Project Planning for Lawyers – Upping Your Game in a Chaotic World

In nearly two decades of practicing law, I have tried numerous systems to manage projects, stay on top of tasks, and delegate work to team members. The following is the simplest, most effective method I have discovered. For those of you who are Getting Things Done by David Allen enthusiasts, you will recognize his inspiration.

Master Task List

Writing all your tasks down to get them out of your head and stored in a reliable place is incredibly liberating. I have found that inputting all those tasks into a single list is a valuable habit to engage. Of course, half the battle is getting everything into a single list so you can decide what is the highest priority to tackle, which tasks you can delegate, and other ones that can be scheduled for a later date. I have also found that if you give in to the temptation to spread the list across multiple systems or people you are inviting anxiety about the list. So put them all in one place. Fight that temptation.

The list can be maintained in a simple spreadsheet or specialized software like Basecamp. We use proprietary project and task management software that integrates with our client and CRM systems. Because most of us work in a team environment, it is usually a best practice to designate an admin to maintain the list.

In addition to the name of the task, owner, and deadline, we have found tracking the following information to be helpful: task assignor, project manager, priority, client and matter, and practice area of the project. We also distinguish between deadlines (externally imposed obligations like a USPTO filing deadline or a court ordered date on a scheduling order) from a “next action,” which is what we call a task we wish to complete to move a project forward. Requiring the task assignor to include the deliverable requested (80% draft memo, key cases with passages highlighted, etc.) is also a valuable practice as it improves team communication.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to keep all tasks in a single list maintained by a reliable person or system.

Project List

Like a Master Task List, the Project List keeps track of all the various projects you either manage or have delegated. It also serves as a good reminder during the Weekly Review, and helps brainstorms next steps. For purposes of this system, I define a “project” to be anything requiring two or more next actions. A single task would be included in the Master Task List.

We track projects by client, matter, project manager, project team (people assigned to the project), and practice area. This allows for sorting and reporting in a variety of helpful manners. For example, I sort the overall Project List by practice area (litigation, trademarks, e-commerce) as well as by project manager. It is also important to distinguish between the projects you own as project manager, those you are assigned, and those you have delegated to others as that affects review and work flow.

Weekly Review

The Master Task List and Project List both should be updated dynamically throughout the week. I have found a few practices that dramatically increase efficiency. The first step is to periodically clear your head of all the tasks and things floating around. This includes emails, client requests, correspondence, etc. Basically, anything that needs attention and resides in your head needs to get out of your head and into the Master Task List. A daily clearing is helpful but not always practical. So I set aside time mid-week and as part of the Weekly Review. Second, I dedicate an hour or two per week to go over the Master Task List and Project List to ensure everything is updated. I have found doing this outside the office or on weekends is most effective because it requires uninterrupted focus. Finally, a weekly or bi-weekly project review session with the team is highly efficient in keeping everyone on the same page. For this session, we sort the Master Task List by project and we also separately review a list of tasks with upcoming due dates in chronological order.

Daily Focus

This last step is bonus points for any adoptee, and will really accelerate your performance. Like Texas Hold ‘Em, this step is simple to explain, but takes seemingly a lifetime to master. Based on the three above tools, you spend five minutes each morning planning the three most important, high-leverage actions to get done that day. Write them down to up your commitment, then create space in your day to give those three actions your highest priority. If you commit to that focus, you will achieve amazing results and start each day with a series of wins. The problem you will face is that the world (clients, opposing counsel, staff, even your own internal thoughts) does not share those priorities. This struggle largely controls your personal effectiveness, and is truly where rubber meets the road.

For more information and articles regarding law firm culture, please see our Culture Counts blog.

Timesheet Lawyers and the Billion Dollar Swindle

To begin, let’s review how a lawyer will typically bill you or his/her advice. Consider a $500 per hour lawyer. At that charge rate, you’d expect the lawyer to deliver at least a 7 out 10 in terms of professionalism and of course the more you pay, the more your expectation that your deliverables and legal outcomes will tangibly be worth the money you’ve paid. But wait, lets tote up the costs of this lawyer and see if you math holds up to introspection.

At $500/per hour you’d expect an income for this legal beaver not too exceed 960,000 assuming a 48 hour year, a 5 day week and an 8 hour day. Not a bad income you may argue – and by the time you take off overheads, taxes and other expenses running a partnership, then perhaps this person nets $500k plus in a year. But you’d be wrong – how wrong will surprise you. In fact 960,000 is actually the base minimum this lawyer will make in a year; however we can go on to calculate the theoretical maximum this lawyer can earn, and blow a few cobwebs out of the window as we do so.

