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Legal matter definition: structure and stories

If legal matters are not defined properly, then any subsequent attempts to plan and manage them are doomed to fail.

It helps enormously if a structured approach is taken to matter definition.  Much of project management is about structure.  Well crafted structures increase the likelihood of project objectives being met.

Unfortunately, it can be easy to become blinkered by an over-reliance on structure.  Because of the blinkers, clients (and others) are no longer seen as real people but abstract entities which can be serviced by following processes and executing tasks within the processes.

It is helpful to keep reminding ourselves that, fundamentally, project management is about people.

In this article I will discuss how to combine a structured approach to legal matter definition with a humane understanding of client needs and objectives.

A short LPM tip from the IILPM

A structured approach to legal matter definition

The 4-Phase Framework from the Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM) is a structured approach to legal matter management.

The elements listed in the definition phase (matter type, parties, requirements, scope, objectives, assumptions and constraints) are starting points for initial investigation.

These starting points should act as prompts for lawyers and legal project managers to identify, discuss and define matters in conjunction with their clients.


Providing further detail

During our training courses, IILPM accredited trainers provide further detail, filling-in the 4-Phase Framework structure.

IILPM templates are useful tools for illustrating the detail.  When students complete some of the templates in context of a legal and commercial scenario I use on my course they get to experience, not just observe, some of the detail which fills-out the framework.


Legal matter definition template

Usually templates are associated with different project phases of the IILPM 4-Phase Framework. Hence the project definition template is designed to be filled in during the project definition phase.

The project definition template guides students through a more detailed approach to matter definition than is summarised in the Framework.

Following detailed template completion in a specific sequence means that students are following a tried and trusted process for defining matters properly.

Snapshot of some IILPM templates.

Understanding the client

During the matter definition workshop on my training courses I play the role of the client (and indeed, any of the other characters outlined in the commercial and legal scenarios I use).

Student’s will ask me questions, perhaps wanting to clarify facts contained in the scenario or seeking to understand the client’s point of view.

Needing to understand the client’s point of view is essential.


Asking questions

The quickest and most obvious way to understand another person’s point of view is to ask them about it.

Unsurprisingly, I have been asked the most challenging and direct questions in my role as the client by the more senior lawyers.  No surprise here because they have the most experience of interacting with clients.

Some of the most unusual and interesting questions have come from students who are not lawyers.  Project managers and consultants often take a different approach to lawyers (I am referring here to lawyers of all kinds – whether they be practising lawyers, professional support lawyers or costs lawyers).  It is always fascinating to see the interaction of a varied group of professionals coming together and tackling a common problem.


What to do with the answers

Asking pertinent questions which help elicit client requirements is a great start.

There is, or should be, much more going on here though.

The real purpose of the client question and answer session is to help the client explain, and the legal team understand, the client’s story.

Lawyers, Clients and Narrative

‘Lawyers, Clients and narrative – a framework for law students and practitioners’ by professors Carolyn Grose and Margaret E. Johnson is one of my favourite books about the practice of law.  I recommend it to students on my course, and I recommend it to you too.

This book – and it is in part a workbook, so you can practice, not just read – is designed to help lawyers understand stories, narratives and how they can be used to best represent their client’s interests.


The book is not solely relevant to litigators.  Every lawyer, including non-contentious lawyers, has clients and someone, somewhere needs to be persuaded about that client’s story and how legal arguments support the client’s point of view.

Relevance of stories and narrative to lawyers

I don’t have the space to do the book justice here, but I think a few quotes from the book will make you want to find out more.

The authors begin with some definitions.  A story is ‘what is told’ and a narrative is ‘how the story is transmitted’.

So how does an understanding of stories and narratives help lawyers?

..narrative helps lawyers relay what happened and use the facts and the law to create an emotional connection to the legal problem that persuades the decision maker or the audience to find in the client’s favour.

I am sure you will have noticed the reference to ‘emotional connection’.  In some areas of law, such as crime and family, emotions are often near the surface but dig a little deeper and they are there in commercial legal work too.  For example, it should be easy to make an emotional connection between delayed completion of a much-needed new hospital and the detrimental effect this has on people’s lives.

Understanding, de-constructing and re-constructing client stories are essential skills for lawyers – after all, they are asked to re-tell their clients story within the context of legal rules and practice.


Relevance of stories and narratives when defining matters

Sometimes clients have an unrealistic view about what their lawyers can achieve for them and sometimes clients have very little idea about how their lawyers can best help them.

By communicating clearly with their clients from the outset, lawyers and their teams can start to set client expectations and scope matters realistically.

In order to do this, I think lawyers need to understand the client’s story and then present the narrative back to them, along with a range of most likely outcomes in law.  The sooner this process can start properly the better.

As you will have gathered by now, I encourage my students to follow a structured approach to matter definition.  Within that structure I provide some ideas for understanding client stories and narratives.  This is because, to repeat the point made earlier, ultimately projects of all kinds are about people, whether it be people working on the projects or people who feel the effects of completed projects (and especially those people who feel the effects of poorly run projects).

Project management structures, templates and tools alone are never enough.  Successful lawyers and project managers spend time considering the human relationship aspects of project delivery.  This includes recognising that clients are human too, and they have their stories to tell.


Obvious points, not always practiced

You may think the points I have made above are obvious and you are right.

Unfortunately these points still get missed, or simply can’t be considered – especially by junior people – on legal project teams.  This is more than a pity.  It can have adverse effect on team morale, client relations and project success.

For example, many junior lawyers in large law firms have relatively little client contact.  In my conversations with junior lawyers in these firms I often hear things such as ‘I don’t have any input into project scope as the client partner comes to us and tells us what to do as he has spoken to the client’.

What this means is that the junior lawyers and the rest of the legal service delivery team have no connection with the client and almost certainly do not understand the client’s story.  (Unless of course the client partner has faithfully relayed it).

This can mean that junior legal team members work in a technical bubble.  Their work may be legally correct and cogent, but it fails to advance the client’s story.

I have lost count of the times in-house counsel has said to me that their external lawyers provide them with advice which is legally correct but not especially useful to them in a commercial context.  Arguably this is because the external lawyers do not fully appreciate the story and narrative of the in-house lawyer assigning the work.


Belated emergence of ‘the user’

How to deliver legal services which are more meaningful to clients?

Recently in legal services there have been efforts to increase awareness of the ‘end-user’ of those services.

It’s no co-incidence that ‘user stories’ form such an integral part of agile project working and that user centred design workshops appear to be all the rage now.

I don’t think it matters much what tools or approaches are used – Agile, user-centred design or project templates which prompt the client story telling – so long as, in the end, the advice which is provided to client’s is meaningful to them and advances the story of their problem and how they dealt with it.


Would you like to find out more?

The matter definition workshop is just one, albeit important, element of my three-day legal project management training course.  I also introduce students to agile project management, process improvement techniques, legal I.T and team building, including ideas about how to collaborate with colleagues and clients more effectively.

If you would like to find out more then please contact me or find out more here.

Finally, if you have found this article of interest please do share it on your favourite social media platforms.

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