gives a visual representation of tasks, their durations, and their dependencies.
Time management has a few components. A good legal project manager must build enough time into the plan to produce high-quality results in the client's legal matters. But they must also manage the amount of time lawyers spend on tasks.
Missing deadlines can adversely affect a client’s case, so the manager should avoid putting the lawyers in a position where they might fall short.
Legal project managers have two budgets to juggle. First, there’s the client’s budget. If the lawyers told the client a motion and hearing would not exceed $15,000, the project manager must stick to that.
Second, there’s the firm’s budget. Law firms are businesses with limited resources. A manager can’t throw every lawyer at a project and expect the firm to make money. They have to create a plan that accomplishes the task while still turning a profit.
Tasks are the steps that the firm must accomplish to complete a project. Task management includes creating those steps, assigning them to the right lawyer or staff member, and monitoring their progress.
It also means making sure that everyone is operating on schedule. This is particularly important when other tasks depend on a task that’s running late. A single weak link could hold up an entire project.
Useful Legal Project Management Software
Whether you hire a legal project manager or simply want to incorporate project management principles into your firm’s planning, management software can help you implement planning processes. Some useful software packages include:
- ClickUp — allows managers to create task cards, assign them to team members, and track their progress
- Google Docs — uses cloud-based document creation and editing that works perfectly for collaboration
- Due Time Tracking — a time tracking and billing platform that improves billing transparency, resource management, and budgeting
- Trello — provides team members with virtual bulletin boards with task assignments, timelines, productivity metrics, and calendars
- Asana — helps manage projects with customized rules and templates displayed on timelines, boards, and dashboards
- Monday.com — allows you to assign tasks from customized workflows and monitor project progress and budgets via dashboards
These platforms provide general project management tools rather than tools customized for legal work. You can also find project management software designed for use by the legal industry that includes features to manage client relationships and legal documents.
Do You Need to Be a Lawyer to Become a Legal Project Manager?
Legal project managers come from all backgrounds. Some have a legal background while others have a business management background. Since legal project managers do not practice law, they do not need to have a law degree or be admitted to the bar. Many do not even have prior experience working for a law firm.
But lawyers, paralegals, and legal secretaries who enter the legal project management field have an advantage. They understand workflows for legal work.
A business manager with decades of experience managing complex matters might know management. But that person might take weeks or months to learn about the legal work performed by a law firm.
Suppose that a firm has a specific practice area like intellectual property. The processes for preparing and filing a patent application are different from those for preparing and filing a trademark application. And the process for litigating a patent infringement differs substantially from the process for other disputes.
While you don’t need to be a lawyer to become a legal project manager, prior experience in the legal services industry will help you get up to speed quickly.
You will understand the roles of each staff member and lawyer on the project team. And with some background in the legal industry, you will understand what clients expect from their law firms.
Do Lawyers Really Need Specialized Project Management?
The answer to this, in characteristic lawyer fashion, is yes and no. The principles of project management always stay the same.
You need to develop a plan that accomplishes the project objectives while staying within the constraints of the project’s scope. All projects, whether they involve a legal issue or not, have deadlines, budgets, and personnel limitations.
As a result, generalized project management tools can apply just as easily to legal projects as other projects. Launching a new product requires a sequence of dependent tasks just as filing a lawsuit does. On the other hand, lawyers deal with specialized language, rules, and processes unique to the law.
For example, docketing deadlines is a critical part of any legal project. If a lawyer misses a deadline, courts, agencies, and other legal bodies do not need to extend the deadline to accept a late filing.
Project management software that automatically calculates deadlines according to a custom rule would cut down on the administrative work of entering deadlines manually.
Similarly, legal workflows often depend on the outcome of a motion, application, or other filing. If a motion gets denied, you might have the opportunity to file a motion for reconsideration or appeal the decision. But you might not have both options. Some decisions are appealable while others can be reconsidered.
A project management software with the flexibility to create a rule for different workflows depending on the outcome of a task could help legal project managers.
How Can Small Law Firms Benefit from Legal Project Management?
Not every firm will have projects that benefit from legal project management. But certain projects will benefit from management regardless of the firm’s size. In some cases, small firms will benefit more from project management than large firms because they have less room for mistakes, cost overruns, and misallocations of resources.
Suppose your small firm has a class action lawsuit. These lawsuits are often a planning nightmare because of the many moving parts involved. And they can take years to resolve. You might devote most, if not all, of your firm’s resources to managing the case.
Legal project management tools could allow a small firm to take on a class action lawsuit without associating with a larger firm or even putting all of its resources into the case.
As a result, your small firm would keep a larger portion of the attorney’s fees from the case and may even be able to take other cases while the class action suit is pending.
Another example where legal project management might provide benefits to small firms is in cases where staff can handle much, if not all, of the preparatory work. A lawyer can use legal project management tools to monitor these tasks and become involved only when the skills and knowledge of a lawyer are required.
Taking Control of Legal Project Management
Legal project management is a growing industry. As the industry grows, you will see more legal project management jobs. And competition will drive up the salary a legal project manager can seek.
As legal project management principles filter through the industry, clients and firms will see the benefits. Clients will get results that better match their expectations. And law firms will work more efficiently, allowing them to save costs and take on more cases.
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