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Helping lawyers change the way they work

How can legal project practitioners, acting as operational legal team leaders, help lawyers change the way they work?

To effect change legal team leaders must identify, and operate in, the margin of what team members currently feel comfortable with.  Then they must stretch the team to make the transition to the new way of working, while keeping the stretch realistic so the new way of working is an achievable target.


What does this look like in practice?

By way of illustration I am going to look at the process of estimating the amount of work which needs to be done to complete a legal project successfully.

I think if project (legal matter) estimation exercises are done properly, this will inevitably change the way most lawyers work.

I will give just a few examples of barriers to change legal project leaders are faced with, along with some tips to help overcome these barriers successfully.


Estimating legal matters

In other industries, such as software development for example, it is standard practice for project managers to work with delivery teams to help them understand what work is required and estimate how long it will take.

I’d love to say it’s also standard practice in the legal services industry – but I don’t think it is.

Even in matters which are quite large, complex and of high value I think it is still relatively rare for legal teams to meet to have a session where they properly assess what is required to get the work done and estimate how long the work will take.  (Indeed, estimation should not be considered a one-off exercise – delivery teams should meet several times during a matter’s lifecycle to assess previous estimates and re-estimate upcoming work in light of any material changes since their original estimates).

Putting time and effort into project estimation is a pre-requisite for successful project completion.  Yet how many of us in the legal industry can say, hand on heart, that this gets done consistently and properly?


Drawing upon knowledge and experience

Legal project leaders should facilitate and encourage accurate estimations by the delivery team.

They should do this by drawing upon their knowledge of:

  • best practices in project management regarding estimation techniques
  • the legal team they are working with
  • what has happened in previous similar matters
  • what obstacles the team are facing in the present matter and, most importantly
  • the client requirements in the matter being estimated.

By drawing upon all this knowledge and experience, legal project leaders will be able to ask pertinent questions of the team during the estimation process.  Asking the right questions is key to successful facilitation.

By the end of the team estimation session, facilitated by the operational team leader, the team should have a lot of confidence in their estimations.

Let’s look at a few of the knowledge areas the legal project leader will draw upon during the facilitation exercise.


Best practices of project estimation

Ideally legal team leaders will enquire about estimation practices the team members have done previously and review data about previous estimations compared to actual outcomes.  If an earlier approach seemed to have worked well, the sensible thing to do is to keep that approach and perhaps fine tune it.

Given that legal service delivery teams tend not to estimate properly, keep records of their previous efforts and then review their estimations in light of actual events, data about previous estimations will often be difficult to acquire.

Let’s assume in the absence of any clear track record, the project leader decides to facilitate a bottom-up approach to estimating.  This will require the creation of a work breakdown structure (WBS) which breaks the work down into manageable chunks.  But what should each chunk consist of?

To help answer this the legal project team leader needs to take into account the nature of the matter, the legal issues to be considered, how the team can most effectively approach these issues and what outputs or work products (such as witness statements) are expected from the team.

The legal project leader will look at these considerations from a relatively high level, recognising that the delivery team will be (or should be) more familiar with the detail.


Importance of true team work

After helping the team set the parameters governing the estimation, the legal project leader then needs to consider how best to facilitate the estimation process.   Asking only the most senior lawyer present ‘what do you think?’ is not an especially good way of coming up with estimates everyone on the team can have confidence in.

To increase the confidence and veracity of estimates the estimation process should be a true piece of teamwork, where everyone on the project team can have their say.  Sometimes younger and inexperienced team members may have an insight, or just happen to know something other team members do not, which can have a profound impact on estimates.

Unfortunately, having democratic team meetings where information is shared freely without fear or favour is something else which is far from standard practice in the legal industry.  This needs to be acknowledged, noted and added to the (long) list of issues which need to be addressed as part of cultural change in legal services.

Notwithstanding this constraint, good legal team leaders can start to make a difference to the prevailing legal services culture one step at a time – in this case by facilitating estimations properly.


Inter-personal skills of team leaders

The team leader’s inter-personal skills are really important whilst facilitating the estimation process.  Each team member needs to be considered as an individual.  How do individuals within the team prefer to communicate?  For example, which ones prefer ‘story telling’ and which ones prefer facts and spreadsheets?  How do team members relate to each other?  How best to get the story tellers to communicate to the spreadsheet lovers (and vice versa)?

To make a good start with this, the legal team leader should be aware of their own communication preferences and the effect their preferred mode of communication is likely to have on other team members.

For example, I happen to be rather analytical, relatively cautious and precise in the way I work and communicate.  I know I can provide too much detail sometimes which can overwhelm my audience.  Because of this I try to go easy on the data and detailed explanation and illustrate the points I am making with human interest stories.  Above all, I try to keep things brief.  (I don’t always succeed!).


Achieving consensus

Achieving consensus is the goal, but sometimes discussion can wander and take far too long during estimation meetings.  This is especially true for lawyers who generally want to review every single piece of evidence and be as precise as possible in everything they do.  Team leaders need to gently but firmly bring discussions back on track.  If necessary, they should also impose time limits on how long discussion can last for each piece of work being estimated.

An obvious way of imposing time limits without causing offence is to set the boundaries in advance by circulating a detailed agenda, with the time allowed to consider and discuss each item of work being clearly flagged up.  (Detailed agendas with timings for internal meetings is something else rarely seen in the legal services industry – another cultural change point).


Short-term unpopularity

In this post I have touched upon just a few of the issues facing legal project leaders wanting to run estimation exercises properly.

There are others and the most important is this: legal project managers who want lead properly by doing estimation exercises comprehensively risk a degree of unpopularity with their colleagues.

Many lawyers consider estimation meetings and such like as activities which distract from what they regard as core fee-earning activities.  Remarkable as it may seem to people outside the legal sector, most lawyers would prefer to ‘just get on with it’ rather than spending time planning and estimating early in the matter lifecycle.

Unfortunately, short-term unpopularity is something legal project leaders must get used to.  I am not suggesting they should take delight in being unpopular, but sometimes short-term pain really is the price to pay for long term gain.  The gain in this instance being more realistic and accurate estimations leading to better managed projects.

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