When building a law firm there are many variables that an attorney must account for to ensure that their business runs smoothly and is successful. In this episode of The Paralegal Voice, host Vicki Voisin chats with Brown & Associates, PLLC Certified Paralegal Alicia Mercer about legal project management, what the job entails, and why having a project manager is beneficial to the health and well being of any law firm.
Special thanks to our sponsors, Boston University, NALA, and ServeNow.
The Paralegal Voice
The Importance of Legal Project Management
Intro: Welcome to The Paralegal Voice where you hear the latest issues and trends in the world of paralegals and legal assistants by one of the best known paralegals in the industry, Vicki Voisin, a paralegal for more than 20 years. Vicki is dedicated to helping legal professionals reach their goals. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
Vicki Voisin: Hello everyone. Welcome to The Paralegal Voice here on Legal Talk Network. I am Vicki Voisin, the Paralegal Mentor and host of The Paralegal Voice. I am a NALA Advanced Certified Paralegal, I publish an e-newsletter titled ‘Paralegal Strategies’. I am also the coauthor of ‘The Professional Paralegal: A Guide to Finding a Job and Career Success.’ You will find more information at HYPERLINK “http://www.paralegalmentor.com/”paralegalmentor.com. My guest today is Alicia Mitchell-Mercer, ACP.
Alicia is a Legal Project Manager and Advanced Certified Paralegal at Brown & Associates, PLLC, a law firm serving clients in North and South Carolina. Alicia obtained her paralegal certificate from the University of Georgia and later earned a Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies from Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. She also has a Master of Science in Project Management from Missouri State University, a degree accredited by the Project Management Institute. Alicia has received NALA’s Advanced Certified Paralegal credential in trial practice, contracts administration and also business organizations.
In addition, she is a PACE Registered Paralegal through the NFPA. She is an active member of several legal associations including the NCBA, NALA, and the Metrolina Paralegal Association. She is currently a Council Member for the North Carolina Bar Association, Paralegal Division. She has been appointed to the North Carolina Bar Association Internet & Regulations Task Force, which has been commissioned to study the regulation of Internet legal service providers and all of the issues surrounding the unauthorized practice of law in North Carolina.
In addition to that, she is always civic-minded and currently serves as the guardian ad litem advocate appointed by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the courts to investigate and determine the needs of abused and neglected children. She also volunteers with Autism Speaks and Compassion International.
So welcome Alicia.
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Thank you, Vicki I have been looking forward to this.
Vicki Voisin: Oh, that’s quite a bio you have, and so I know this is going to be a great podcast. But before we begin our sponsors need to be recognized and thanked.
NALA, a professional association for paralegals providing continuing education and professional certification programs for HYPERLINK “mailto:[email protected]”[email protected]. NALA is a force in the promotion and the advancement of the paralegal profession.
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The goal of the Paralegal Voice is to discuss a wide range of topics that are always important to the paralegal industry. I like to share with you leading trends, significant developments and resources you will find helpful in your career and your everyday jobs. Guests are usually included to help explore timely topics and for that reason I’ve invited Alicia Mitchell-Mercer, ACP to be with me today, and our topic is Legal Process Management.
So Alicia, let’s start with the basics. Just what is a Legal Project?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Well, according to the Project Management Institute or PMI which certifies project managers and provides training, a project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.
A project has a defined timeframe in a defined scope and resources. Most legal matters into this definition, so all paralegals and attorneys should understand that what they are managing are in fact projects. Cases, legal matters, legal projects, all of those terms can be used somewhat interchangeably.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. So every paralegal really does get involved with legal projects, I understand that, but what is Legal Project Management?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Well, I will give you the ABA definition and then provide a little bit in more detail. According to the ABA Legal Project Management is a proactive disciplined approach to managing legal work that involves defining, planning budgeting, executing and evaluating a legal matter. It’s the application of specific knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to achieve project objectives. It also requires that we use effective communication to set and meet objectives and expectations.
At the end of the day Legal Project Management is all about increasing the quality of legal services while simultaneously minimizing the risks or the things that could go wrong associated with providing those legal services, both for the firm and the client.
In order to be successful in increasing quality and reducing risk we must take better control of our project, that’s where Legal Project Management comes in.