To illustrate the size of the problem, we must first factor in the costs of ’rounding’ that our legal beaver administer to their charge rate. Most (not all) legal professionals charge in what’s called whole minute intervals. Some practices may charge at 6 minute intervals, some at 15, others at 30, and the real hogs of the trade a whopping 60 minute units or more. So for example, if you call your lawyer to arrange a meeting, your one minute phone call will cost you 1 unit of time. This is how lawyers charge, and why their costs are so expensive. However, the problem is deeper than this as we shall now find out.

Let’s return to our competent lawyer who charges $500/hour with a fifteen minute rounded interval. In this instance, your one minute phone call will cost you $125. You may be surprised by this, and argue that the ‘itemized’ bill would should these costs. However, if you’ve ever received a hefty lawyers bill, rarely does it detail anything beyond a cursory summary, and your 1 minute $125 phone call simply gets lost in the noise of all the other zeros.

But we can go further. Now we’ve isolated our lawyer’s exact costs, we can go on to calculate the theoretical maximum this individual can earn in a single year. We do this by assuming that each second of the day can be used to do a piece of work, and as such each is billable as 1 whole 15 minute unit. Doing the math, the maximum earning potential for this individual is $864,000,000. Who else do you know can earn anything between a million and a billion dollars a year?

Clearly, when a lawyer bills you $125 for your one minute phone call, the remaining 14 minutes of time (which you have already paid for), can be used on a different client, meaning that your lawyer is charging you for time he/she is spending on other client work. This is commonly known as double dipping, and as you can imagine, there is considerable amount of grey when it comes the legality of this state of affairs.

Well, greed is the obvious answer as to the why whole units are used, but in addition, we must also remember that lawyers are timesheet driven, and were the first to realize that you couldn’t really use a timesheet to record a 1 minute telephone conversation, most especially if it took you 3 minutes to actually write the entry down in you pen and paper time ledger. Of course with the computer, timesheets (time sheets, depending on your location), became part of the digital era – with one thing missing. Developers simply ported the manual-entry timesheet into software, not because it was their only course of action, but because electronic timesheets were a big enough leap forward from the old pen and paper time logging process previously employed. Having it all centralized came next, and dumping the process onto the web an obvious part of this organically evolving process.

However, in the early part of this Century, with more powerful computers and a more beefy operating system, software developers started to look more closely at the whole time tracking process and realized that manual entry timesheets were now redundant, as new and innovative automated time tracking software (such as MetriQ, one of the first in the field) could be used to control the entire time management process. Other software companies have also started to take a look a closer at how to reduce the time errors, inaccuracies and other costly problems inherent with manual and electronic timesheets, a growing dissatisfaction with the time recording process, and the excessive costs of legal advice.

If you have a need for legal or accounting advice, and you don’t want to pay through the nose for time spent doing someone else’s work, then insist your practitioner uses a hands-free time tracking software solution, to track time efficiently, comprehensively and in a way that you can ask to see, down to the nearest second, how your lawyer worked, and how their time was exactly used for your benefit, and no one else. Timeshe technology has peaked, and with a change in technology that releases many of the inherent problems associated with this time attendance paradigm, meaning that we should hopefully realized a more open, a more transparent way for businesses to measure time, providing the opportunity for them to work in a fair and equitable way. Yes, I know I’m dreaming, now you too can start dreaming, and together, our thought will start to change the universe.

Write Your Own Business Letters and Contracts – Save a Fortune on Lawyers’ Fees

Small business owners can save a fortune in legal fees by searching online for boilerplate legal documents which cover anything from employment law to business letters, debt recovery to landlord and tenancy agreements for your property investments.

There are many free business letters and templates out there but do remember to read the document fully yourself before using it. You may need to adapt or remove some of the lines which don’t apply to your business or situation.

It can be intimidating to write a letter of complaint or send a reminder for a late-paying customer, but using a template can help you overcome the block of how to start your letter. A good letter template will be well structured and flexible enough that you can modify or remove portions to fit your circumstances.

For example in a sub-contracting agreement, it is important to be as specific as possible about the tasks or deliverables which the sub-contractor must deliver. In a supplier agreement be sure to check the penalties for late delivery are suitable for you or check how refunds for defective materials are handled. Especially useful template documents can be confidentiality agreements which you can produce easily prior to discussing a new project with a potential client or partner.

In complex scenarios you should consult qualified legal advice as the potential loss you can suffer from using an inappropriate template is more than the cost of the advice. Even in these cases, looking at template documents will help to familiarise you with the issues and parameters that you will be discussing with your lawyer, again helping you to target your lawyer’s high hourly rate more effectively.

Do remember also that verbal contracts are enforceable but it is always best to follow up a verbal agreement with a written document that clarifies what was discussed and what was agreed. Although this may seem cumbersome in the long run it keeps things clear and avoids potential misunderstandings later down the road.