Effective project management starts by asking the right questions. While there are hundreds of questions managers can ask, this list summarizes the most critical ones

LegalBizDev

The latest post from Jim Hassett’s blog Legal Business Development.


Key questions project managers should ask

By Jim Hassett, LegalBizDev and Natasha Chetty, Bellwether Strategies

Effective project management starts by asking the right questions. While there are hundreds of questions managers can ask, this list summarizes the most critical ones. It is organized in terms of the eight key issues discussed throughout the LPM tools and templates that we have published.

Set objectives and define scope

  • What business problem does the client want to solve?
  • How does this affect the client’s organizational goals and reputation?
  • Are several outcomes acceptable?
  • What deadlines matter to the client?
  • Are there strict budget limits?
  • Who is the ultimate decision maker?
  • How does the client define success?
  • How will you know when you are done?

Identify and schedule activities

  • How can large matters be subdivided into smaller discrete tasks?
  • Which tasks are on the critical path? That is, which tasks must be completed before others can start?
  • What deadlines will best align the client’s needs with the firm’s interests?
  • What external and internal scheduling constraints do we need to be aware of?

Assign tasks and manage the team

  • Who will be responsible for each task?
  • How long do they think the tasks will take?
  • What help, resources, or support will they need to finish on time, within budget?

Plan and manage the budget

  • How much should be budgeted to complete each milestone in the project?
  • How much was actually spent?
  • If at any point actual spending exceeds the planned budget, what can be done to get back on track?
  • Can savings on one activity be applied to compensate for overspending on another, within the overall budget total(s)?
  • Who are the relevant contacts regarding budget at the client’s organization and what are their needs or priorities?

Assess risks to the budget and schedule

  • What could possibly go wrong that would increase the cost, delay the project, or decrease client satisfaction?
  • How likely is this to happen?
  • How serious would the impact be if it did happen?
  • Which risks should I plan for in advance?

Manage quality

  • Does the client have any concerns about the quality of the work?
  • How should I monitor the quality of work performed by other team members?

Manage client communication and expectations

  • Who is responsible for communicating with the client decision maker?
  • What does the decision maker care most about?
  • Does the decision maker prefer formal reports, informal email, regular phone calls, face-to-face meetings, or another type of communication?
  • Should brief standard reports be submitted every week or month?
  • Which stakeholders does the decision maker need to communicate with in general or on this matter?

Negotiate changes of scope

  • How should I track changes to the work required and their implications for schedule and budget?
  • What criteria should I use to decide when a change in requirements should lead to a client negotiation for additional funding?


Adapted from the
Fifth Edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide
, a frequently updated online library of LPM tools and templates

      


The Delegation Checklist

By Gary Richards and Jim Hassett

The most effective tactics for delegating will vary depending on the assignment and the people involved. This checklist can help you select the best practices that will be most useful in each situation.

  • Does the person doing the work have a clear understanding of the desired results?
    • Describe the client’s objective
    • Describe the scope of the whole project so they can see where their part fits in
    • Define a clear picture of the specific results expected, including format (e.g., Word vs. Excel)
    • Estimate the number of hours you think it should require

  • Did you leave the method to the doer as much as possible?
    • Have the appointed worker explain ‘how’ they expect to proceed. If they ‘create’ the method/steps, they will ‘own’ them
    • You can then coach them if you prefer different steps/approach

  • Did you jointly set deadlines?
    • One good way is to say, “I’d like this completed by_____. Do you think that is reasonable?”
    • Then discuss and negotiate if needed. Deadlines are best when set through collaboration instead of command.
    • Agree on when they are expected to complete the work and when you will review it

  • Did you jointly set progress checks and then follow up to reinforce, not enforce?
    • Explain reasons for check points (“to be sure you have what you need…”)
    • Setting up those checks/interim reviews in advance lets the worker know what to expect. That’s better than a surprise visit to see “How they are doing,” which can seem threatening.
    • Checkpoints can be especially valuable if they help the worker keep the initiative for checking in

  • Did you negotiate priorities if the workers are already committed elsewhere or are overloaded?
    • When people lose their right to show the impact of the delegation on their other work, they will feel stressed and you won’t have the complete picture
    • This negotiation, when needed, helps you keep their work focused on the firm’s true priorities

  • Did you request that they notify you immediately if the deadline becomes jeopardized?
    • Willing workers are often reluctant to raise the flag on emerging delays, but instead want to get it back on track themselves so as not to look like they couldn’t handle it
    • But, if they notify you immediately, you can help them work out the best recovery plan, and maybe even command some resources not available to the worker for the fix

  • Are you available to help if needed?
    • You have as much interest in their successful work as they do
    • A request for help can be a coachable moment. Point out what they can do on their own next time, or assure them that you care about their success and will pitch in.

  • Did you lend authority where needed?
    • If a paralegal, an associate or a junior partner is going to need something from other senior partners, you should inform those senior partners that the worker is representing you, explain why they are being asked, and encourage them to cooperate. This “credentializes” the worker and removes roadblocks.

