Controlling outcomes – project management

February 1st, 2014

By Louis Rood

Project management is a term most often associated with the construction industry, but it is a concept that can very effectively be applied to legal practice. What does it mean? The following steps will help attorneys to implement the project management process:

  • Tell your client you are going to project manage the instruction, especially litigation.
  • Clarify timelines before you begin a project.
  • Resist the urge to dive in – plan and develop a schedule and structure for the project.
  • Advise realistically on costs, set a budget, and be accountable for that budget.
  • Offer predictability in billing – clients do not want nasty surprises.
  • Make sure up-front what the ambit is of what the client wants and expects; clarify his or her needs and expectations at the outset.
  • Spend time with clients so that you understand their business and industry.
  • Develop an early case assessment.
  • Avoid new issues that can affect the scope of the job and increase the costs.
  • Do not make a meal of it. Do not do what is unnecessary. Do not expand or inflate the project. This does not mean that you cannot modify or adjust when necessary, but get it verified by the client.
  • Explain options to the client, for example, using an associate at a lower charge-out rate with partner oversight.
  • Ensure that your client gets regular, substantive, informative and reliable communication. Link this to the project planning.
  • Clarify communication pre­ferences for all members of your team and the client’s team – for example, do they prefer e-mail or telephone communication, memo or bullet-point, and who should be included?
  • Make it easy to get in contact with everyone on the team and offer back-up connections for each individual.
  • Understand the client’s definition of success. What is the desired outcome? This may change over time.
  • Ascertain what the client’s definition of responsiveness is – do you have to revert within 2 hours or 24 hours?
  • Take nothing for granted. Spell it out plainly and clearly.
  • Assume less, and communicate more.
  • Do not let your communications become ‘lost in translation’. Make sure the client understands exactly what is happening.
  • Do not bill the client for your training.
  • Systematically and efficiently deal with the job.

Always remember that excellent client service is defined by the client, not by the lawyer or law firm. Value is also defined by the client and often never shows up on the legal bill. Try to add value to every single thing you do.

The project management approach lets things unfold in a logical, planned, and cost-effective manner. It starts with clear goals, making step-by-step progress.  It makes it easier to meet and beat deadlines. It allows you and your client to deal with setbacks, because that possibility has already been factored into your planning. It largely removes the uncertainty, and as a result the anxiety. A less-stressed client with a less-stressed attorney is a much more effective team.

Louis Rood BA LLB (UCT) is chairman of Fairbridges in Cape Town.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2014 (Jan/Feb) DR 29.