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.

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