  • Are you using final reviews to teach better habits?
    • You must review work to ensure quality and value, especially if the worker is a paralegal and you are representing the work as legal work
    • The final review is also an ideal time for coaching or corrections if changes are needed. This is an investment in the professional development of the worker.
    • Have the worker do the corrections; don’t do them yourself. That way you save time, and they learn.

This blog series was adapted from the Fifth Edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, a frequently updated online library of LPM tools and templates.

      


How to deal with difficult clients and situations (Part 2 of 2)

By Gary Richards, LegalBizDev

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed one healthy option for dealing with clients and situations that are extremely demanding and/or require substantial write-offs:  Changing the Situation.  We outlined a script that can be used in discussions with clients and presented a sample of how that script might be used.

In this post, we will discuss options 2 and 3: Accept the Situation and Leave the Situation. Again, all three of these options involve financial risks which could negatively impact the individual lawyer or the entire firm. Therefore, we strongly recommend that the lawyer consult with appropriate colleagues and firm management and obtain their concurrence before taking any action.


Option 2: Accept the Situation

If you decide you need the work and are not in a position to negotiate a change in what your client is doing, or you try to change the situation and fail, then ask whether there are sufficient reasons to accept the situation.  Continuing the example from Part 1 of this blog series, the following reasons to accept the situation may be valid:

  • We have little chance to replace this loan business with more profitable loan business
  • We have little likelihood of getting more profitable non-loan business of this caliber or size
  • We need these partial payments to cover firm overhead
  • We need this low-realization revenue to keep our people busy

If you decide to accept the situation, keep these reasons in mind to help you cope better the next time a challenging situation occurs.


Option 3: Leave the Situation

If it is too costly to accept the situation and all your efforts to change it fail, then it may be appropriate to leave the situation.  In our example, the lawyer could notify the bank client that she will not be able to handle any further loan business from them if the adverse situation happens again. (According to ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.16 DECLINING OR TERMINATING REPRESENTATION (b), “A lawyer may withdraw from representing a client if…(6) the representation will result in an unreasonable financial burden on the lawyer or has been rendered unreasonably difficult by the client.”)

Using any one of the three healthy options described in this blog series is better than the unhealthy alternative of suffering and complaining.

This blog series was adapted from the fifth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, a frequently updated online library of LPM tools and templates.

      


How to deal with difficult clients and situations (Part 1 of 2)

By Gary Richards, LegalBizDev

When clients are extremely demanding and/or require substantial write-offs, lawyers face difficult choices, especially in the current competitive marketplace. In many cases, lawyers choose the unhealthy option of simply suffering and complaining. This section outlines three healthier alternatives:

  1. Change the Situation
  2. Accept the Situation
  3. Leave the Situation

Obviously, all three of these choices involve financial risks which could negatively impact not only the individual lawyer, but also the entire firm. Therefore, we strongly recommend that the lawyer consult with appropriate colleagues and firm management and obtain their concurrence before taking any action.


Option 1: Change the Situation

If the situation is simply not acceptable, then the best first step could be to try to change it. The simplest and least controversial approaches are the ones that are strictly internal and do not require discussion with the client, such as applying legal project management to increase efficiency and client satisfaction, or brainstorming with others in your firm regarding steps you or your practice group could take.

If changing the situation requires negotiating with the client to change what they are doing, it is important to recognize that the simple act of talking to a client about how to improve things is not free of risk in the current marketplace, where competing firms are aggressively seeking new clients. Therefore, the way you pursue this option, or even whether you pursue it, depends on your relationship with the client and the business objectives of the firm. There are times when a large client with significant write-offs is far preferable to no client at all.

If you decide to pursue change with the client, you could consider calling in your firm’s managing partner or a practice group leader so that he or she can appeal directly to the client.  Obviously, however, that step must be taken very cautiously if at all, since escalating the problem could backfire.

If you wish to handle this yourself, you could begin from the script below. Even if the client does not agree to help, it will provide you with new information regarding how they value the relationship and your best next steps.

Create a script from this outline:
  • I need your help re: [state the topic]…
  • When [the recent, undesirable event (STATE SPECIFICS)] occurs…
  • The result is [SPECIFICALLY state the undesirable results]
  • And my concern about that is [state your negative situation, feelings, predicament, etc.]…
  • Can you commit to [SPECIFICALLY state the different, better actions you want the listener to take]…?
  • Thanks for agreeing to help me in this way…
  • I look forward to our next deal…
Sample script:

Note: the narrator in this scenario is an outside lawyer in a discussion with her bank client, “Bill,” regarding problems with borrowers applying for loans:

Bill, I need your help to avoid so many fee write-offs with your borrowers. I truly appreciate your business and want to continue working with you, but when a borrower like Anycorp, Inc. agrees upfront to reimburse our [standard/reasonable/ customary] fees and yet ends up requiring a substantial write-off, the result is that I find myself in a difficult position when our work is done. In the last year we had to write off over $50,000:

Blog_Table_AvoidDifficultClients
My concern about that is that I feel like no matter how well I keep you posted, and how good a job I do, I am often not paid in full. That puts me under pressure from my partners, who don’t expect me to work for free.

