How Failures at the Beginning Can Doom a Project

project_management_collaborationWe’ve been discussing project management in a law firm environment, and we’re past the very beginning and on to the granular steps to taking a project off the drawing board and into practice.  It is simply impossible to over-stress that project management is a collaborative process, both internally at the firm and externally with the client.  Expectations should be managed in 360 degree fashion in order to move a project from these beginning stages into development, execution, and completion.  Yes, someone needs to be, and will be, in charge.  But project management in this environment is not about a dictator and his or her minions.  It is about reducing stress and friction.  It is about reducing waste and increasing attachment between client and firm.  And it is about delivering the same or better results to the client for reduced cost and/or better predictability.

So while it is not about dictatorships, it is similarly not all sitting in trust circles and singing “Kumbaya”.  Real work needs to be done at every stage, and the work done at each stage affects all of the stages that follow.  In this post, we’ll be talking about the traps in sourcing for the project, and in the next one, we’ll be discussing communication issues at the early stages.  So off we go.

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Project Management—The Beginning

legal_project_managementStarting off the Project Management (“PM”) series, it makes sense to start at the beginning.  I have jumped in at all levels of what purported to be managed projects, from inception to nearing completion.  Some were fairly well managed, but I’ve found that the later in the process I came in, the worse off the management was.  Once when I was asked to bring a project across the finish line that was 90% complete, I was delighted to hear we were 90% complete and at 80% of budget.  Until I learned that we were 140% over the original budget.

So we’ll begin at the beginning.  One of the biggest issues with managing a project of any size is determining the scope of the project.  Scope determines the budget, resources, and level(s) of management needed for the project.  Within the scope discussion, it is especially important in a legal project setting to define two things: (1) who can change the scope of the project, and (2) how the roles will be defined for the project.

Anyone who has ever managed a project can tell you all about scope creep.  Major changes to the scope of a project can be easy to identify.  Likewise, when the scope of a project encompasses the entire area of work, scope creep is not an issue unless budgeting is required for each sub-project.  However, when the scope of a project that is a subset of the entire body of work is ill-defined, minor changes to the scope can wreak havoc on budgets and resources.

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The Number 42

dice question markSo what is the real question?  Some argue that the question is different for law firms and for clients.  But if the questions are different, can the answer be the same?  While I suppose it can, it would almost be happenstance.  I think it’s just easier to find a common question.

There is a natural juxtaposition between client and firm when we only talk about money.  Firms want to increase profit, and clients want to decrease cost.  Both of those are constants, and they are necessarily inconsistent with one another.  But there are other goals, and this is the sweet spot for finding use in new models of practice.

The simplified definition of profit is income minus cost.  Many, if not most, firms who are currently profitable have made great strides in reducing overhead.  For those firms, there is little more to do without changing the model in some material way.  After all, there still need to be lights, and computers, and billing systems in order to operate the enterprise.  For clients still working exclusively with the billable hour model, the press for lower and more leveraged billable hour models has been consistent.  At some point, there is nowhere else to go, and as fixed costs continue to rise for everyone, the rates at some point become a hard floor.

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Project Management, Process Improvement, and the Number 42

douglas_adamsAfter a bit of a hiatus, I have returned to my blog with a series of posts about project management and process improvement.  Some of the discussions in this series of posts will seem repetitive to regular readers, but they both bear repeating and offer slightly different insights in this context.  But first, let’s take a short primer on what we’re talking about.

In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, a supercomputer called “Deep Thought” responds to a demand to know the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything” with the number 42.  The explanation is that, while the response took 7 million years to calculate and may seem nonsensical, it is because the people instructing the computer to make the calculation didn’t actually know what the question was.  The whole concept reminds me of the current fascination with alternative fees, project management, process improvement, and the interplay between clients and lawyers/law firms.  In my view, there are a lot of people talking about the answers without really knowing what the question is.

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Division of Labor and Law Firms

legal_disruption Two recent articles/blog posts piqued my interest. The first was written by Pam Woldow of Edge International (link), and the second by Robert Gogel of Integreon (link). Both were insightful, and I would like to both share the insight and add to them. In the interest of full disclosure, my firm, LeClairRyan, maintains a working relationship with Integreon.

Pam Woldow’s article speaks to the use of LPO and LPM as methods of increasing efficiency. Robert Gogel’s provides some historical perspective to the concept of the division of labor, something my readers are very familiar with from previous posts. Both recognize that the new normal will include “new” collaboration.

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World Cup Fever

usa-soccer-fifa-world-cup-2014Once again, the world’s attention is captivated by the FIFA World Cup tournament, this year being held in multiple venues around Brazil. Because of the better-than-expected performance by the United States team, emerging from the “Group of Death”, even Americans are fascinated and engaged by a sport that has a huge multinational following, but has enjoyed limited and fleeting success in the United States. It is that very success that has led me to this post.

