And they’re off…like thoroughbreds breaking from the gate and barreling down the track in single-minded pursuit of the finish line. This image may capture of a typical start of a major matter: get the best people mobilized, act fast and make sure the client knows you’re on it.
Focused. Intense. Urgent. That’s what law practice is about.
“Our clients – and our partners – want to see boots hit the ground quickly,” says a lawyer at one of the country’s most prestigious firms. “Think of how much better the process and outcome could be if we took the time to plan first,” observes the head of litigation at their client. The first mindset is gradually yielding to the second: How different would it be for the client and the entire legal team if we laid more out at the beginning?
The kick-off meeting is the forum for collaborative planning and the foundation of project management. It also sets the tone for sound stewardship of the client’s resources, the firm’s commitment to its clients, and the goals of sound economics and value. Motions should still be filed and essential legal work done immediately—courts, adversaries and opportunities do not wait. Nevertheless, rapid action and deliberative planning can co-exist.
Key tenets of legal project management are that legal work 1) serves a business objective and 2) occurs within constraints of scope, time and resources.
“But we already planned”
Many matters start with limited information provided by the client and an invitation to “pitch” for the work. On the basis of inadequate information (perhaps a complaint and some background facts) and a reservoir of knowledge from prior experience, the law firm may then provide a preliminary early case assessment, outline a settlement or litigation strategy, identify the firm’s team and sketch the timing of key events. Making many assumptions, often not articulated, the firm submits a budget – an estimate that the client may treat as the capped fee for the work.
Early conversations and documents are the typical first shot at a plan. At one time this may have sufficed. But in-house counsel must account for the value they receive from their law firms and can no longer be casual in how they budget and manage. Like the rest of the organization, the legal department is expected to apply project management practices to demonstrate accountability and transparency.
Key tenets of legal project management are that legal work 1) serves a business objective and 2) occurs within constraints of scope, time and resources. The client establishes the business objective and dictates the constraints from which effective planning flows. The kick-off meeting is where this begins. A pitch document may establish the firm’s suitability for handling a matter, but it is not the plan.
The kick-off meeting has several objectives:
- Refine the preliminary assessment of the merits of the matter
- Confirm the proposed legal strategy
- Identify the resources required from the firm, third parties and the client
- Assign roles and responsibilities
- Create a detailed work plan
- Formulate a timeline with milestones and dependencies (Gantt Chart)
- Elicit additional information about stakeholders and client objectives
- Articulate the client’s definition of success
The core law firm team and key client stakeholders must participate. Ideally, include the subject matter experts – lawyers whose special expertise and work is critical to the outcome yet are often detached from the core team and overall game plan. If this is not possible, debrief with others right after the kick-off meeting. Take note of any questions or concerns that might impact the preliminary work plan.
Also see these related posts by Ms. Leventon:
LPM 102: Eight Critical Tools for Legal Project Management
LPM 101: First Principles of Legal Project
Establishing the tone for the matter
The kick-off meeting establishes both a plan and a mindset: team members understand why they are doing the work, what they are doing and when. They have addressed assumptions and unknowns, committed to transparency and established communication channels. How does this happen?
- The business context. Start the kick-off meeting by clarifying the business purpose of the legal work and the resources the client has allocated to it. Quantify it. This gives essential context and establishes that the legal work is not an end unto itself, but an investment in achieving a business outcome. In litigation, it may be to minimize the expense of a settlement or pay-out while preserving reputation, managing risk, or protecting a company policy.
- Stakeholders. A stakeholder is a person who will be integral to or affected by the work process or outcome. “No surprises” is the watchword in project management; it is critical to identify stakeholders early and anticipate their involvement.
Many stakeholders may not be in the room – these are the people whose opinions or behavior could derail the best-laid plans and may include key client decision-makers. They may be the people who are most concerned about the project’s impact on revenue, risk, and profitability, the people who must be briefed about status or decisions, the people within the client organization who will review, revise or even co-author your work product. They may even be a competitor, vendor, regulator or constituent who has standing to challenge strategy or approach. Soliciting information from the client team is essential in drawing the stakeholder map and may help in avoiding questions as the matter unfolds.
- Scope of work and underlying assumptions. “No surprises” applies to the scope of work as well. Experienced practitioners know how a matter is likely to unfold, where assumptions and unknowns, could have major implications for strategy and budget. The goal at kick-off is to share that knowledge and discuss the implications of assumptions or information still to surface. Document what is outside the scope of work of the law firm, either because it is unnecessary, within the client’s risk tolerance or because the client or a third party will handle these activities. Be explicit. Some team members may believe it is prudent to have all kinds of memos and motions at the ready… in case. Their work product may turn out to be superfluous, prepared with incomplete information, or out of sequence — and result in rework or write-offs.
- Timeline. The time line (or Gantt Chart) established in the kick-off meeting plots the sequence of activities in the work plan. Key sub-groups will use this as a skeleton to form their own more detailed work plan and time line. The initial meeting is also the time to clarify client responsibilities, and to justify the participation of experts. It is important to ensure that schedules are harmonized and there is a commitment to the timetable.
- Budget. The budget can be refined now. This is not a bait and switch – a low-ball initial estimate to get the work that is followed by materially different numbers. The preliminary/pitch document and the budget was based on incomplete information and should have included caveats and disclaimers. Important aspects of the scope of work, stakeholders and priorities may not have been known. Early assumptions may prove wrong. Facts may have changed. New information may emerge. Material change may justify a change in scope and budget.
- Monitoring and managing change At this point, the kick-off meeting has served its purpose. There is a work plan and Gantt chart, a time line, identification of project risks, assignment of key staff roles and budget numbers attached to phases or deliverables. In formal project management parlance, this is the Project Charter and Work Plan. This living plan will evolve and serve as the basis for monitoring and communicating during the course of the matter. Describe how and when that monitoring will occur and change will be communicated.
* * *
The kick-off meeting concludes. Then and only then, open the gates and unleash the focus, intensity and urgency to get the job done well.
Sample Agenda for a Kick-off Meeting
- Participant introductions
- Business objectives/context of legal work
- Client stakeholders/priorities and concerns
- Scope of work to be performed/what is out of scope
- High-level work plan/key work streams
- Assumptions and unknowns
- High-level time line
- Roles and responsibilities
- Identification of subgroups and their leaders
- Project coordination plan
- Team style and ground rules
- Communication plan internal/extended team/w client
- Managing changes to the plan
- Forecasting and monitoring system for fees and expenses
- Other firm and client compliance requirements
Aileen Leventon, JD, MBA, is President of QLex Consulting Inc., which focuses on improving the results and economics of legal services for both clients and their counsel.
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