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Legal Project Management and Attorney Well-Being: An Underutilized Tool

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

Lawyers are unique in that they are thrust into their profession and expected to “get it done” with nobody to oversee process & procedure but themselves. Lawyers are not taught to be managers nor are they project managers. And unfortunately, lawyers over-exhibit character traits that make them particularly poor at both being managers and being managed.

In a stressful profession, driven by deadlines, demanding clients, exacting judges, and dominated by adversarial relationships, we don’t use a basic tool employed by most other fields & professions: a project manager. From software development to engineers and builders, professionals rely on project managers. Law firms are slowly catching on but only in the very narrow sense.

Large law firms have been implementing Legal Project Management (“LPM”) for the purpose of controlling costs and staying within margins of profitability for fixed-fee projects. See The Eureka Moment, “How six Big Law firms stopped dithering and learned to love legal project management.” However, small and mid-size firms have yet to fully seize the opportunities of LPM. Doing so would lead to standardized case management, better implementation of standard operating procedures (including adoption and use of legal tech), decreased stress (which decreases attrition and increases attorney well-being), and better distribution of opportunities and transparency in assessing performance (which increases BIPOC attorney retention). LPM can be the single greatest change to the legal field since the advent of e-discovery.

Lawyer “Profiles” Are Real and Affect Everything

The Caliper Profile was used by Dr. Larry Richard of LawyerBrain LLC to assess personality traits, both individually and in particular professions. The Caliper Profile has been used for over 40 years and is a well validated instrument. It has been administered to more than 2 million college-educated subjects. It measures 18 (then 21) separate and distinct personality traits. According to the Caliper Profile of lawyers drawn from a sample group, this is what we look like:

  • Lawyers over exhibit skepticism, which is demonstrated by pervasive questioning of authority, sometimes being cynical, judgmental, argumentative, and self-protecting.

  • Lawyers also over exhibit the trait of autonomy, which is reflected by a resistance to being managed, disliking being told what to do, and prizing of independence.

  • Lawyers have a high sense of urgency, which is reflected by impatience, a need to get things done, and a sense of immediacy.

  • Finally, however, lawyers score lower than the general public in personal resilience and sociability. Symptoms of low resilience are defensiveness, resistance to accepting feedback, and hypersensitivity to criticism. Sociability is defined as a desire to connect with people, comfort in initiating new relationships with others, and having emotional conversations.

Anyone who has worked for another lawyer (a partner, for example) is probably not surprised by the above. Unfortunately, management and management style within law firms is largely left up to the individual. And the individuals most likely to do so are lawyers, who can be great at their jobs but not great at managing. The current system, where lawyers also act as project managers, has proven a recipe for disaster. Lawyers hate being in the legal profession and mostly would rather be doing something else.

So how do we change this? For starters, LPM creates rules and structures that lawyers can follow, creating predictability and standards of conduct. This alone can counteract the personality-driven ethos of law firm management.

What is Legal Project Management?

Project management is the application of processes, methods, skills, knowledge and experience to achieve specific project objectives according to the project acceptance criteria within agreed parameters. “Legal project management requires formal and deliberate integration of planning, budgeting, and communication more than simply using matter management software.” ACC, “Legal Project Management.” LPM is project management designed and implemented for law firms and lawyers. It is both groundbreaking and has been around a long time. LPM uses numerous tools, some of which are contained in this article. Implementation can be entirely customized to the firm and the caseload, adopting certain aspects and not others, as is most appropriate for each team.

Of Meetings, Which Could Not Have Been Emails

“Team meetings” happen in law firms. They aren’t always helpful. In fact, they’re often seen as frustrating and useless. That can change, but only if meetings are approached mindfully. The length of a meeting has to be inversely proportional to its frequency: the more often the meeting takes place, the shorter it should be. Daily meetings should be very short (15-20 minutes), while meetings every other day can stand to be a little longer (30-45 minutes). Weekly calls can be even longer (90 minutes+) but need to be highly structured to avoid wasting time.

Meetings come in a number of formats. One format is called the “Scrum,” which can take the following format. Each team member has to report the following:

  1. what they’ve done since the last meeting;

  2. what the team members will do before the next meeting;

  3. any asks for other team members (items they need done, tasks that have to be assigned); and

  4. stucks, tasks that cannot be completed or where team members need input because they’re not sure how to proceed.

This meeting is very brief. Anything that requires more than 60 or 90 seconds to resolve gets pushed to after the meeting or to a one-on-one call. The end time is set and cannot be extended. If the meeting is supposed to be 20 minutes long, it is over at 20 minutes. The goals are clarity and efficiency. Team members exchange information and status fluidly, giving each other the information they need for situational awareness and next-steps.

Who Does What – ARCI & LACI

Law firms have been bombarded with task management tools. (Personally, I haven’t yet found one I would wholeheartedly recommend for law firms.) Whichever tool a firm chooses to use (e.g. a spreadsheet, Clio, Click Up, Rocket Matter, Atlassian, Trello, etc.), LPM provides that the “who” of a task can actually be split into four categories. Different LPM modalities refer to this as either ARCI/RACI or LACI.

LACI: Leading • Assisting • Consulted • Informed ARCI/RACI: Accountable • Responsible • Consulted • Informed

LACI was developed by the ABA’s Business Law Section M&A LPM Task Force while RACI was developed by the Project Management Institute. LACI’s terms are self-explanatory. Under an ARCI system, the attorney “accountable” is the attorney who has responsibility for ensuring completion, but not necessarily who will do the work—that person is “responsible.” For example, lead counsel on a case is “accountable” but the attorney researching and drafting a brief is “responsible.” Similarly, a managing paralegal may be “accountable” for ensuring documents are organized, but another paralegal may be “responsible” for doing it. This structure sets up chain of command and clearly delineates who is doing what.

