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Legal-matter-schedule

How to create and use a legal matter schedule

A legal matter schedule is an essential component of matter planning.

A good matter schedule is not only a planning tool.  It is also an excellent tool to help track, monitor and control matter delivery.

In this article I will explain how you, perhaps a newly appointed legal project manager, can create a matter schedule and how you can use it for matter management.

 

A matter schedule is not a matter plan

It is important to remember that despite being incredibly useful, matter schedules alone are not complete matter plans.

A lot of things need to be understood and considered as part of matter planning before you can create a matter schedule with confidence.

Even in a practice area you are familiar with, you will still need to do things such as:

  • properly understand client objectives
  • translate those objectives into project requirements
  • confirm the make-up and availability of the delivery team
  • confirm the need for and availability of other resources such as software support
  • consider risks which might affect operational delivery of the matter.

I could go on, but I hope you get the point.  There is much more to matter planning than creating a matter schedule.

 

Matter schedule templates

Rarely will legal project managers need to create matter schedules from scratch.

Legal service delivery is by its nature structured.  Experienced lawyers know what the key deliverables are for each matter type they commonly deal with.  They won’t know the exact detail as each matter is unique.  But they will know what the key deliverables are, what their usual sequence is and what the relationship between them is.

In the absence of any scheduling documentation you have available to you, you can meet with experienced practitioner colleagues and create an outline of a schedule for a typical matter type they most commonly work with.

By simply listing key deliverables in sequence, you have started to create a schedule template which can be used as a starting point for all other similar matter types.

Matter templates listing key deliverables and their sequencing are commonplace in software supporting legal matter management.  The templates can be adapted and customised to meet the needs of the firm and matter at hand.

I am not suggesting that matter management software is a pre-requisite for successful matter scheduling.

The point I am trying to make is that, in terms of scheduling, you will not need to start completely from scratch every time a new matter is opened, as you can use and develop schedule templates.

 

Add detail

By their nature, templates lack detail.

This is what you should provide.

Working with the legal service delivery team you should, when creating schedules for individual matters, be able to:

  1. break the matter down into phases
  2. sequence deliverables in the most relevant phase
  3. break each deliverable down to its constituent part
  4. identify tasks required to create each deliverable (or part)
  5. estimate how long each task is going to take
  6. assign tasks to team members
  7. arrive at estimates for cost to complete each deliverable, each phase and the matter as a whole.

 

Schedule representation

Gantt charts are the most well-known tool associated with project management, probably because they can be eye-catching.

Gantt charts are used to represent schedules visually.

You can create a Gantt chart with anything ranging from pen and paper to one of the many software applications specialising in Gantt chart creation.

At its simplest, a Gantt chart is made up of:

  1. a column which lists project tasks in sequential order
  2. a column listing task duration
  3. another column showing each task as a horizontal bar set against a calendar timeline, with each task bar representing how long each task is scheduled to take from its scheduled start to finish.

You can of course populate Gantt charts with much more detail than this, such as adding the name of each team member responsible for each task along with their matter charge-out rate.

 

Schedule management

If matter progress is not tracked properly once the delivery phase starts, the matter soon becomes impossible to manage.

A Gantt chart is an excellent tool to record and illustrate matter progress.  After matter delivery has started, it can show what the current schedule status is and what the future schedule is likely to look like.

This is the essence of schedule management and Gantt charts are essential for helping with this too.

 

Track costs

The most obvious indicator to track is cost.  Every deliverable, and all tasks required to produce the deliverable, will have a cost associated with it.

In legal most cost is derived from staff cost.  The default means of estimating costs is to estimate how much time fee earners will need to work on their tasks and then plug-in their charge out rates.

Strictly, from a project management point of view, fee earner charge out rates are not plain vanilla costs as the billable hour includes an element of profit costs.  However, for convenience, fee earner charge out rates are invariably adopted as a means of estimating matter cost.

Many people believe that if costs accrued are in line with the project schedule, then the project is running according to schedule.

Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case.

A simple illustration will show why.

 

Track progress

Let’s assume a matter has a phase lasting 6 weeks, with budgeted cost for all tasks to be completed being £50,000.

By the end of week three £25,000 of costs have been accrued.  All looking good?  Perhaps not.

Only 10% of tasks scheduled in this phase have been completed by the halfway stage.

In this instance is appears the amount of work accomplished, measured by extent to which tasks are completed, has fallen significantly behind the original project schedule.

What this means is that, left unattended, tasks scheduled will take considerably longer than planned and the phase will also cost more to complete than budgeted for.

Therefore, it is essential to track both the work accomplished and the costs accrued during matter delivery.

 

Soft skills also needed

Tracking cost accrued is usually relatively straightforward.  Lawyers record the tasks they are working on in each matter.  Time recording software will also apply each lawyer’s charge-out rate to the time record.  Hence the amount of time lawyers have been working on a task and the total cost accrued to date, is readily available.

(I am assuming here that time is being recorded diligently and the correct worktype codes are being used, but this is not always the case).

Collecting data about the amount of progress on individual tasks is more problematic.

The ideal I think would be for lawyers to record the amount of progress they have made on each task, as well as time spent, in their time recording system.

Unfortunately, dedicated time recording systems tend not to have task updating functionality as standard.

Moreover, even if this functionality was available, in my experience it would probably not be used as it should be.

For example some law firms which have given their lawyers access to legal project management software, which does allow for task progress updating, report that their lawyers do not like and not use this functionality.  Hence the legal project managers must do the updates.

Legal project managers can only do the task progress updates after legal team members have told them their rate of progress.  Easier said than done, especially in law firms which have a relatively low level of legal project management maturity – which is most law firms.

Getting accurate task status updates from busy legal team members often requires excellent communication skills and a lot of persistence.

 

Using the data

Tracking data needs to be converted into meaningful information.

This is done by comparing the current cost and task status data with the original project schedule.  After doing this you can then explain, and provide evidence to substantiate, whether the matter is currently being run within cost and according to schedule.

Using the data you can also extrapolate with confidence and estimate how much the matter will now cost to complete and when the matter will complete.

Perhaps most importantly of all, presenting this kind of information should help support you when suggesting ways and means of bringing matters back on schedule.

 

Summary

  1. Matter scheduling is an essential part of matter planning, but scheduling by itself is not a substitute for matter planning
  2. When creating matter schedules for the most common types of matters a legal team deals with, create schedule templates
  3. Adapt the relevant template to best fit each matter
  4. Work with the legal service delivery team to fill-in matter schedule details
  5. When tracking matter progress, you must track both costs accrued and work accomplished (task progress)
  6. Compare the above to the original matter schedule and look for any variances
  7. Based on variances you see, estimate how long the matter is likely to take to complete and how much it will take to complete
  8. Consider how the schedule may be brought back on track and be prepared to make proposals about this to the delivery team and client.

There is much more to matter planning scheduling and management than I have been able to refer to in this blog post.

If you would like to find out more, please sign up for one of my legal project management certification courses.

Similarly, if you would like to find out more about how to create and implement effective processes supporting legal service delivery, please sign up for one of my legal process improvement certification courses.

IILPM Innovation Awards

If you work for a legal service organisation which has been innovative in LPM in some way, you are encouraged to apply for an award from the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM).  You can find out more from the IILPM’s website and I do hope you apply.

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