Effective communication is essential to for successful Legal Project Management, says Aileen Leventon in the second of a two-part series; she recommends eight critical communication tools.
Change is inherent in the nature of legal work. As a matter progresses – whether it is a transaction, litigation, regulatory or any other matter – new facts, circumstances and legal issues emerge.
The prevalence of uncertainty leads lawyers to deem planning impractical – or to abandon plans in the face of change. Legal Project Management (LPM) keeps bringing the team back to a shared planning framework to confirm working assumptions about the matter.
The discipline and structure of LPM reduces surprises and unnecessary work while protecting the matter’s economics and fee structure. In the first part of this series, LPM 101: First Principles of Legal Project Management, we noted that 5 questions serve as the sextant for effectively managing a matter:
1. WHY are we handling this matter for this client? Why is it important to the client? What is the business goal of the legal work?
2. WHAT work will accomplish the goal and what work will specifically not be done? For example, is this a litigation matter or a mediation session with settlement on parallel tracks or will we take a scorched earth posture? Is this an asset or a stock deal?
3. WHEN must work be done and in what sequence? What are the hard deadlines, and what timing is uncertain or dependent on unknowns? What are the milestones and key dates in our time line?
4. HOW do we manage the work based on constraints and requirements such as budget, strategic importance, client mandates or risk management protocols? What does our work plan look like?
5. WHO is involved in the work and what are their roles and responsibilities? Who is responsible for the actual work, who supports that person, and who must be consulted or informed about status and decisions?
These questions foster a shared understanding among all key participants. In a well-handled matter, team members always should be able to answer these questions in a manner that is commensurate with their role.
LPM calls for a communications plan to address, revisit, test and report on the answers to the threshold questions. LPM practices provide guidance on the kinds of consistent communication to foster alignment. But communicate to whom about what – and to what end?
The response to this question is core to LPM. In a profession focused on the quality of the analysis, “soft skills” and deliberate work process are marginalized. In fact, they are essential.
LPM provides a framework and tools for identifying what needs to be communicated and then acting on it. There are eight tools that guide discussions and the necessary actions to follow afterwards.
8 Critical LPM Communication Tools
Informal communication should never be replaced with bureaucratic formality, but specific tools for any aspect of a matter keeps team members and clients aligned. Consider the relevance of the following eight tools as a basis for communication during the different parts of a matter.
Tools useful at the beginning, and during the matter when one revises and refines the scope of work, are:
1. Kick Off Meeting: To set the tone for the management of the work, go over the team leader’s/partner’s discussions with the client about the goals and objectives for the matter, the legal work that needs to be done and the ground rules for how the core legal team will function and relate to the client.
2. Scoping Tool: To identify stakeholders, objectives, constraints, assumptions and work necessary to complete the project.
3. Work Plan: To outline the broad categories of legal work to be done and identify the people who are responsible and otherwise involved. It should be updated as the action items for team members change significantly, particularly at the beginning of a new part of work (e.g., after making a motion for summary judgment in a litigation; at the start and completion of due diligence in a transaction).
4. Time Line: To set out the schedule, sequence, milestones and dependencies and to serve as a crosscheck again the Work Plan and working assumptions reflected in the Scoping Tool.
Tools that assess whether there is a need to consider the adjustment of the Scope of Work, Work Plan and Time Line:
5. Status Reports: These are templates and plans to ensure that team members and the client are informed, aligned and aware of changed circumstances and/or that efforts are on track to achieve the client’s goals within cost, time and resource constraints.
6. Client Communication Checklist:
- Who will communicate about what to whom?
- When will communication occur? (Weekly; quarterly; daily)
- How will communication occur? (E-mail, meetings, conference calls).
Tools useful at the end of a matter, to assess how it evolved, how assumptions compared with actual events, how progress and uncertainty were managed, and to document lessons learned are:
7. Closing Report: To compare the outcome to the original scope of work, to acknowledge how and why plans changed and to address the administrative end of the matter.
8. After-Action Review / Agenda: To identify the successful elements of the matter management and those that could be improved.
LPM tools should be practical and adapted for each matter and team. Properly calibrated, they address the interrelationship among the constraints of scope, cost and time for the particular matter.
How many lawyers lament that others expect them to read minds or that they don’t understand the context of what they are doing or how their work will be used? How many clients are surprised by how long the work takes, the demands on them and the circumstances that drive the cost of the work?
Ongoing communication is key in maintaining good relations between the firm and the client as well as keeping up with any changes in the matter. Without the right, consistent communication, a matter may end up differently than what the client expected. An ongoing communication plan with a client reduces surprises.
Legal project management is the communication and analytical framework that allows lawyers to apply their legal know-how with greater focus on context and client service to improve the effectiveness of legal services.
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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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