Deadlines and Calendaring – It’s All About Timing

The Task List should also include: 1) an internal deadline; 2) an external deadline; 3) status; and 4) a description of the task. The team should be trained to understand that an internal deadline is a real deadline, requiring conferral with a supervisor in order to be changed. Also, the internal deadline should be far enough out from the external deadline (the court-ordered or rule-mandated deadline) to give the team time to review and even re-write if necessary. The purpose of this is to avoid last-minute work, late nights, and skyrocketing stress levels.

Legal Tech Implementation

LPM is also about standard operating procedures, communication plans, and case flow. Information is relayed from person to person according to predetermined processes. Cases are brought into the firm following particular steps (screening, conflicts, intake), incorporated into the workflow with clarity (kickoff meetings, periodic reviews) and offboarded with a case review (close out meeting or questionnaire). The goal is to standardize the framework within which cases are handled, so that lawyers and paralegals can focus on the case rather than constantly trying to playing catchup with administration while juggling the demands of the case itself.

An effective way to achieve the above goals is proper implementation of legal technology. When an LPM is brought in (whether on a consulting basis or hired internally), part of their role can be overseeing and managing proper deployment and use of legal tech. Questions regarding proper use can be directed to the LPM, rather than the owner of the firm or other firm personnel. (In small firms, this would unfortunately be the most likely scenario). Enforcing consistent use of legal tech across the firm could also fall to the LPM, who has the bandwidth and situational awareness to do so.

The LPM is therefore an underutilized resource that could, whether internally or externally, identify and address pain points.

LPM Can Be the Answer to High Attrition among Women

LPM tracks – among other things – who does what when, how well they do it, and whether they do so efficiently. LPM increases transparency, objectivity, and accountability on legal matters.

Transparency is a known antidote to employee unhappiness: “Studies have found that management transparency is the most significant predictor of employee happiness, and that leaders who practice transparency and positivity are seen as more trustworthy and more effective.” J. Dixit, “Why Transparency is the Secret to Improving Employee Experience,” Your Brain at Work (Oct. 26, 2018). The logical conclusion, therefore, is that implementation of LPM is not only good for a firm's bottom line and client relations but also--more importantly--could be an actionable tool for improving diversity and inclusion with immediately measurably impact.

A significant factor driving attorney attrition are the chronically unhealthy stress levels and hour demands generated by the legal profession. See Work-Life Balance,” Camden County Bar (2019) (“As many as one in four lawyers suffers from stress, which is likely to manifest itself as depression, substance abuse or addiction.”). Consistent with this, many women report leaving the profession in part because of family obligations. “Among the top reasons female lawyers gave for leaving the practice of law included: caretaking commitments, the level of stress at work, the emphasis on marketing or originating business and number of billable hours.” “Walking Out the Door: The Fact, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice,” American Bar Association (Nov. 27, 2019). This means that when the workplace is erratic, unnecessarily chaotic, and unpredictable, women will be the ones to experience the pressure more acutely because they are already handling another erratic and unpredictable full-time job: family care. With that backdrop in mind, historically, lawyers are famous for finishing projects at the last minute, whether a result of procrastination or last-minute changes from clients or other stakeholders affecting the matter, only compounded by lack of project management practices. All of these would be better handled with the use of LPM.

In other words, the legal profession is unnecessarily stressful because of the lack of management training that lawyers receive as compared to other peers in the business world. In that vein, the planning and active management of matters, which is part of LPM as a discipline, can help avoid “fire drills,” as well as the hallmark peaks and valleys of legal workloads.

In addition, compounding the above, “[w]omen of color have the highest rate of attrition from law firms as they continue to face firm cultures where their efforts and contributions are neither sufficiently recognized nor rewarded…” “Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color,” ABA Report (Jun. 22, 2020). “Without clear goals and benchmarks, agreed upon by all parties, you cannot successfully evaluate employee’s performance. The lack of clarity leaves room for subjectivity and biases,” and “An overall environment of trust and transparency will help employees and leaders feel safe to be their authentic selves.” S. Ames, “Inclusive Performance Management,” Brighter Strategies (Oct. 13, 2020). Again, LPM tackles these issues by increasing transparency, tracking who is working on which tasks, and giving a tool to monitor contributions. It also cuts down on preferential assignments, so that partners are not left to pick “favorites” and leave other lawyers unfairly under-utilized and hampered in their ability to grow and demonstrate their abilities. With LPM, there is nowhere for both implicit and explicit bias to hide.

Legal Project Management as a Tool for Solo Practitioners and Small Firms

Big firms have implemented LPM as a cost-controlling measure. But LPM can and should be implemented in firms of all sizes, including by solo practitioners. Teams of all sizes will benefit from better organization and strategic use of their resources. Indeed, solo practitioners and small firms would benefit the most because they have fewer resources to leverage, and those resources have to be leveraged in the most efficient way possible.

So the final question is this: if changing one thing could change everything, would you do it?

Dr. Giugi Carminati, Esq., JSD, CEDS, CIPP/E, LPM is a certified Legal Project Manager and E-Discovery Specialist. Giugi is a Legal Project Manager and E-Discovery Director at the civil rights law firm NDH, LLC, and supervising attorney at New Leaf Family Law. Giugi also offers Livable Law LPM weekend workshops for women law firm leaders seeking to learn about Legal Project Management and immediately implement methods and strategies in their everyday practice. Giugi also has a blog, Geek Like a Girl, where she shares legal tech and ESI implementation tips, and a YouTube Channel, Argue Like a Girl, dedicated to social justice and legal project management videos.

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