Become a Five-Tools Project Manager

Baseball scouts dream of finding up-and-coming five-tools players. These rising stars hit for power, hit for average, speed around the bases, throw accurately, and field their positions well. Every position player in the major leagues has solid grades on at least a few of these tools, but only a handful have mastered all five.

Legal Project Management, as well, has five tools, each corresponding to one of the five areas you can manage:

  • Manage the project, starting with the project charter.
  • Manage the client, starting with the Conditions of Satisfaction.
  • Manage time, starting with the Off Switch.
  • Manage money, starting with budgets.
  • Manage the team, starting with assigning tasks accurately.

You’re in the big leagues in your legal practice. You’ve mastered the tools of your area of law, and of being a lawyer. However, a significant part of your day involves neither the law nor lawyering. As you’ve advanced through your career, you’ve been spending increasing time managing legal projects, even if you’ve never thought of it as “project management.” You’re getting matters organized. You’re working with the client, trying to understand her needs and meet her fiscal expectations. You’re assigning tasks to others. And you’re ridiculously busy.

This book is for you. It’s designed to help you move toward becoming an MVP (most valuable player) within your practice, a five-tools standout on the project-management portion of your job.

I use the word “standout” intentionally. Successful legal project managers will stand out in their practice as the people who get things done, who have satisfied clients, who build high-functioning teams, who drive profitability or accomplish more than expected with a shrinking budget.

The Sixth Tool

A few baseball teams look for a sixth tool as well, “knows how to play,” abbreviated KHTP. Anyone who’s watched today’s crop of major-leaguers throw to the wrong base, miss the cut-off man, or run the team out of a big inning understands the value of this skill.

While scouts can measure (sort-of) the five tools, they find it harder to assess KHTP. It’s often remarkable only by its absence, when a player makes a cringe-inducing mental error.

Likewise, practice managers, managing partners, and general counsels are starting to assess KHTP as well, “knows how to project-manage.” They may not (yet) recognize the positive aspects, the skillful use of the five project-management tools, but they’re increasingly likely to note the absence of this sixth tool. A lawyer who is repeatedly attached to failed projects, with budget overruns and high write-offs, with grumbling teams and dissatisfied clients, will increasingly stand out – for all the wrong reasons – in today’s difficult legal environments.

A Brief Review of the Five Tools

Future columns – as well as my new book, Legal Project Management Field Guide: Five Tools for Busy Professionals – will offer more detail about each of these tools, as do the courses I teach. For the present, here’s a brief summary.

The Project Charter collects up front the core information you’ll need to succeed with the project. What’s the business problem? What does success look like, both at a high level (vision) and with a small number of critical must-haves (“Done”)? What are the key deadlines? What resources (people, mostly) do you need? What’s the approximate overall cost to the client? Who are the stakeholders? What major project risks can you foresee – and get out in front of?

And most importantly – do the legal team and the client agree on what you won’t do?

The Conditions of Satisfaction represent a shared understanding of what the client is looking for – which goes beyond “a good result.” What are your deliverables? When? How do you communicate with the client? What’s the expected budget – their time as well as money? And what are the Critical Success Factors, three (or maybe four) items absolutely central to the client’s expectation of success?

The Off Switch is my name for cutting down the constant stream of interruptions that prevent you from reaching “flow,” or the seemingly effortless production of high-quality work for the client. You’re not giving your best if you’re thinking about email every three minutes. (You’re probably not liking your job as much as you could, either.)

Budgets are increasingly requested by clients – not necessarily detailed analyses, but rather an agreement as to what your work on a matter or file is likely to cost them. Clients almost always have fixed budgets, and they cannot use the money they’re spending with you for the other things they promised their own bosses they’d accomplish. Offering a budget is not the same as negotiating a fixed fee and does not preclude traditional hourly work.

Task Assignments are crucial when it comes to dividing work among the team. The biggest causes of rework and unplanned write-offs all relate to ineffective task-assignment processes. Good assignment procedures also take some of the fear and mystery out of delegation for those uncomfortable with what they see as ceding control.

(This article is adapted from Steven B. Levy’s new book: Legal Project Management Field Guide: Five Tools for Busy Professionals.)

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