What Is Project Management & Should Your Firm Care?

Three men, a project manager, an engineer, and a lawyer, traveled to the Grand Cayman Islands to conduct business there.

 Although the Grand Cayman Islands are known for their bustling financial industry, they are—of course—also hub of tourism. So, the three men walk along the nearest beach until one of them stumbles upon a lamp buried in the sand. He rubs it and a genie appears. The genie says “Normally I would grant you 3 wishes, but since there are 3 of you, I will grant each of you one wish.”

The software engineer went first. “I would like to spend the rest of my life living in a huge house in St. Thomas, with no money worries.” The genie granted him his wish and sent him on off to St. Thomas.

The accountant went next. “I would like to spend the rest of my life living on a huge yacht cruising the islands around St. John, with no money worries.” The genie granted him his wish and sent him off to St. John.

Last, but not least, it was the project manager’s turn. “And what would your wish be?” asked the genie.

“I want them both back after lunch,” replied the project manager. [1]

Now, you may have already heard this joke. Surprisingly, it makes fun of somebody other than the lawyer.

Project management, in general, is not typically associated with legal work. In fact, most lawyers would have a hard time defining the term. Is it case management? Is it human resources?

The Project Management Institute defines a project as “the application of knowledge, skills and techniques to execute projects effectively and efficiently. It’s a strategic competency for organizations, enabling them to tie project results to business goals—and thus, better compete in their markets.”

Reading between the lines, project management adds value to a firm. Law firms are no exception.

“Until very recently, lawyers that did recognise the term have considered the concept of project management beneath them. After all, lawyers were artisans not merchants or manufacturers. Each matter was unique and required the utmost flexibility. But the topic has been getting growing attention, especially from clients who have seen internally how important project management can be to efficient operation. Many outside lawyers are, as a result, starting to realize the ‘artisan’ argument does not hold water. Much of what lawyers do is a commoditised process. Even within highly customised bet-the-company cases, there are elements of commodity work and the process is similar from one case to the next, even if the facts are not,” explains Patrick J. Lamb, author of Alternative Fee Arrangements: Value Fees and the Changing Legal Market. [2]

These days, during a recession, it’s even more important to streamline operations and ensure each department adds value. Thus, law firms can no longer ignore project management. It is necessary for firms to succeed.

So, how do you apply project management to case matters within law firms?

According to Jim Hassett, author of The Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, there are 8 project management tasks for law firms [3]:

  1. Set objectives and define scope
  2. Identify and schedule activities
  3. Assign tasks and manage the team
  4. Plan and manage the budget
  5. Assess risks to the budget and schedule
  6. Manage quality
  7. Manage client communications and expectations
  8. Negotiate changes of scope

On the other hand, project management is only as good as its tools. Assigning tasks, planning the budget, and assessing risks require data collection and analysis. For law firms, there’s no better tool than Excel.

Excel can be used as a method to effectively organize case assignments and avoid duplication of work effort. For example, when a senior attorney wants to know who is creating the timeline (in Excel, of course) for his case matter, the information, including the name of the assigned associate and the status of his or her work, is quickly and clearly accessible.

Excel is also a financial tool that can conduct risk assessments and managing accounting books. Luckily, Excel comes free on most computers, and there exist a myriad of help tutorials to get you started. In fact, here are all the MS Office tips and tricks that every lawyer should know.

At the same time, there is a plethora of legal software available to firms with programs customized to your needs. Have your IT Department education you on your options.

Finally, the question remains, if project management is necessary, who then is best at becoming project managers?

For starters, all senior partners should feel comfortable with the tools used to manage projects. There are a lot of time constraitns on the “boss”, but ensuring he efficiency, productivity, and profitability of every firm activity is of primary importance.

Next, consider using your legal librarians as project managers. There’s nobody better suited for a job surrounding organization than a person intimately familiar with the Dewey Decimal system.

Finally, make sure all employees take project management seriously. Whether you increase the managing responsibilities of current managing partners or hire a separate project manager, your law firm should place project managers in a position of authority and respect.

Achieve your wish of “no money worries.” Implement strict project management practices today.


Need help? Follow C4CM’s guide, Effective Time Management: Take Control, Tackle Work Flow Chaos and Overcome Productivity Challenges.


  1. The Joke Index
  2. Jim Hassett, The Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide: Tools and Templates to Increase Efficiency,  2d ed (Boston, MA: LegalBizDev, 2011), 3.
  3. Patrick J. Lamb, Alternative Fee Arrangements: Value Fees and the Changing Legal Market (London, UK: Ark Group, 2010), 52.


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