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The Neglected Art Of Planning

This is a guest post by Richard Copley, a change and operations manager who has led teams of legal project managers and process improvement specialists in law firms.

In this post, Richard shows how legal project managers can become better at project (matter) planning than their peers in other industries who, he argues, are nowhere near as good at planning as you (and they) might think.

Auditing failing projects

In my life outside legal I am often asked to audit failing projects.  These are often snap audits, done quickly and without warning.  I always ask for three documents immediately: the Project Initiation Document (PID), the latest version of the project plan and the last status report.

While first impressions are not infallible, I believe these three documents tell you nearly all you need to know about the project’s intention, the project manager’s attempt to realise that intention, and the current state of that realisation.


Understanding the current state

The current state is important because plans are never perfect.  General Eisenhower famously said

plans are worthless, but planning is everything.

While he was talking about dealing with the sorts of emergencies that are rare outside war, his words, if understood properly, will resonate with most experienced project managers.

We all know that the plan is wrong, in some detail, for two reasons:

  1. The plan includes estimates about a number of unknown or hard-to-know (and far away) future events and decisions.
  2. However good our plan, as soon as we start to execute it we find ways not to follow the plan. This creates variances – which should, on balance, cancel each other out (we do something we didn’t plan to do, and then don’t do something we did plan to do). However, sometimes the variance goes all one way.


Revising plans

If we follow the discipline of planning, we will, when appropriate, revise the plan in the light of both new information and actual execution data.

The plan will not often be wrong with respect to our purpose and goals (although it is more often than you’d expect).  It is more likely to be wrong with respect to the detail of the sequencing and estimates of individual tasks.

I believe that with constant planning we converge on the right approach, especially as we move through the project or matter, and address more of the previously unknown events and outstanding decisions.


Planning and Estimation

No plan, it is said, survives first contact with reality.  In the battle between reality and our plan, reality wins every time.

One of the first things we can do in this battle is to recognise the misleading nature of single point values for estimates of effort and budget.

It is much more realistic (and reduces the probability of upsetting expectations) to estimate in ranges, rather than with single point values (although it takes some initial explanations to sponsors as to why single-point estimates are not useful).  This is a more accurate reflection of what we know and can anticipate.  So for example, at the beginning of the project, given what we know, it might be more realistic to say that it will finish sometime between, say, April 1 and August 31, rather than pretending it will finish on June 17.

Of course, in many cases, there are real expectations that must be met, usually about end date and price.  But the project manager must work with the client partner to go through multi-stage scoping and planning, to allow the development of an executable plan for the matter.  This may mean the loading of the team with extra resources to hit an end date, or stretching existing resources to include some all-nighters near the end.  Alternatively, it may also mean the work cannot be done at the desired margin if the client insists on a fixed or capped price –  in which case there is a commercial decision to do the work or not.


Why is the plan important?

Why am I emphasising the plan so much for legal project managers, who must surely be dealing with much simpler projects than those we meet in financial services, IT, construction, or elsewhere?

It’s because without a plan (and any plan is almost always better than no plan), it becomes impossible for a legal project manager to make any decisions, let alone answer any questions, about the project/matter.

Some examples of frequent questions which can be answered quickly in light of project planning are:

  • What resources, of what type, do we need to complete the outstanding work?
  • When do we think we will need them?
  • Are we now so far behind that we can never hit our published end date? (If so, what are we going to do about it?)
  • What financial exposure are we now subject to?


Understanding progress compared to plans

I was reminded of the importance of a good matter plan during a recent conversation with an accountant in a law firm.  He had recently implemented two new WIP alerts.  These were to be issued when the accumulated WIP hit 50% of the fee estimate, and again at 90% of the fee estimate.

He hoped, and believed, he had made a contribution to the legal project management canon.  I had a number of questions for him:

  • Is this the original fee estimate, or has it been revised?
  • How good are fee estimates generally? How much thought, and how much science goes into them? What validation of them takes place?
  • Have the resources on the matter changed? Are the new ones more or less expensive than the original ones?
  • At 50% of the fee estimate are we 50% of the way though the schedule? Are we 50% of the way though the work to be delivered? (Most PMs will recognise here a reference to earned value calculations.)

As I pointed out to him, being 50% through the money when you’ve delivered 98% of the work and are only 48% through the schedule is quite different to being 50% through the money with 12% of the work delivered and 85% of the scheduled time used.

A WIP alert sent to a legal project manager or a matter partner with a plan emphasises for her what she already should know; when sent to a legal project manager without a plan, it is incredibly hard to evaluate.


Making it easier for legal project managers

Planning a legal matter ought to be easier, in many regards, than the planning of a more complex change project.

This is because the work will likely be of a type frequently encountered by the firm, so we are likely to have historical data on previous matters.  We may even have (we should have) a process map of the work type, with standard estimates (in ranges, of course) that can quickly be converted to a customised map and matter estimate.

If we can supplement the process map of the work type with a process map of the project management activities, we can quickly build a matter plan.  Having got a first plan out, it is the legal project managers responsibility to manage in accordance with the plan.  Where that proves to be unwise or impossible, the legal project manager must revise the plan to take account of the changing dimensions of the project (matter) and the unavoidable realities of its execution environment.

The constant revision of the plan, at an interval that balances the accuracy of the plan against the effort to produce a new version, will put the legal project manager in the driving seat for project decision making.  It will also avoid those situations where the current reality of the matter simply overwhelms the plan and the planning process, leading us to degenerate into reactive firefighting.


Embedding good practice

I’ve found that many project managers outside legal are poor at planning.  They often never get past a first version of their plan, unless they go through formal re-baselining.  Too much project management activity is diverted into either doing the project (as opposed to managing it) or firefighting through crises.

Legal project managers have a chance to avoid this trap.  Good practice for legal project managers includes:

  • Building templates of our most common work types so that
    • we know matter work type activities and steps;
    • we know matter work type outputs (and standardise them where possible as precedents);
    • we can identify the ideal resources for each step; and
    • we have data on which to base estimates for each step.
  • Collecting data from each completed matter (actual execution data, rather than what we told the time recording system).
  • Building standard charters or statement of works (SOWs) for each work type that can be quickly customised to a specific matter.
  • Digging our heels in on opposing, where possible, the classic lawyer approach of coming out of the blocks at 1,000 mph. with no plan (while at the same time coming out of our own blocks at 1,000 mph to get the first-cut SOW and plan done).


Learning from poor project management practice elsewhere

If legal project managers can do all of the above as a matter of routine, then legal project managers should be better at planning than their project manager equivalents in financial services and similar industries.

We project managers now managing LPM functions need to recognise any historical shortcomings in the applied practice of project management, and not import them into the world of legal project management.

This is especially true in the neglected art and science of project and matter planning.

About the Author:

A large part of Richard’s career has been with three international IT/business companies.

His experience in legal spans the last decade, and he has been an interim IT Director, Operations Director, Head of Change, and strategy adviser at UK law firms.

His current major interests are legal project management and law firm data strategy. He can be contacted at


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