Sometimes I hear attorneys and paralegals say, well, how do I know I need Legal Project Management? Well, let me tell you, I can think of a couple dozen reasons off the top of my head why an organization would benefit from LPM, but out there are some that I think most paralegals will be able to relate to.
So if you’re in a firm or a legal organization that experiences missed deadlines or you’re scrambling to meet deadlines at the last minute or if you have people accidentally assigned to the same task or nobody is assigned to an important task or if you’re experiencing budget overruns in comparison to what you’ve estimated for the client, or if you’re frequently needing to work overtime during periods of increased activity or if you have clients that are frequently asking you to perform more than what was agreed to and they don’t want to pay any additional money for that, in project management we call that scope cream. Then you would benefit from Legal Project Management.
All of these issues result from ineffective methods of controlling certain variables during the planning phase and execution phase of our legal matters. LPM says that there are essentially three constraints that must be controlled to complete a legal project successfully. First you have to control the time it takes to complete a project. Second, you have to control the cost itself, meaning you generally should not go way over what you’ve estimated for the client, and third, you have to control your scope of representation. These three constraints are usually referred to in project management as the Iron Triangle. Sitting in the middle of that triangle are quality and risk or the things that could go wrong.
So proponents of Legal Project Management believe that if you manage the time, cost and scope of your case efficiently, you will see an increase in the quality of your legal services and the decrease in risks or the things that can go wrong. But if you manage just one of those constraints, time, cost or scope ineffectively, you’ll see a decrease in the quality of your legal services and an increase in risks or the things that could go wrong.
Vicki Voisin: Okay, Alicia, what is a Legal Project Manager?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Well, I think a great example of a definition for Project Manager is the way that the global law firm Seyfarth & Shaw describes the position on the website. It says, our legal project managers bring practical business knowledge to client engagements drawing upon many years of working with clients and legal matters in their training and project management. They play a key role in ensuring that complex matters are clearly defined and scoped at the outset assisting in the development of process controls, right size staffing, budgeting and an agreed-upon schedule to meet the client’s operational and strategic goals.
Throughout the course of an engagement, legal project managers make certain that the activities of all team members are focused on the highest priorities integrated with the strategic plan and delivered in the most timely and cost-effective manner, allowing clients and partners to focus their time and attention on the most critical legal aspects of the matter.
So basically a legal project manager is the individual on a legal team who typically facilitates development of the scope of work and project plan components and monitors performance.
Vicki Voisin: So Alicia, are you in on a case then from the very beginning when the client first walks in the door, is that when you start on your work with the project management?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Yes, generally I am involved in the scoping process, so I sit in with the attorneys. The attorneys are asking their clients questions, and I take notes and determine what the scope of representation should be with the attorneys and then I scope the project. I figure out what the phases and tasks are going to be for the project and exactly what that project is going to cost.
Vicki Voisin: Okay, and the other thing is that during my paralegal career working in a small firm in a small town we didn’t use a legal project manager, in fact, it’s just really becoming known recently, but I know that we had surprises and those were surprises and that it was going to cost more than the client had agreed upon and then we had upset clients. So I think that using a legal project manager would take care of that issue, and I think that would be wonderful.
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Absolutely.
Vicki Voisin: Tell me what tasks make up Legal Project Management?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Well, there are five tasks generally that make up legal project management. Some firms condense them into four but I’m going to go with a five. The first one is the defining phase or the scoping engagement phase. During this process the legal project team gathers information to understand the client’s business needs and expectations. The legal project manager has numerous discussions with the client to agree upon project phases, deliverables and desired outcome including establishing parameters for the scope of our presentation, time and cost of the legal project.
During the second phase, which is the planning phase, project phases, tasks and performance standards are defined, so the client and the legal team discuss timelines, milestones, and select the legal project team on both the firm side and the client side, especially if it’s a corporate client.
The next step involves budgeting, getting the proper tools in place, creating a communication plan that meets the needs of the client and planning and approach for handling unexpected events and risks.
Then you have your third phase, which is your executing phase. Lawyers and paralegals are deployed if you will to their task assignments. Since communication is essential the legal project manager then manages team performance in order to give objective and specific feedback. This process ensures collaborative team and client communication.
