How Not to Manage Projects: Mismanaging Project Essentials

Welcome to 2020. (No, I can’t believe it, either.)

Managing projects is hard, so I’m going to focus for the next series of articles on how to avoid screwing them up.

Like Michelangelo said about creating his masterpiece sculpture from a formless block of marble, “I just carve away everything that doesn’t look like David.”

So let’s open the decade by carving away a bunch of stuff that doesn’t look like good Legal Project Management.

There are five aspects you have to manage to move projects forward effectively:

  1. The project itself.
  2. Time.
  3. Money.
  4. The client.
  5. The team.

This month, I’ll examine some ways to (mis) manage the project itself.

Don’t Know Where You’re Going

The fastest way to make a project fail is to approach it without a clear endpoint.

In litigation, for example, lawyers are (usually) seeking a good outcome for the client rather than assuming the matter will go to trial. If you start with the endpoint “win at trial,” you’re likely to miss opportunities to settle, and you may well create greater pain points – and bills – for the client. Noah Baumbach’s new film, Marriage Story, captures this point well, though be forewarned that it doesn’t exactly paint lawyers in a good light.

A legal project usually has many possible paths. An effective project manager understands the client’s needs (see below) and looks for ways to meet those needs efficiently.

For example, on one project, a team I was consulting with struggled with the opposing party asking for massive amounts of asymmetric e-discovery. The team was confident their client had done nothing wrong, but they were churning money, hours, and client energy arguing each e-discovery request. When I learned the opposing counsel was a one-person shop with no resources, I suggested they indicate they might give him every document they had. The opposing counsel quickly scaled back his request to a few specific items, and the matter settled soon afterwards on favorable terms. The project team had been responding to what was right in front of them rather than looking at the big picture.

I urge you to view the client’s goal in terms of the client’s business, rather than on purely legal terms. For example, in a patent dispute, is the goal to stop infringement? To maximize revenue (perhaps via a licensing agreement)? To protect the company (e.g., might cross-licensing be valuable)? Each of these would give rise to a very different project, and require different skillsets on the legal team.

Finally, some projects are relatively independent of their legal content. Is the project largely driven by a deadline? Is there a specific budget, or cost/benefit goal? An effective project manager thinks about the project structure itself as well as the work underlying the project.

Ignore the Client’s Business Goals

Lawyers too often think in terms of legal problems.

However, outside of criminal law, clients have business problems that include some legal aspect. Focus the team on understanding and addressing the client’s business goals, and you’ll often discover cost-effective solutions that don’t involve a bunch of lawyers on each side making work for each other.

For example, one lawyer I worked with was upset that his client wanted to sue an ex-employee who was judgment-proof. He didn’t want to rack up bills the client would never recover – and that the client knew could not be recouped. I asked about the client’s business goal. The lawyer didn’t know, and asked the client specifically. The client wanted to set a stake in the ground: We are not afraid to sue over bad behavior. Armed with that knowledge, the lawyer shed his guilt and worked with the client to structure his work to maximize visible effect while minimizing costs.

They adopted what I call the black-bear posture. If you hike in the woods and encounter a black bear, it will likely bluff-charge. It doesn’t want to eat you, but it very much wants you to go away. (The polar-bear strategy, however, is quite different. It does very much want to eat you. I sometimes think litigators see polar bears as the only animal in their zoo.)

The first thing to learn from any client is the business problem they’re trying to solve. Sometimes, you have to work hard to keep the client from talking about the problem in legal terms, especially if you’re working with in-house counsel. If you tell your doctor you’ve got the flu, she probably examines your symptoms rather than just taking your word for the problem. When your client opens a matter, you’re the doctor.

Don’t Learn Who the Stakeholders Are

If you’re working with a good-sized corporation, ignoring one or more stakeholders is a fast way to scuttle the project – or at least cause extra work and diminish client satisfaction.

Corporations are thickets of interlocking responsibilities. If the matter might hit the press, for example, marketing or PR is a stakeholder. (And today, what good-sized matters won’t get media coverage?) If you’re working for inside counsel and the law department charges their costs back to their internal clients, someone on the money side, whether the CFO or internal controllers, has a stake in what you do, or at least in what you bill.

Yes, it’s a pain to wrangle multiple stakeholders who often have competing goals. However, it’s a much bigger pain to try to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube once a stakeholder left outside the tent begins raising a fuss. And if you’re not in-house, you may never hear about that fuss until you try to figure out whey the client isn’t tossing more work your way.

Ignore Risks

“Oh, we’ll be fine – there’s no traffic,” says every fog-bound driver ever in the seconds before rear-ending fifty other cars.

Lawyers usually understand the idea of managing legal risk. Project risk is no different.

  • What happens if a key resource is unavailable at the right time?
  • What if a given aspect proves more expensive than you anticipated (or than you told the client)?
  • What do you do when (not if) you discover the client has left out an important detail in describing the issue at hand?
  • Is there sufficient budget? (Do you know the client’s budget? The project’s budget? Is there one?)
  • And so on….

The easiest way to stumble over project risk is to ignore those risks at the outset. So spend some time, early in the project lifecycle, identifying key project risks. Seek ways to prevent or minimize them, and to deal with the biggest risks if they do occur.

Avoid Developing a Project Charter

A project charter is your guide to the project. It delineates the client problem, the desired outcome, various goals, deadlines, budgets, key resources, risks, stakeholders, and scope (task list).

A great way to undercut your project is to avoid developing a charter.

A project charter can be – but doesn’t have to be – a formal document. I’ve worked on successful projects where the charter was a series of bullet points on a whiteboard, or an email shared among the team, or the notes from a meeting.

I’ve written elsewhere about how to create an effective charter in minimal time, both in previous SLAW articles and in my books Legal Project Management and The Legal Project Management Field Guide.

You don’t have to use my methods. Rely on whatever works for you.

Just don’t rely on seat-of-the-pants. That seat gets threadbare very quickly.

Coming Attractions

Over the coming months, I’ll talk about how to fail at each of the other four aspects of total project management: time, money, the client, and the team.

There are so many ways to make a project fail, or at least become more costly, painful, and unpleasant than it should be. If you avoid enough of these traps, you may not carve the next David, but your projects really will start to shape up.

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