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You Want Tools, Do You?

Every once in a while, someone in one of my classes asks, Aren’t there any tools for Legal Project Management?

(“Every once in a while” means every other session or thereabouts. It’s a common question.)

I answer this in three ways that I’ll share here.

“Tools” Does Not Mean Technology

First, “technology” is not a synonym for “tools.” It is at best one set of tools among many. To be specific, it is a minor set.

You can manage legal projects perfectly well without technology, and certainly without purpose-built “project management” technology. Lawyers Abe Lincoln and Clarence Darrow, for example, managed some highly successful projects using nothing more technological than pen and paper.

The converse is not true. You can have the world’s best technology-based tools and manage a project straight into the ground. I’ve seen that happen far too often. Effective Legal Project Management requires knowledge, common sense, leadership, people management, and communication as a baseline; fall short in one of these areas, and technology won’t rescue you.

The toolbox I recommend in my classes rarely includes technology beyond what’s already on your computer. Communication is a tool. Knowledge – of the client’s business and of project and people management techniques, among other areas – is a tool. Knowledge of your own strengths and weaknesses is a tool, a very powerful one.

Tools such as these are the ones that matter.

Build on these strengths, and then it’s time to think about other, technology-based tools that might augment your capabilities.

Project-Management-Specific Technology Tools

So let’s say you’ve learned to think like a project manager. Are there project-management tools that can help now?

As the lawyer said, “It depends.” (That was the answer on an all-lawyer episode of Jeopardy. Alex Trebek would have accepted any question as correct. Okay, I made that up. I think.)

There are some powerful tools that can offer a bit of assistance, such as Microsoft Project. The Gantt Chart aspects that people associate with Project aren’t terribly useful outside of a few specific types of matters, but the resource-calculation and task-list-with-rollup features of the left hand side of the default screen can be quite useful. However, it takes significant time and effort to master a tool this complex; it’s not clear that this is the best use of your time unless you’re highly comfortable with technology and don’t get caught up in technology-for-technology’s sake.

There are some simpler tools that address particular pieces of the Legal Project Management puzzle. One of those is OnIt, a cloud-based service that can help you track tasks, assignments, and budgetary items. It won’t manage the project for you; retain realistic expectations. Still, if its way of task management conforms to the way you work, it might be worth checking out.

The Legal OnRamp (the Secure OnRamp, the paid version) also offers some project management related technology, especially in terms of secure shared workspace in the cloud. It’s particularly valuable if you don’t use something like SharePoint already or if members of a multi-firm or joint firm/company team don’t have access to a single SharePoint site. It offers some intriguing capabilities beyond SharePoint as well, since it’s focused on legal work where SharePoint is a general-purpose tool.

Technology Tools You Already Have

The most effective and important technology tools are tools you already have.

They’re the components of Microsoft Office, particularly Word, Outlook, Excel, and OneNote. (If you’re not a Microsoft Office user, the equivalents you’re using in its place will work equally well, with the substitution of EverNote for OneNote.)

Outlook: I encourage project managers to make full use of two calendar features.

First, set up a project account with a separate calendar, and share that calendar with the team. It’s an easy place to note deadlines, meetings, assignments, etc. (Set the default reminder to None.) Team members can go to Open Calendar and open this account calendar.

There are various Microsoft and third-party add-ins that allow you to share calendars across the Internet, but I have no sense of how secure they are or whether some judge might deem that they break confidentiality or privilege boundaries.

Second, share out your own calendar among the project team. You can always mark some events private. However, sharing your calendar makes it easy for the team to understand what the project leader is doing… and to locate you if they need you for an urgent and important project issue.

My book The Off Switch contains other suggestions for making better use of email in general.

Word: It’s easy to turn a simple task list into a project schedule. If you’re comfortable with Word but not comfortable with other tools, then by all means do this in Word – and share it with the team! Set it up as a table for easy editing. Hint: once you have the table set up, put the cursor in the table, go to the Table Tools Layout tab, and select Repeat Header Rows. Each new page will show the table header, a boon when task lists start to span multiple pages.

Excel: Raise your hand if you went to law school to study math. Hmmm. No wonder Excel doesn’t have much of a following among lawyers.

That said, it works well for task lists, especially if you also track the time spent on each task. Few timekeeping systems allow you to retrieve timekeeping data in a way that maps to project tasks so that you can use the data to get better at estimating similar tasks in the future.

It’s also a good way to track risk exposure. (See my book Legal Project Management.)

OneNote is the unknown gem of Microsoft Office. For one thing, It’s easy to share pages on the fly, and you can “whiteboard” easily with them.

I use it to track almost all of the aspects of projects because of its flexibility, the sharing feature, and most of all because it gives me one single place to track and note everything, project related or not. There’s even a version for the iPad, which can help make the Apple tablet an even more powerful adjunct for the work of Legal Project Management.

The Number One Project Management Tool

Remember, there’s one Legal Project Management tool that stands above all the rest.

Without it, all the other tools combined won’t make you a successful project manager.

You have that tool in your toolbox. You’ve been using it for years. You’ve perforce gotten very good it with to attain the position you now have.

(If you’re unclear which tool I’m talking about, you’ll spot it next time you look in a mirror.)

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