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5 examples of how legal project management can help reduce stress

When was the last time you felt stressed at work?  Probably recently, as the legal sector is one of the more stressful sectors to work in.

Legal project management helps lawyers and their teams exert control over their files.  Feeling that things are under control helps reduce stress levels.

Hence, legal project management can have an important part to play in alleviating stress in legal service organisations.

In this post I will give 5 examples of how legal project management helps individual lawyers and their teams cope better with stress.


Stress in the legal services industry: a well-documented phenomenon

Jordan Furlong has recently written a post about compensation schemes in law firms and pointed out that asking lawyers to work long hours consistently is not good for their physical or mental well-being.

Similarly, Gordon Exall, in his excellent blog the Civil Litigation Brief, has written regularly about how stress affects lawyers.  Although Gordon’s blog is primarily aimed at litigators, many of the themes Gordon covers are relevant to all kinds of lawyers and other professionals working in the legal services industry.  Gordon’s posts about stress also have links to other resources, such as the Lawcare website.

In this post I will highlight some of the practical advice Gordon provides re stress management for lawyers and show how this can be systematised and embedded into a law firm’s practice via legal project management.


The most common cause of stress for lawyers: fish files

Regular readers of Gordon’s blog will know that ‘Fish files’ are the files (matters / cases) which smell.  They smell because things keep going wrong and they do not progress well, if at all.

Fish files become serious problem files when they get left aside.  The issues on file do not go away and the file becomes a source of worry for the fee earner responsible.  This can, in worst cases, lead fee earners to mislead colleagues, clients and the court about work which has, or has not, been done on the file.

Clearly this is not a good for anyone concerned.  So how can things be made better?

Below are some tips from Gordon along with some legal project management (LPM) context from me.

  1. Know what a sensible case load is

Rather than overload lawyers and teams with work, why not determine what is a realistic and sensible case load and take steps to maintain that throughout the firm or practice area?

LPM context: from a project management perspective this is really about Capacity Planning and Resource Management.  Resource Management requires project managers and / or resource managers to assess current workload, look ahead at workload in the pipeline and then plan to service all work appropriately.

The idea of servicing matters, and tasks within matters, most appropriately remains one of the main drivers behind legal project management.  To take the most obvious example, it is clearly not going to be cost effective to assign low value tasks to more experienced, and therefore more expensive, law firm partners.  Equally, you would not give a ‘bet the firm’ matter to a new trainee.

However effective resource planning is often easier said than done.  For example, when identifying the most appropriate person to fulfil a task looking at experience and cost alone is not enough.  Junior lawyers need to gain experience, so lawyer professional development also needs to be factored in.

I have done resource management using spreadsheets and, while this can be done, it’s often an arduous and tedious task which takes longer than it should.  There are an increasing number of software applications which help law firms with resource management and I would urge firms of all sizes to investigate the market to find systems best suited to their needs.

  1. Pilots learn to crash land, lawyers don’t.

Gordon’s point here is that lawyers are not taught how to identify and fix bad files.  Instead some lawyers will try to ignore those files and / or simply react (sometimes in an unethical way) when things go badly wrong.

LPM context: the essence of project management is to plan, and this includes identifying operational risks and creating contingency plans to avoid or minimise those risks.  Having a good risk management plan allows legal project managers to quickly move to plan B, C or D should things go awry with plan A.

This should avoid either simply reacting to problems as they arise or, worse, ignoring the problems completely.  It should also be comforting for lawyers and their clients to know there are back-up plans available, which can be activated quickly when needed.

  1. If you make a mistake, don’t cover it up

As Gordon points out, cover-ups will often make things worse.  His advice to lawyers who do make mistakes is to acknowledge the mistake, deal with it and tell someone about it.  Many lawyers find this difficult to do because, as Gordon also notes, lawyers do not like admitting mistakes.

I would also add that many law firms have a culture where admitting to mistakes is seen as taking a backwards career step.

LPM context: I contend that organisations which have a project-based culture are much less likely blame individuals for mistakes made.  Organisations with a relatively high level of project management maturity recognise that projects of all kinds are team games.  There is less focus on the individual and more focus on helping the team get the work done.

I’d also suggest that having a project-based culture promotes openness and transparency.  Having focus on ‘projects’ and ‘deliverables’ helps de-personalise things a bit.  As a result, it is easier to have difficult conversations about ‘project issues’ rather than ‘mistakes I have made’.  I am not advocating that personal responsibility be avoided, rather that any mistakes made are placed in the wider context of the legal project concerned.

Another principle of legal project management is frequent and consistent communications about matter progress to all key stakeholders.  Covering up is much harder to do if matter status reports are sent out every week.  Clients will usually forgive mistakes, especially if they are presented with a plan for rectifying them – and of course a short outline of how to rectify the mistake should appear in the status update report.

  1. Working many hours is counter-productive

Gordon’s suggestion here is for lawyers to try and cut back the hours, so remaining fresher and better able to keep a rounded perspective about the work in hand.

LPM context: there are still too many firms where young lawyers especially are expected to work ten-hour days and sometimes more.  Moreover, as Jordan Furlong notes, it is still common for partners to work (and bill) far more hours than is good for their health too.

I know many young lawyers make this pact with the devil as it were, calculating that it’s worth it.  After all, young lawyers in large commercial law firms do generally get paid much more than their contemporaries elsewhere.  Personally, I think it’s a poor bargain.  Time is finite.  Once its gone, its gone forever.  You are never going to get those hours back, whereas it is always possible to earn money somehow.

Another aspect of resource planning is resource smoothing.  The idea here is that human resources should be applied efficiently and not become over-used.  Most project management software will flag up where people are scheduled to work longer than a standard working day (or number of hours which make up a standard working day) or where they are scheduled to work on two different tasks concurrently.  When these situations are highlighted in advance legal project managers should take steps to make sure the work is distributed across project team members more evenly.

I know that asking lawyers to work fewer hours is going to be a difficult sell, especially in larger commercial law firms.  At some point though it will have to be done and I’d suggest that legal project managers can take a lead and help change the culture here, perhaps by working alongside their colleagues in HR to ensure their projects are resourced properly, without factoring in excessive working hours as baseline project hours.

  1. Learn from experience

Gordon suggests that individuals and firms create systems which capture lessons learned and they apply them in future.

LPM context: post-project reviews are another fundamental aspect of good project management.  After projects have been delivered the project team should meet and discuss what went well and what went not so well during the project.  This should then be recorded in the lessons learned file and lodged with the firm’s knowledge management team.  Then when a new matter arises the lawyer or legal project manager should first look at the lessons learned file to remind themselves of past mistakes and how to avoid them.



Ineffective and inefficient work patterns leading to stress is clearly a huge topic and I could go on – I have not even mentioned Quality Management for example, which can help prevent mistakes being made in the first place.

Much more can be done in law firms to systemise the way matters are conducted.  These systems can contain procedures for dealing with difficult cases, helping prevent things going wrong and fixing issues quickly.

Legal project management presents a ready framework for such systemisation.  I think having a project-based culture (which contains support for relevant tools, processes and skills) would go a long way to alleviating stress felt by legal service delivery teams due to ‘fish files’ and other pressures caused by inefficient working environments.

Creating a better managed and less stressful environment benefits everyone in legal service delivery teams and this in turn results in better quality of service to their clients.  Plenty of incentive there to start implementing and / or improving you legal project management capability.

If you would like to find out more, why not attend one of my legal project management training courses?

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