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How should you start implementing legal project management?

You are asked to be the operational lead for implementing legal project management in your law firm or department.  How should you make a start?

Ultimately, successful implementation depends on many factors, some of which will be out of your control.

However, the more you can control the better.  Working effectively with colleagues, especially your project sponsor, should also help enormously.

The first step though is to recognize the nature of the project you have been given and then plan accordingly.


A change project

Introducing legal project management principles and methods into a law firm or in-house legal department is often challenging.  This is because lawyers and other associated professionals will inevitably be asked to change the way they work to some extent.

My personal view is that when applying legal project management principles legal service professionals should not need to change their working practices too much.

Nevertheless, for most legal teams, applying project management techniques to legal matters will result in some practice changes.

Hence it is best to recognize from the outset that you are managing a change project.


Establish control

Trying to drive though change in a legal services environment with limited resources and to a tight timescale (chances are, you will have an initial timescale imposed upon you) can induce a feeling of panic.

The counter this feeling, take steps to establish control.  The sooner you start planning the better.


Create a Project Initiation Document

One of my guest bloggers. Richard Copley, has said that whenever he is asked to review projects one of the key planning documents he looks for is the Project Initiation Document (PID).

In practice the PID is often the first opportunity the project manager has to collect and review a lot of essential information about the project.  A well structured PID encourages the project manager to consider whether the objectives and scope of the project are clearly understood by all key stakeholders.  It also encourages a realistic assessment of project risks, along with early identification and scheduling of critical tasks and milestones.

A good PID acts as the foundation stone for the planing for all kinds of projects and helps the project manager exert project control from an early stage.

It is definitely not co-incidental that the first workshop exercise during my IILPM certified training courses is about the creation of a PID for a complex legal matter.  Regardless of the type of project, it is really important to get that good foundation stone in place.


Pushing back

Often, when project managers complete their Project Initiation Document it becomes apparent that assumptions concerning the initiative (the change project) are no longer valid, if they ever were in the first place.

For example, it is common for project managers to find the end-point – what success looks like – has been expressed poorly, if at all as yet.

Most bizarrely, the timing of the end-point is often way too optimistic.  This is bizarre because up until now people may have been unclear about what constitutes the end-point, yet they seem pretty sure the end-point needs to be reached on a specific date in, say, 6 months time!

Often, this is where project managers must push back and introduce key stakeholders (ie, the senior management team in this instance) to some realistic expectations.  Easier said than done, but you should have an ally.


Your project sponsor

A project sponsor should be widely acknowledged as having power and influence within the organisation.  A good project sponsor is someone who has a genuine interest in the (change) project succeeding.  Their interest will be such they are willing to invest their time and credibility in the project.

Project sponsors should not become immersed in detail.  They should bear project objectives in mind and be willing to reach out to their peers when required.

In practice, the most important role a project sponsor plays is that of benign political fixer on behalf of the project.

Usually a project manager will not be able to select the official project sponsor.  If your official sponsor has the characteristics described above then you are fortunate.

If your official sponsor is not quite like this though, all is not lost.  You can work with the official sponsor to help them develop the enthusiasm, knowledge and interest about your change project.

Alternatively, you may be able to identify someone else of similar standing within the organisation with greater natural enthusiasm for your project (perhaps someone who has previously headed up a ‘bright-spot’) and see if they can become an unofficial sponsor or project ally.


Establishing personal rapport with your project sponsor

You need to work closely with your project sponsor(s) to further the aims of the project.

Early on in projects of all kinds, much of the project information is best communicated to the project sponsor directly and in person by the project manager.  Hence building up personal rapport is vital and it’s never too early to start.

At this early stage enlist the project sponsor’s help to re-set expectations among his / her peers if (as will be likely considering your initial PID) this is required.

How to establish good personal rapport with your project sponsor and ensure they are effective in their role?  I’d suggest your chances of doing this are increased significantly if you have done some stakeholder analysis beforehand.

Stakeholder analysis and its close cousin, stakeholder communication planning, are aspects of project management which are often glossed over by project managers anxious to crack on with planning for deliverables and exerting early control.  Experience has shown me that glossing over these aspects of project planning is a mistake, which will almost certainly be paid for later.

So just take few minutes before you engage with your principal stakeholder, your project sponsor, to consider: what drives them? What is their attitude to the project (and how might this be changed)? What are they expecting a successful project to look like? Most importantly perhaps, how can you help them perform their role as project sponsor properly?

Once you have thought through questions such as these you should feel much more confident about establishing good rapport with your project sponsor.  This in itself may be no small achievement when dealing with a sponsor who has been an equity partner in your firm for the last 20 years.


Next steps

After you have established project control and started working with your project sponsor to set expectations properly you should feel more confident about implementing change.

In my next post I will consider some successful delivery tactics for change projects which should help increase your confidence further.

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