As part of the new professional competence regime for solicitors, founded on the premise of self-evaluation and self-assessment, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) requires solicitors to
reflect on their practice and undertake learning and development so their skills and knowledge remain up to date.
Many solicitors do not realise their professional development needs can be met by acquiring and applying some key project management skills. A skills deficit may be identified, but the role project management can play to help plug the deficit is often missed.
So let’s take some examples of where, upon reflection, a solicitor identifies areas for personal development and see how project management skills can help.
Misunderstandings with clients, colleagues and third parties
No matter how clearly we believe something has been communicated and understood, we have all had instances where the message has not got through properly.
The very core of project management is all about effective communications. Project managers place great emphasis on the regularity, consistency and clarity of their messaging including project updates. Effective communications are of course two way, going somewhat beyond the distribution of project status updates. Stakeholder engagement during projects is priceless and not something taken for granted. This is why the very best project managers keep their communication practices under review and adapt them to fit changing needs of stakeholders.
Feeling that teamwork could be improved
All solicitors are team leaders. Every solicitor leads a team (in-house support staff, 3rd party professionals and the client) with the aim of achieving the client’s objectives. Project managers are also team leaders with the same aim – meeting the client’s objectives.
Team leading does not come naturally to many. However project management methods help people assume a team leader role, whilst also keeping project outcomes in focus.
Being able to identify and state project (matter) objectives is the first step towards productive team leadership. Other steps include identifying the skills and resources required to achieve those objectives and also ensuring the project team has the right mix of skills and resources to deliver.
It would be wonderful if all team members instantly engaged with objectives and worked hard to produce outstanding results, but of course life is not like this. This is why project managers constantly review progress against baseline plans. Moreover, it is not simply about making sure the volume of work gets done, but also making sure that the work is done to a sufficient standard of quality. Project managers make plans with milestones to help them easily asses the amount of work being done over time. They also seek to define quality ahead of time and as objectively as possible, as this way they know when sufficient quality of output has been achieved by the team.
Difficulties with scoping and estimating
The first thing to note is that these are two very different activities. At its simplest, scoping determines what is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a project. Techniques such as MoSCow requirements analysis (ie things which a project Must have, Should have, Could have and Won’t have) can help refine this approach and provide a basis for constructive discussions with clients. Ultimately, as the SRA’s competence statement recognizes, effective scoping is reflective of properly understanding client requirements and agreeing with clients how those requirements can best be met.
Estimating is something different. Once it has been determined what, exactly, the project consists of (ie the project scope) the solicitor-project manager now needs to estimate how long it will take to deliver a successful outcome. For an immediate starting point, most people would use common sense and look to see if they have data relating to past performance on previous projects as a guide. But of course rarely are two matters exactly alike and so here project management techniques such as Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) come into play. Creating a WBS is the process of breaking work down into smaller chunks, which helps with initial estimation as well as control during the later delivery phase.
Challenges with cost control
OK, so who isn’t challenged when asked to control costs? Of course this challenge is made much more difficult when initial estimates are unrealistic in the first place (see above). Cost control is another major reason why project managers keep returning to the baseline plan, updating it, and continuing to check work progress. Inevitably, slow and inefficient progress results in increased project cost.
Unauthorised changes to scope can also soon have a detrimental impact on costs. A simple change control process, which involves the client and requires clear client consent and sign-off, has been proved to be really effective at managing scope and costs. Done properly, it is also another means of improving client communications too.
Unforeseen events seem to occur regularly – matters are often in crisis mode
Unforeseen things happen even in the best planned of projects. The better the planning (especially in relation to risk management), the fewer unforeseen events occur. Moreover even when truly unforeseen events do occur, with good planning it is possible to see how the project can be brought back on track relatively quickly. It should therefore come as no surprise that the best project managers have been found to spend twice as much time on planning as the rest.
Many lawyers – especially litigators – like to claim that it is simply not possible to cater for unforeseen events and, in particular, predict and make plans for how an opponent is going to react. As a statement of fact, this can’t be true. It is possible to plan for different scenarios occurring and risks becoming live. Detailed planning does take time, but with practice the time needed to create good project (matter) plans diminishes.
Despite the SRA clearly listing project management tasks and activities as part of its competence assessment, many solicitors still do not appreciate that applying project management techniques can help improve their overall skill-set.
Project management can be viewed as a structured framework of best practices which have stood the test of time and which can be adapted to fit differing requirements. Why would solicitors (or anyone else for that matter) not want to plug into this?