Can you commit to showing your borrowers my detailed budgets and work assumptions and get them to sign off on each material change in scope before I resume work, a procedure they can agree to in the term sheet?

Thanks, Bill. I really appreciate your strengthening these steps to help manage your borrower’s fee expectations so we can avoid ill will to your bank and protect my efforts. I really look forward to our next deal, when we can begin this new approach for our mutual benefit.

Of course, if Bill does not agree to this or some other mutually satisfactory solution, then you must reevaluate the relationship and whether it is worth the frustration and lost income. For instance, the bank may complain about your work or just show indifference to anything but low fees keeping their borrower happy. In any case, a business decision will be needed.

In Part 2 we will discuss options 2 and 3 (Accept the Situation and Leave the Situation).

This blog series was adapted from the fifth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, a frequently updated online library of LPM tools and templates.

      


How to Improve the Management of Legal Teams (Part 3 of 3)

By Jim Hassett and Tim Batdorf

In this final part of our series, we discuss rules #7 through #10 and conclude the discussion of Paul Dinsmore’s “Ten Rules of Team Building” from the AMA Handbook of Project Management (p. 411).

Rule #7: Get the team in shape

Effective leaders do not do all the work; they delegate. They don’t micromanage, and they don’t try to do it all themselves or have others perform tasks exactly as they would.

They apply active listening and communicate regularly with team members. They also focus on unifying the team to work towards shared goals, and they don’t allow egos to get in the way of teamwork. This means learning to deal with conflict more effectively, whether it is between two members or between the leader and someone else. It all comes back to listening.

In some cases, it may be useful to formally coach junior team members at the outset. Ask them where they feel they need training. Compare the skills your team has with the skills they need to become more efficient.

If the learning curve looks steep and the team is working on large matters, you might even consider formal training programs. In large firms, the professional development department can provide quick guidance on what is available and what has worked for other lawyers in the past.

Rule #8: Motivate the players

Rule #1 was to identify what drives your team: the inherent intellectual challenge of legal matters, the relationships and collaboration, competitiveness, or the simple need to pile up billable hours.

Of course, the answer is likely to be all of the above and more, and in different proportions for different people. On large matters, your job as a leader is to develop a sense of what motivates each key individual and then to incorporate these motivators into your feedback and interactions with team members.

Make sure key team members understand the deliverables in the SOW, and then give them ownership of the process. Let them tell you how to meet your goals, on time and within budget.

Motivating some team members may be as simple as recognizing and praising their accomplishments.

If you expect the best from your team, you are more likely to get it.

Rule #9: Develop plans

Lawyers are good at convincing clients to invest time and money in planning. Clients are told to plan their taxes, plan their estates, and plan the best way to structure their contracts.

But when a new matter begins, many lawyers would rather jump right in than step back and plan their approach. Jumping right in can be a great way to be inefficient, and the traditional billable hour model rewards inefficiency.

However, as one consultant put it, “Being too busy to plan is a lot like running alongside your bicycle because you are too busy to get on.” Now that clients are pressuring legal counsel to become more efficient, there is a new emphasis on developing a plan before beginning a matter.

Planning starts with a solid SOW so that it is clear that the client and the lawyer agree on what is to be done. Then the lawyer in charge can map out the necessary tasks and assign them to different team members, using the Matter planning template in this Guide or other tools.

Better yet, don’t just create a plan by yourself. Get your team so involved in the project and decision making that they say, “This is our plan.”

Rule #10: Control, evaluate, and improve

When many people start managing projects, the biggest mistake they make is to trust their staff too much. “I hired extremely talented people,” they reason, “so they will figure things out.”

Most learn the hard way that effective managers control the work process, evaluate the results, and use the results to improve performance. This can be valuable even if a project is so small that you are working alone. But when you work on projects with large teams, “control, evaluate, and improve” is absolutely vital.

If you want to rely on software for this, our opinion is that the best software solution is the one you already own and know how to use. Whether your team uses Outlook or something else, it’s worth learning about the features that can help you manage your team, including email groups, meeting invitations and scheduling, and creating and tracking team “To Do” lists.

Tracking the budget is especially important these days, and we often hear about how law firm accounting systems are becoming more sophisticated in their ability to support periodic work-in-progress updates. How often do you need these updates? The answer varies from one matter to another. Many firms seem to be headed toward real-time reporting and requiring lawyers to update their time records daily.

Finally, at the end of each important matter, it is vital to conduct some sort of “lessons learned” review. Poll your team members on what they thought worked well and what they thought needed improvement. However, ultimately, there is only one results assessment that counts, and that comes from the client. So you need to make sure that you have an accurate reading from the client as close to the end of the matter as possible.

In the good old days when clients rarely complained about the efficiency of legal teams and hourly rates went up every year, it was not necessary to think about better ways to manage legal teams. Now it is.

This blog series was adapted from the fifth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, a frequently updated online library of LPM tools and templates.

      



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