The Ten Laws of Legal Project Management: Barriers to Progress and Client Issues

This is the third column of a series on the Ten Laws of (Legal) Project Management. I’ll recap the ten laws at the end of this column, but for this month, let’s focus on some barriers to progress (Laws 3 and 4) and a pair of client-related suggestions (Laws 5 and 6).

By the way, the title of this article represents two different ideas. If you think of your clients as a barrier to progress, we may have a bigger problem here.

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

Technically, this law is called the sunk-costs fallacy.

This law has two steps.

  1. Stop digging. Now.
  2. Figure out the right path forward regardless of whatever money or effort you’ve invested so far.

Let’s say you’ve hired an e-discovery vendor and you’re not making progress. You can keep throwing money at them, perhaps hoping to recoup some of it later, or you can figure out whether you have the right vendor. Or you can panic and yell and scream… and then probably wind up throwing more money at the vendor, only now you’re even later because you wasted time panicking. Of course, you can threaten them, but remember the project manager’s maxim that while you can bully someone into committing to an unrealistic deadline, you can’t bully them into meeting it.

In this example, when you realize you have the problem, stop. That doesn’t mean necessarily issuing a stop-work order to the vendor, but rather investing the time to take stock. Is it a real problem, or a perceptual one (e.g., they’re getting the work done but providing lousy status reports)? What are our alternatives? Who do we need to alert now about the potential issue? (See Law 9.)

Assuming you do have a real problem, you need to evaluate alternatives without considering what you’re already spent. That money – and time – is gone. (Okay, maybe there are penalty clauses and such, but simplify for the moment by thinking of what you’ve invested as money not coming back.) If your client gave you this e-discovery problem today, how would you solve it, knowing what you know now about the vendor?

Because that’s where you are. You have this problem today, no matter what happened yesterday, or last week.

So start from there. How do we solve it?

Of course, the usual constraints apply – total cost, deadlines, etc. But those constraints are separate from the past. You’ve dug a hole. How do you climb out? Rarely does the answer lie in digging the hole deeper.

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

I covered this law in depth in the first column in the series. Let me add one point here.

This law highlights one of the differences between management and leadership.

Start by remembering that you have hired smart, committed people. (If you haven’t, you need to fix that problem first. And consider: the problem may not be the team, but your management/leadership style. Management and leadership coaching is sought all too rarely in the legal world… but it might be the most effective “CLE” you ever engage in.)

Share with those smart, committed people where you’re going. What are the project goals? What are the client needs? What are the Critical Success Factors you’re agreed with the client? What are the project risks you’re facing, and what are you doing to mitigate them?

Then stop micromanaging them. Let them use their brains, which will help strengthen their commitment.

Hint: “Your way” is not a synonym for “the right way.” It is a synonym for “a right way.”

My book Legal Project Management Field Guide might be particularly helpful here.

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

Remember, the real problem is the business problem.

I’ve found that many good lawyers are “foxes” rather than “hedgehogs,” in Philip Tetlock’s formulation. (See an excellent but long video here, and a no-statistics-needed summary here.) Tetlock’s thesis, borne out by experiments and analysis, is that generalists (foxes) often fare better than specialists (hedgehogs) in understanding problems – even in areas considered to be highly specialized.

Many top lawyers have vast wells of curiosity, and they read broadly outside their chosen specialty. And, of course, they’re usually rather bright.

So use that breadth and your general “fox” smarts to understand the client’s business problem. Often, you’ll find in the broader arena a simple (or simpler) solution that beats the purely legal approach.

But to get there, you have to focus on the business issue that is impeding the client’s path to business success. Sometimes this means working past the client’s insistence that you talk solely about the legal issue, a particular problem with the client is an attorney.

Here’s an analogy I’ve used and shared with clients. If you go to the doctor and say, “Doc, I’ve got the flu,” what does the doctor do? Take you at your word, or ask you to describe your symptoms while she’s examining you? If your client is saying the equivalent of “I’ve got the flu,” treat that as but one data point, and dig deeper. (That said, don’t forget your flu shot.)

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

It’s well understood in the economics and business worlds that “you get what you measure.” For example, now that I have a hybrid car that maps and displays my gas mileage, I’ve changed my driving habits, working to increase my average miles per gallon. Even my teenage son, when he borrows my car, drives very differently, intent on proving he can beat me at economic driving.

So what do lawyers measure? Often, it’s billable hours.

And what behavior does that measurement drive?


(Not always, but more often than we’d all like.)

Instead, what if you measure client satisfaction? Consider: more satisfied clients will also lead to increased billable hours, because they’ll recommend you to their peers.

If you do ten tasks on a matter, they don’t all add the same value. Focus first, and most deeply, on those that add the most value to the client.

While there are certain baseline metrics you have to attain – e.g., meeting a court’s filing requirements – they rarely take up most of your time. In addition, many such items are bars to clear rather than tanks to fill – once you’ve cleared the bar, pouring additional work into the tank yields decreasing benefit.

Beyond those baseline tasks, consider the client’s business problem, and how you can best help solve it. Define – with your client – the matter’s Critical Success Factors, and focus efforts there.

In Review: The Ten Laws

  1. First Effectiveness, Then Efficiency
  2. The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good
  3. When You Discover You’re Digging a Hole, Stop Digging
  4. Help Your Team “Make It Up” the Same Way You Would
  5. The Client Won’t Tell You the Real Problem
  6. If It Doesn’t Add Value, Don’t Do It
  7. The Only Constant Is Change, So Plan on It
  8. Don’t Be the Star in Your Own Play
  9. Bad News, Unlike Wine, Doesn’t Get Better With Age
  10. Truth Is Hard, But Self-Deception Is Fatal

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