On Friday night, after the US team had lost but still advanced (another concept somewhat foreign to US fans), the talking heads at ESPN had already begun breaking down the U.S vs. Belgium matchup (which I broke down by purchasing an American Strong Ale and a Belgian Trippel, but I digress.) During the discussion, and the repeated discussion on Sunday morning on a different show, the commentators noted that, coming into the tournament, just getting out of Group C would have been considered a major success for US Soccer. But now, having avenged a bad loss to Ghana, tied perennial powerhouse Portugal (in stunning fashion), and lost to Germany but not by enough for it to matter, winning a game in the Round of 16 seems essential to defining success.

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Welcome to the Party

legal_market_crashI read with great interest Sir Nigel Knowles’ article in The Lawyer (link), a publication concentrated on the UK legal market, entitled “The end of the legal market as we know it is nigh”.  On behalf of those who have been talking about this for some time, I would like to welcome Sir Nigel to the party.  By no means am I intending to pick on Mr. Knowles, who is listed as the global co-chief executive of legal monolith DLA Piper.  However, I both agree with his broad conclusion (in concept, if not in scope) and disagree with the majority of the rest of his article.

In the brief article, the ultimate conclusion is that the legal market is lined up for massive change (agree) as the industry “accelerat[es] towards its judgment day” (well, hyperbole never, ever, ever, ever hurt anyone, ever).  However, he notes that “all is not doom and gloom”, as there will be great opportunity for the firms that survive.  Other than the factors that have been pointed out in this and countless other blog posts, seminars, and the occasional screaming from the rooftops, this is the extent of the article that seems to be in touch with most of the legal community.

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Working the Data

data crunchingThis morning as I prepared to write this, a headline flashed across my screen that an exploration company that is not part of the search team for the missing Malaysian airliner claims to have located wreckage that might be the plane. The problem is that it is 3,000 miles north of the “official” search zone. I completely understand that this could be an attention grab by the search company (which is why I am not naming it here), but I also understand that the search company is saying very specific things that would be simple to disprove, such as their data indicates that the “wreckage” they found was not there 3 days before the Malaysian airliner went missing. But it is the reaction from the Joint Agency Coordination Centre that was most compelling for me. The JACC said that the search grid is based on satellite and other data that led to the development of those search arcs, and the location indicated is not on the arc.

Color me unimpressed with that explanation. This is a massive undertaking, and with more than 2/3 of the search area covered, there is still no sign of the aircraft. So I get it. We can’t waste manpower and resources chasing every lead. But this is not Courtney Love claiming to have randomly found the wreckage. These are presumably scientists, with data.

When developing portfolio-based operations for the delivery of legal services, it seems obvious that decisions should be based on data, rather than supposition or anecdotal experience. The problems with actually performing that way, however, are myriad.

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Boston Strong

Boston_montageI find myself somewhat reluctantly keying in on a national tragedy to try to make a point but here it goes. The resilience of Boston after the senseless bombings at last year’s Boston Marathon is striking. Adam Sandler tweeted last year that Boston is the only city where, if you mess with them, they will shut down the city, stop everything, hunt you down and find you. The mass mobilization of first responders, and the heroism of so many civilians, are details of the bombing I will never forget.

I remember talking to a friend in the wake of everything. My friend commented that nothing would ever be the same, having been particularly troubled by the death of the 8-year old boy, Martin Richard. Having seen the slow recovery from the 9/11 attacks from northern New Jersey, I was confident that Boston would rebound, and that things would, indeed, return to normalcy for most. Boston and New England would emerge stronger. Little news of the remaining bomber (whose name I will not repeat here) has certainly helped. And indeed, the last week has shown the resilience of that great city.

Often, as in Boston’s case, resilience is a positive thing. Resilience has a darker side, however, and it is dangerous for much of the legal industry right now. Commentators have described the past few years as a “double-dip” recession, with a dip, then a partial recovery, and another dip. Not being an economist, I’m sure that’s true, but frankly, my own anecdotal experience does not include any partial recovery. In my view, it’s just been bad for a while. But there are certainly signs of life, and the legal industry historically has been slow to react to both recession and growth. (To some extent, this is necessarily so, as the work that stems from outside the legal industry is often reactive, so the lawsuit follows the reaction, which follows the decision-making process of whether the issue will resolve, which follows the recognition that the issue exists.)

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Cinderella and the Legal Industry

legal cinderellasMarch Madness is upon us, and this year’s tourney did not disappoint. From Mercer’s thrilling win over Duke to Dayton knocking off both state rival THE Ohio State University and heavily favored Syracuse, touted underdogs have knocked off perennial powerhouses. The powerhouse teams seem to have every advantage: stronger recruiting classes, larger and arguably better facilities, and plainly, more money from more booster participation. More money for coaches, travel, recruiting and facilities.

Honestly, if I take this analogy too far, it will lose credibility, so I’m going to limit how deep it goes. But there are parallels between the NCAA Tournament and what is happening with the legal industry. The perennial powerhouses of old are losing market share both to upstart firms and entities (last year, Florida Gulf Coast played into the Sweet 16, despite having been founded while I was in law school), and to firms that historically have been unable to compete in the same space (if Butler makes the three at the end of the 2010 championship game, they cut down the nets instead of Duke). While there are still more parallels to make, I want to talk about one in particular: access.

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