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7 Tips For Legal Project Research

Law firms and in-house legal departments of all types and sizes become noticeably quieter between mid-July and the start of September as lawyers and their clients go on holiday.

Inevitably, the pace of many existing projects slows to a crawl and the start of new projects are put on hold until early Autumn when everyone is back working.

There is an upside to this for Project Managers and Process Improvement specialists.

Besides enjoying Summer holidays of their own, the relative quiet of Summer allows more time for thinking about how projects can be run in Autumn.


Legal Project Research

I always like to start a new project by doing my own research in any event.  I find I can use some of the material I create later in a more formal context (such as a project initiation document) and my own research helps me think of approaches to take, if as and when the project is formally launched.

To help put in context, let’s assume I will be working on a legal process improvement project, focusing on a discrete area of legal practice.

Here are 7 of the things I do as part of my own personal pre-project research.


1. Put the project in context

I like to Zoom out a little and ask why the organisation needs to run a project of this kind.

The immediate response may be expressed in well-worn phrases such as ‘needing to become more efficient and / or more cost effective’.  Well yes, of course.

But I like to keep zooming out and ask myself questions such as:

  • What is going on in the market with regard this practice area?
  • What commercial pressures is the firm / department / workgroup facing?
  • What is likely to happen in this practice area during the next few years?

The internet is obviously a fantastic resource, and a few simple searches will often result in a wealth of freely available material which can supply a lot of background information.

If I have the time to do further reading I will look to see if there are any books about the practice area too (there usually is).


2. Conduct some project archaeology

The next question I ask is ‘has anyone tried to fix this process before?’

I will put this question directly to people which can lead to short, but informative, conversations.

I will also look for any process and project documentation created previously.

Sometimes I cannot find any documentation about the process or previous projects.  Other times I have found informal notes and memos, formal reports and a proposals commissioned from 3rd party consultants and incomplete project documentation which marking an earlier attempt at improving the process concerned.

All the documentation – and none – tells a tale.

It’s fun sometimes to become a ‘project archaeologist’ and piece together all the information and work out what happened to earlier attempts at documenting and improving the process.  How far did these attempts get and why, ultimately, did they fail?

The hope is by understanding the reasons for previous project failures, I will have a greater chance of succeeding.


3. Start to understand the process

Short informal conversations with people along with any previous project documentation will help me understand the process under review.

Clearly, I won’t have any detailed understanding at this stage (that will come later) but I will get an idea about the key process deliverables.  In legal service work this will most often be documents of various kinds.  It is usually straightforward to make a short list of some of the more well-known process deliverables.


4. Make notes

I record notes and jot ideas down as I am researching.

Default tools for me are pen and paper but I also find mind mapping tools such as Mind Manager or Xmind useful.

Mind Mapping tools are easy to use and their visual nature helps to collate various points and notes into a coherent structure.  Good mind mapping tools can also help with initial process mapping and project planning.


5. Begin with the (likely) end in mind

Thoughts inevitably turn to how might the process be improved.

High level options for solving process flow problems are usually:

A – streamline the existing (most likely, manual) processes

B – create new processes, and still rely largely on manual processing

C – look to automate existing / improved / new processes.

Most process improvement projects have option C above as their goal.  Knowing this is the most likely objective helps with early high level project sequencing.

While experience suggests that option C is the most likely outcome, it is not the only one.  Any assumptions made, especially at this stage, should be discarded if necessary as more information becomes available once the project starts formally.  The point is that it is important to keep an open mind throughout the project.


6. Identify key project phases and milestones

Even at this early stage, it is often apparent what the key project phases and milestones are likely to be, so I sketch out the project phases, milestones, and dependencies.

Obviously more detail will need to be filled in later, but some initial high-level sequencing helps me put things in context.


7. Stakeholder engagement

This is by far the most important thing to do in any project, and I think it pays to start early.

I have learned through experience that if I don’t identify key stakeholders and work diligently throughout the project to bring them with me on the project journey, I am setting myself up to fail.

Which I why I identify key stakeholders as soon as possible and start to consider how to manage their expectations.


Looking forward with confidence

I should stress that none of the above should take too long.  There will be time enough later to do much more comprehensive work defining and planning the process improvement project.

Looking ahead and collecting a few thoughts together as part of a structured, albeit informal and personal, research process helps me look forward to formal project commencement with confidence.

I suggest that if you do the same you can look forward to Autumn with confidence knowing you have done some research and as a result you can hit the road running when project activity resumes after the Summer holidays.

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