Planning legal matters properly is essential, but there is often quite a lot of resistance against spending time on matter planning.
Yet research shows (see here for example) there is a direct positive correlation between the time and effort spent on planning and the likelihood of project success.
Good project managers know that time spent on planning is rarely time wasted.
In this post I will counter the most common justifications for not spending enough time and effort on legal matter planning. I will also discuss how structured planning processes and easy to use templates helps matter planning and convince reluctant planners to approach planning more positively.
Before doing so I would like to point out that planning should be a team activity, where everyone on the legal service team is able to contribute. Reluctant planners may be found anywhere within the team. All team members should become convinced about the desirability of taking part in effective planning exercises – and ideally look forward to matter planning and approach it with enthusiasm!
Reasons put forward for skimping matter planning
Here are the three most common reasons I hear put forward for skimping on matter planning.
- Things will usually change quite a bit anyway from receipt of instruction to matter close – so rather than waste time on planning, we will deal with issues on the fly as and when they arise.
In other words, if things are so uncertain, why bother with planning?
Planning helps manage uncertainty
Every project in every sector, not just legal, has varying degrees uncertainty associated with it. The uncertain event most often cited to me in legal services is: ‘we don’t know what the other side is going to do, so how can we plan for that?’.
One of the main purposes of planning is to allow planners to understand areas of uncertainty better and devise contingency responses to cater for uncertain events (such as potential actions the other side may take).
When planning legal matters, this translates into identifying risks and assessing the likely impact those risks will have on successful matter delivery. Risks should then be prioritised according to the severity of their likely negative impact on successful outcomes.
Once risks have been prioritised the team can then start to consider how to deal with them, starting with the high priority ones and working down the list. In effect the team will be devising contingency plans to cater for risks should the risk event happen. This way, if the risk event does indeed happen the team will know how to react to it. Hopefully the reaction will be swift, decisive and cost effective – because there is a risk response plan ready.
Experienced lawyers will already have a good idea about the most likely range of responses from the other side in any given situation in a typical matter in their practice area. They may not be able to forecast the exact response, but they will have a range of possibilities in mind. When the other sides response falls in the range of these possibilities the team can in turn react appropriately and with confidence because the risk has been identified and assessed beforehand.
Consider Agile Approaches
So far I have assumed the matter management is based on predictive project management, where comprehensive plans are created up-front, at matter inception.
For those matters which are truly unpredictable, where even the client has difficulty articulating what a good result is going to look like commercially, I encourage legal service teams to adopt an adaptive approach to matter management. In other words, an Agile approach.
In Agile, work is time-boxed into short delivery phases, typically lasting between 2 – 6 weeks. One consequence of this approach is that the plan for each phase only needs to cover a shorter timeframe. There is no need to plan the whole matter fully at the outset.
At the end of each phase (or ‘sprint’) the team reviews progress, discusses this with the client and then moves on to plan the next sprint considering lessons learned and feedback received.
One point I always highlight when discussing Agile project management is that ‘being Agile’ does not mean simply reacting to events. Agile projects are planned. They are just planned using different techniques compared to more traditional (predictive) approaches to matter planning.
- I know what is going to happen on most of my matters, so why bother planning?
Surely, we all know that every legal matter is unique to some degree?
Even within the same practice area and with the same type of repeat work, there will be small differences between matters. Sometimes very small differences can lead to radically different outcomes.
Looking a little more closely at what makes individual matters unique during the planning process allows legal service teams to cater for those differences better.
Lets assume for example that two different clients have instructed a law firm about matters which appear to be very similar, looking at things from a narrow legal perspective. But what if each client has different communication needs?
Adopting a one-stop, highly standardised approach to client communications may not work well for both. Taking time to assess client communication requirements during the project planning phase can help improve client communications significantly, even if it is only by adapting the standard reporting process a little to fit particular client need.
- We just don’t have time to plan. We are always really busy and we are under a lot of pressure to get the work done and bill out time.
The Clio Legal Trends Report 2019 showed that ‘the average lawyer spent only 2.5 hours on billable work each day – a trend that’s stayed relatively consistent over the last four years of reporting’.
Lawyers spend quite a lot of their time on administrative tasks for which they can’t bill. Quite a lot of time is also spent working on matters (‘fee earning time’) which they feel they cannot bill – the time gets written off before the bill leaves the door.
The fact is a lot of activity which contributes to feeling busy, and certainly too busy to plan, is unproductive activity.
Good matter planning at the outset reduces the likelihood of having to write-off time by reducing instances of unproductive activity. Effective matter planning makes sure the matter is scoped properly, everyone is clear about what the deliverables are and the right people are working on the right tasks at the right time.
Looked at this way, do legal service teams really need to be convinced about the need for proper matter planning?
Making Planning Easy and Enjoyable
Often lawyers and their teams do in fact appreciate the value of matter planning and they know they should do more of it. However they fail to translate their knowledge into action. Knowing is not doing.
To overcome this, I try to make the doing as easy as possible.
The easiest and most cost-effective way I can think of is to provide legal service teams with a step-by-step planning process, focusing especially on matter definition.
Then I supply a matter definition template which reflects the process. Templates made in MS Word are easy to create (and adapt).
As lawyers or legal project managers step through the process they can be completing the template as they go.
This is the approach I take on my legal project management training courses. I take trainees through a matter definition process and provide them with a one-page template which reflects that process while we work through a realistic legal and commercial scenario.
The matter definition process is easy to follow and the template is easy to complete. They provide a structured approach to matter definition which helps legal service teams be sure they are asking the right questions of themselves and their clients.
The final point I would like to make is that planning meetings (indeed meetings of all kinds) can be made enjoyable and productive. Honestly, they can. Although of course to ensure enjoyable and productive planning meetings, means the meetings themselves need to be planned.