And then, in your fourth phase, which is the monitoring and measuring phase, it’s important to track the progress of phases and tasks and to make sure that the firm is avoiding scope cream, redundancies, bottlenecks or other inefficiencies. So the legal project manager will track the estimated budget against the actual budget and make proper adjustments when unexpected events occur, and then you have the post project review, which is something that very few law firms are involved in, in general.
In the final phase, the legal team evaluates the outcomes in terms of the agreed-upon project scope, identifies what went well and what needs improvement next time and discusses the results with the clients to receive feedback. The discussion with the client isn’t just to make the client aware of the outcome or to simply brief them, the purpose is to identify lessons learned, resources needed, and surprises that can be avoided the next time you have a similar case.
Finally you create a database accessible to anyone in the firm of things that went well and things that went wrong during a particular case and you make this available to everyone in the firm so that you can prevent mistakes from being made on similar projects going forward.
Vicki Voisin: Alicia, does a little project manager do any paralegal work along with managing of the project or is that usually separate?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: I would say in your larger firm, especially global firms, you are a dedicated legal project manager. So you are not doing as much paralegal work, but in mid size or smaller firms, you can certainly have a hybrid paralegal legal project manager position.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. That’s interesting. We’re going to take a short break for a word from our sponsors, NALA, the Association of Legal Assistance Paralegals, Boston University and ServeNow, a nationwide network of trusted prescreened process servers. When we come back, we’ll continue our discussion with my guest Alicia Mitchell Mercer, ACP.
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Vicki Voisin: Welcome back to The Paralegal Voice. I am Vicki Voisin and my guest today is Alicia Mitchell-Mercer, ACP, Legal Project Manager at Brown & Associates, PLLC, a law firm serving clients in North and South Carolina.
Now, Alicia, before the commercial break we discussed the basics of Legal Project Management. Now I would like for you to tell our listeners about your journey from paralegal to Legal Project Manager. How your career evolved, how you became interested in legal project management, and also the steps that you took to become qualified to do this.
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: It was during the 2007-2008 recession when I first started hearing about Legal Project Management. When I realized that LPM was becoming a trend I thought LPM would be a great way for me, a paralegal, to learn a useful skill and increase my marketability. I started dabbling in LPM by taking some CLEs and picking up some literature on the topic.
I then introduced the concept of LPM to my firm. It was implemented at my firm very gradually as I learned about LPM and shared what I learned. Eventually, I was given a budget to purchase some LPM tools, resources, textbooks, and software. After I had a few years under my belt, I enrolled at Missouri State University to obtain a Master of Science in Project Management. My Master’s thesis was entitled The Effects of Project Management on Profitability in the legal services industry when using value-based billing rather than the standard billable hour.
Vicki Voisin: Well, that’s an interesting concept. I didn’t realize that you had worked on using value billing. Was that hard to get everyone on board with?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Absolutely. When I first spoke with the attorney about value billing, he took the position that most attorneys take, which is that, if we use value billing instead of billable hour, we are going to lose money, how can we make this profitable for ourselves and also still cost-effective for our clients.
But I was able to speak with him and talk to him about the scoping process and how if you scope the case properly you can still come up with an actual budget and an estimate for the client that is more on target than just pulling a number out of the air, and that you can still make a profit if you give your clients the opportunity to use an alternative fee arrangement, and he bought into that.
Of course, we didn’t start applying all of that to all of our cases. We went to do test projects at first and then he saw how those worked and then we went on and added more and more cases from there.
Vicki Voisin: Well, I think this is really fascinating. It’s a nice net for a paralegal who has really probably gone as far as he or she can in their firm or in her career. I just think this is a great thing to be able to do. But what I want to know is do you have to have a legal background to do this?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: I think it’s important to have a legal background to earn the respect of attorneys with whom you will be working, and that’s why seasoned paralegals are so well-suited to go into this field.
LPM is an excellent complement to paralegals that already have a lot of responsibility as it relates to functional processes in our firms, corporations and organizations. To some extent paralegals already manage projects in many firms. This just takes those responsibilities a step further and that makes us an even more integral part of the legal team.
