The Ten Laws of Legal Project Management

Over the next few articles, I’ll introduce the Ten Laws of (Legal) Project Management and then go into some of them in practical, how-do-I-apply-this detail.

Why ten? It feels like about the right number, a manageable number that sums up basic project management maxims and guidelines. (I hear one of you saying, That’s as high as he can count without taking off his shoes. I know who you are, too.)

1. First Effectiveness, Then Efficiency

Efficiency is doing things right, but effectiveness is doing the right things.

If you’re headed in the wrong direction, marching off course ever more efficiently does neither you, your project, or your client much good. Rather, focus on understanding what needs doing in terms of managing your legal projects, and only then think about making it work better.

For example, not all projects need detailed step-by-step Gantt-chart-style plans. Figure out what kind of plan does work for you and your project – and remember that not all projects are created equal. (Simple project plans are important and interesting enough to merit revisiting this topic a future article.)

2. The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Lawyers want to be perfect. It’s drilled into the profession.

However, only with infinite time and resources can perfection be achieved, and real-world projects are always subject to time and resource pressure. (Often such pressure is expressed in terms of client dollars). I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t strive for the best, but a good project manager understands where to focus those limited resources. Not everything can be the best, so figure out early which pieces are a) most important and b) most subject to smaller imperfections causing larger damages.

3. When You Discover You’re Digging a Hole, Stop Digging

Step back once in a while and see where you are relative to your project goals. It’s easy to get rat-holed on one particular problem and not see that ten other issues are threatening your project. Single-minded focus on one specific abyss leads to panic, rather than planning, when you discover it’s not the only hole.

4. Help Your Team “Make It Up” the Same Way You Would

No project plan covers all the details. Even in the most regulated project environments, such as nuclear reactors and aircraft, items are missed.

Members of the team – and this includes the legal professionals, not just the project team – will regularly encounter areas that are not “in the spec,” or in the client’s briefing, or areas of past discussion.

If the team member has to come running to you on each such item, you’ll rapidly become swamped, your team will become dysfunctional, and you’ll wonder why no one loves working with you and your projects.

On the other hand, you don’t want team members “making stuff up” at random when they don’t know what to do.

However, if the team is clear on project goals, the business problem, and the project vision (see my earlier articles on Project Charters, or any of my Legal Project Management books), they’ll have a pretty good idea of what to do in most cases that weren’t explicitly discussed. They’ll indeed make stuff up, but they’ll make it up the same way you would. And of course as you stay aware of their work, you’ll spot times when they do get off track.

If the next step in a project feels fuzzy, that’s when they need to come to you for clarification.

5. The Client Won’t Tell You the Real Problem

The real problem is the business problem. (We’re talking corporate law here, of course, not defending a criminal matter.)

What business problem is the client trying to solve? What’s driving it? What is the range of acceptable solutions?

Too often, clients tell you what they think the legal problem is. Not only may they be wrong about that, there is usually a wide range of solutions to the business problem that aren’t really legal-world solutions.

Think back to the Johnson + Johnson Tylenol drug-tampering (poisoning) event in 1982. J+J could have taken a purely legal approach, especially since it was clear early on that the poisoning was happening in stores, when the product wasn’t under their control.

Instead, they saw and responded to the business problems (people were dying and their brand was getting hammered). Their response is often held up as a model in business classes.

6. If It Doesn’t Add Value, Don’t Do It

Most legal projects have a near-infinite amount of work that can be justified as being related to the core issue. Clients don’t have near-infinite money to spend. Focus on those tasks that will result in highest levels of value being delivered to the client.

7. The Only Constant Is Change, So Plan on It

As Prussian military strategist Helmuth von Moltke put it, No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

8. Don’t Be the Star in Your Own Play

The lead role in Hamlet is Hamlet. Yes, Osric and the First Gravedigger and Barnardo are important, but frankly, their lines could be read by the stage manager without losing the dramatic import of the play. (I’m not suggesting that the production would be as good that way – both Osric and the Gravedigger provide badly needed comic relief at critical junctures – but rather that they’re not the focus of the evening.)

The lead role in your legal project is played by the client. The lead attorney also has a major role, Claudius to the client’s Hamlet. As the project manager, you’re helping advance the play, making it easy for the performers playing Hamlet and Claudius to move the audience. But that audience is not filling the theater to see you.

9. Bad News, Unlike Wine, Doesn’t Get Better With Age

This one’s rather self-explanatory, isn’t it?

10. Truth Is Hard, But Self-Deception Is Fatal

Be honest with yourself about how the project is faring. We can always get better as project managers, even in the context of the current project. There is always more to learn.

But it’s hard to improve if you’re blind to the issues.


Aphorisms are limited. They’re shorthand, in this case, for complex aspects of project management. (Even #9, “Bad News…,” is surprisingly intricate when you start examining the specifics of sharing information about evolving issues.) But they help us focus our thinking.

In subsequent articles, I’ll dig deeper on a few of these ten laws.

Comments are closed.