Legal Project Management in Thirty Seconds

Can I teach Legal Project Management in thirty seconds? Of course not.

But I can teach the single most important question a project manager must ask: What does success look like?

In the book that defined this field (titled, for some reason, Legal Project Management), I focused a critical chapter on the need to define “Done.” Having spent much of the past decade teaching lawyers around the world to manage their projects, I’ve come ‘round to a different – and I believe clearer – way to frame that definitional issue: What does success look like?

For a certain subset of legal projects, “Done” is clear. We got the patent. We consummated the acquisition. We rewrote thousands of end-user licensing agreements to make them clearer and less arbitrary. With such projects, you can figure out what “Done” looks like once you’re 5% of the way into the project, and when you reach 99%, it’ll look pretty much the same. You can start on one course of action with realistic assurance that a) that course will carry you in a reasonably straight line toward your goal and b) should outside events intervene to disrupt your course, they’ll be so noticeable that everyone on the team, including the client, will recognize that path and endpoint have changed.

However, there are many legal projects where a simple “Done” is fluid, or hard to define. Litigation is the obvious example, but I’ve seen this situation in plenty of transactional matters as well.

How do you know you’re “Done” with a litigation? When the foreperson or judge reads the verdict? Okay, but what percentage of litigation projects get to trial? Focus only on that trial-outcome endpoint and you risk at least two issues that can make for a miserable life as a project manager:

  1. A case that settles – which is often the desired outcome – may leave you struggling when you review the project with the client, or your own manager. Did the project succeed? Did you meet your goals? How well did you do as project manager?
  2. A dogged straight-line approach may make it hard to accept and project-manage sidetracks that could lead to settlement or other alternate outcomes – especially when the “project manager” and “lead attorney” hats are worn on the same head.

Framing the project outcome around “what does success look like” affords the possibility of alternative positive outcomes. (So does “Done,” of course, but for casual project managers – or clients – the “success” question is easier to analyze and respond to.) Success, for example, might look like: Achieve a good outcome while keeping cost to 10% of what is at stake in the matter. (Maybe the more nuanced version includes different percentages depending on the stage of the lawsuit.) “Win at trial” is lovely, but it may not be as useful or meaningful to the client as “affordable good result.”

I recognize I am conflating, to some degree, pure project goals with matter goals. However, given how often a senior lawyer serves at least as de facto project manager, the matter goals will usually be in play. I think it makes sense not only to acknowledge that, but to incorporate those goals.

And consider the day you get a client who’s approach is “go to trial and send a message.” (I’ve met a few of these, and invariably there’s a profane adjective before “message.”) Now is the time for a blunt “what does success look like,” a simple “Done” statement. And the team, seeing the change in tone, will remain highly aware of the difference throughout the project.

What Happens if You Skip Those Thirty Seconds?

The most serious flaw in this strategy, this “what does success look like”? Failing to ask the question itself – and agree on an answer with the client.

If you don’t agree on what success looks like, how will you evaluate your work with the client? Sure, you can do a bunch of handwaving, and there will always be projects where success (or failure) is obvious and unmistakable. However, the majority of projects have lots of gray areas. When is the time to discuss these ambiguous areas with the client – as you start, or as you finish? You’ll get much better client satisfaction by addressing these up front.

That’s the other benefit of asking this question, in whatever form – getting client sign-on to a reasonable range of project outcomes. Because your job doesn’t end with this project, unless it’s a one-and-done with the client. (Even then, there can be referrals.) Your job focus is the client, across a series of projects. It’s in your interest, as project manager, to set the project and the client relationship up for success by agreeing in advance what such success looks like.


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