Project Management is Vital for Lawyers

In-house attorneys rarely have the luxury of focusing on one project at a time. On any given day, we juggle many projects, each involving different personnel, priorities and due dates. Despite our familiarity with deadlines and hectic schedules, in-house legal departments often lag behind other business units in adopting project-management techniques. It seems that few lawyers possess well-honed project-management skills. Yet in these cost- and resource-conscious times, project-management skills have become as vital for in-house legal teams as for other departments.

Skill No. 1: Know what is on your plate. Every law department needs a means to track all pending matters and deadlines. If your organization is large, a matter-management system can be invaluable to staying on top of open matters. These systems permit companies to organize contacts, documents, people, deadlines and data by project; control user access to the contents of each project; and generate alerts to keep those projects on schedule. If a matter-management system is not an option, there are numerous cost-effective ways to stay on top of an expanding to-do list: Identify at least one person who owns the tracking of all matters, deadlines and key stakeholders in a prominent place (e.g., a spreadsheet); establish a timeline for critical tasks; and monitor all deliverables and set calendar reminders to ensure timely progress.

Skill No. 2: Begin managing the project as soon as it comes in the door. On-time delivery is critical for workflow and departmental credibility. If a project deadline is weeks away, resist the urge to procrastinate. Every new project requires immediate analysis.

Skill No. 3: Choose the right team. Project success depends on the team assembled to complete it. While staffing your project exclusively with attorneys is possible, many projects require input from other departments. If you cannot identify the appropriate person to complete the task, act quickly by soliciting advice from colleagues or the project stakeholders.

Skill No. 4: Communicate early and often. Early communication with project team members is essential for at least four reasons. First, early notice gives the project manager time to educate experts as necessary, which results in more complete and accurate data. Second, maximizing experts' delivery time allows the team to respond to unexpected changes and correct errors. Third, business units often have requirements for processing projects, such as requiring formal, written requests detailing the project requirements and timetable. In-house attorneys who fail to observe these requirements risk significant setbacks, such as incomplete data or the need to seek extensions. Finally, early communication shows consideration and respect for project team members. The in-house attorney who consistently tries to maximize team members' productivity garners credibility that will carry over to the next project.

Stakeholder communication is vital and must include project updates supporting the delivery date. Soliciting stakeholders' input early and often will keep them involved and minimize potential complaints about the outcome.

Skill No. 5: Packaging and presentation. Once the data is collected, in-house counsel must communicate the results to stakeholders. The presentation must be clear, concise, well-drafted, easy to review and error-free. Executive summaries and bullet points make complex narrative reports more accessible.

Summary: In-house attorneys are trained to plan and execute strategies, organize their work and communicate with the client. Because project management requires the same attributes, effective project management is well within the in-house counsel's skill set.

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