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Matter Management Boards for Lawyers

Many lawyers and legal service teams now have some familiarity with the concept Matter Management Boards, a legal service version of Kanban Boards.

Matter Management Boards offer a lot of potential benefits for legal service teams, such as:

  1. Improving intra-team communications
  2. Managing team workflow
  3. Flagging up areas for continued process improvement
  4. Helping legal teams prioritise work and
  5. Providing a platform for having meaningful conversations with clients.

In this article I show how Matter Management Boards can help legal service teams prioritise work better and help generate more meaningful conversations with clients.


Matter Management and Case Management distinguished

When I was working in legal software development, the market began to draw a distinction between ‘Matter Management’ and ‘Case Management’.  The core technology was the same in both instances (workflow).

People realised that by creating workflows with differing levels of detail, the same software application could be used to manage a collection of matters or individual matters.  The former being referred to as Matter Management, the latter Case Management.

The same can be said for the legal service variants of Kanban Boards, hence Matter Management Boards and Case Management Boards.  I think it is a valid distinction to make in practice but, for ease of reference, throughout this article I am going to refer to Matter Management Boards throughout.

Continuing with the legal software theme, a lot of software aimed at the legal market includes Matter Management Board views as part of standard functionality.  I think this helps explain why so many legal service teams are now familiar with the concept of Matter Management Boards.

Recently I have had the pleasure of recording webinars with Tom Macdonald, Product Manager of HighQ and Jodie Baker, CEO of Xakia Technology.  Both HighQ and Xakia have excellent Matter Management functionality for their users to exploit.


Matter Management Boards – basic functionality

Its quickest and easiest to explain baseline functionality of Matter Management Boards by assuming we are all back in the office, for at least some of the time, and we will make a physical board.

To create a basic Matter Management Board in a real-world office environment:

  1. Find some space with a flat surface – a wall, window, or whiteboard.
  2. Use tape or pen marker to create three vertical columns.
  3. Create a column header for the first column and name it ‘To do’.   Name the second column ‘Doing’ and the third ‘Done’. (You can have headings which convey similar meanings – you don’t have to use these exact words).
  4. Collect some post-it notes.
  5. Write a task which is expected to be performed on a matter on each post-it note.
  6. On each post-it put down some key aspects of the task, such as the name of the team member who is to do the task.
  7. For ease of illustration, it may be best to consider a board representing all tasks expected to be completed during a week. Hence at the start of the week all the week’s tasks should be placed in the ‘To do’ column.  As tasks are being worked on during the week, they are moved into the ‘Doing’ column.  When each task is completed, it is moved the ‘Done’ column.

In essence, the board provides a visual representation of work.  Work which is planned, in progress and completed.

Software applications mimic this visual representation of work.  Users can create on-screen columns and cards which are meaningful to the team working on the matter(s) concerned.

The obvious advantage with software of course is that team members do not have to be physically present in the same room to view the boards and move the task cards.  As we have all appreciated over the last year or so, access to cloud based software makes distributed team working so much easier than it used to be when most software, like everything else, was ‘on premise’.


Matter Management Boards – inherent flexibility

One of the many great things about Matter Management Boards, whether real physical boards or represented in software, is that they are flexible enough to allow for experimentation by users.

For example, Matter Management Boards are not limited to just three columns representing the flow of work.  In practice, you may decide to have more columns on your board, with each column representing a stage in your workflow.

Similarly, the content of each post-it note can be made to reflect whatever information is most meaningful to you and your team.

Post-it notes come in all colours, shapes, and sizes.  You can take advantage of this and use different coloured and different shaped notes to convey different kinds of information (see below).

Software is rarely as flexible as a good-sized pack of multi-coloured post-it notes and multi-coloured pens, but you will find that good software, such as HighQ and Xakia has enough Matter Management Board flexibility to cater for the needs of legal service teams.

Task Prioritisation

Look at the representation below of a simple Matter Management Board.

To illustrate the idea of task prioritisation I have adopted traffic light or Red, Amber, Green (RAG) colouring.  Tasks coloured red are of highest priority, yellow medium priority, and green least priority.

Who gets to prioritise tasks?

There should be regular dialogue within legal service team and with the client about task prioritisation.  Assume for the moment that this Matter Management Board is a high-level representation of one large and complex matter for a client.

The legal service team will of course be able to prioritise the legal deliverables, reflecting legal requirements, including substantive law and procedural rules associated with specific matter types.

The client should also have regular input regards prioritisation of the legal work.  After all, facts on the ground may change, as may the client’s commercial priorities, during the matter lifecycle.


Client education

As the matter develops the Matter Management Board can be used to help educate the client about the work the legal team is doing.  Having a clear visual representation of this work helps enormously with the education process.

Clients can see the work being done, as represented by the task notes, rather than believing that the legal work is something akin to a black box the contents of which are beyond lay-person comprehension.


Managing constraints

As with most projects, the legal service team will be working under some constraints.  The three classic project constraints (often also represented visually by the ‘Iron Triangle’) are scope, cost and time.

Let’s look at the constraint of time and see how Matter Management Boards can help manage this constraint.

In the illustrative example, I have assumed a legal service team of 3 people with each person fully productive for 4 hours per day.  This means in total the team can do 60 productive (chargeable) hours of work per week. (This may seem like a very low rate of utilisation, but bear in mind the annual Clio Legal Trends Reports have consistently shown an average amount of chargeable time of 2.5 hours per day per lawyer).

Hence, given a limit of 60 productive hours per week, there is a need to prioritise where the effort should go during those 60 hours.

Ideally, discussion between the legal service team and the client should result in an agreed prioritisation list of tasks to be completed during the week.

There is no point in putting say, 80 hours’ worth of tasks in the ‘To Do’ column at the start of the week.  This is simply setting up the team to fail.

Task prioritisation is required so the legal team, and the client, can apply the most appropriate skills and effort to make sure all tasks are completed using amount of working time available.

If the team has hit some problems during the week, at least they know where they should be focusing their effort – the higher priority tasks.

It may be that some of the lower priority tasks are not completed by the end of the week.  Not ideal, but not an absolute disaster either.

Tasks not completed as scheduled can be re-scheduled for a following week.  They may also be re-prioritised too.

Also note that off the main Matter Management Board area in the illustrative example, tasks are being lined up for the next week and beyond.  These tasks are also prioritised, and their priority ranking (reflected in the RAG colour coded cards) could also change over time.


In-House legal teams

Matter Management Boards can be used by both private practice and in-house legal service teams.

I do believe however that listing tasks visually and then using the visualisation to discuss and prioritise tasks is of particular benefit to in-house legal teams.

Many in-house lawyers say to me the biggest single issue they face is that the business they serve has little understanding about what its lawyers do, how they do what they do and the constraints they are working under.

Using Matter Management Boards as part of a regular (say, weekly) quick meeting with key stakeholders in the business can help educate the business about what the legal team can be reasonably expected to do within a set time frame.

With greater understanding of what the legal function does, the business should feel increasingly comfortable about helping the legal function prioritise its work.

In short, a Matter Management Board can help facilitate improved communication and collaboration between the business and the legal service team.


Matter Management Board – just one tool in your toolbox

In this article I have flagged up just a few benefits associated with using Matter Management Boards.  There are many others.

Matter Management Boards are great tools to help with planning and delivery of legal service work.

There are (or should be) many other useful tools in the toolbox of legal service teams which can be applied to help them work more effectively and more productively with clients.

I cover Matter Management Boards, and other operational management tools, in my legal project management training courses.  If interested to find out more about how you and your colleagues can become more effective at delivering legal services, please do sign up for a course.

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