Vicki Voisin: Well, is there a market for legal project managers, are there jobs available?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Absolutely. And the number of law firms, legal organizations and corporate legal departments hiring legal project managers is increasing all the time. HYPERLINK “http://www.indeed.com” indeed.com is a great place to get an idea of how many there are.
I have received several invitations to interview for LPM positions from Head Hunters through LinkedIn. There are several firms in my region who are hiring for this position as well. It might not always say legal project manager, you may have to look for project manager at a law firm or sometimes you are looking for someone who specializes in risk management, those are also project managers, so to speak.
I think you will find that law firms in major metropolises are getting on board and this is trickling down to cities and towns with smaller populations at an increasing rate.
Vicki Voisin: Well, that comes to my next question, all sized firms can use project management, is that correct?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Yes, Legal Project Management can be used by all legal service entities from global law firms to solo practitioners. Both the ABA and the Association of Corporate Counsel take that position. There is no legal organization that can’t benefit from Legal Project Management.
Vicki Voisin: So if you wanted to have your firm implement Legal Project Management, how does this all get started? Does it start with the attorneys or does a paralegal bring back the information, how does this happen?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Well, as paralegals if we want to implement Legal Project Management in our firms, I think it begins with research and determining your firm’s needs. I would suggest starting by attending a CLE on project management and purchasing some literature on the topic. I would suggest visiting the Association of Corporate Counsel website, even if you don’t service corporate clients and checking out their Value Challenge pages. There you will find guides, examples and tools to help implement LPM. You will also find examples of other organizations that have improved cost, predictability and outcomes with LPM.
I would also suggest checking out the ABA slideshow presentation called ‘Legal Project Management: Prepare for Changes in the Practice of Law’. You can find this on Google. There you will find additional information on ethics opinions and LPM, alternative fee arrangements, a white paper on the future of Legal Project Management and additional information regarding value-based legal services presented by the ABA Center for Professional Development.
You can also pick up the ABA’s ‘Legal Project Management in One Hour for Lawyers’ if you want an overview, or the ABA’s exhaustive reference, ‘The Power of Legal Project Management’, which provides case studies for how to implement LPM in certain types of firms.
But you don’t have to be nuanced in Legal Project Management to start. If you are a paralegal you can go out and get the information on your own. There are plenty of free resources. I really suggest taking a CLE so that you at least have the basics of what Legal Project Management is about, and then at that point you can approach someone at your firm with a list of pros and cons of using Legal Project Management and you will certainly see that there are more pros to using it than not.
Bringing information to other attorneys, showing them that other large law firms are using Legal Project Management, and the benefits that those law firms are benefiting from would certainly be a substantial reason for that attorney to get on board with it.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. I was going to ask you then, is it difficult to get everyone on board? Do they drag their feet or can you get someone who is really enthused about it?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: That really depends on your organizational culture. There are always going to be the law firms that fight change, and unfortunately those are the firms that are going to be caught by surprise when they start losing their clients to firms using Legal Project Management.
I have had several, usually younger attorneys, contact me about how they can get their firms to buy into LPM. One of the most important things to do is to find two or more legal professionals in your organization that are interested in applying LPM to their matters and doing a type of pilot project on just a case or two.
You can learn LPM skills through live or online training books or coaching and applying it to an actual matter. As you go through the process you can build document templates, checklists or other work product that can be used in similar matters.
By the way, this is easily a project a well-positioned paralegal can spearhead. It’s worth mentioning that the ABA’s text ‘The Power of Legal Project Management’ comes with several templates that can be modified for use.
I guarantee if the pilot project is executed well, you will see successes in client relationships and have success stories to share with others in the firm to help increase buy in to apply more Legal Project Management principles.
Additionally, if your firm can afford it, there is always the option of hiring an LPM consultant to come in and determine what LPM methodology would work best for the firm and facilitate training in-house. I have done some consulting work on the side.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. So consultants aren’t difficult to find then, is that right?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: That’s right, they are not difficult to find. The market is not oversaturated with consultants for Legal Project Management, but there certainly are a fair number of them that are not difficult to get in contact with.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Give our listeners some examples of the tools needed for Legal Project Management, I mean both software and what else you would need.
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Well, there are a lot of LPM options available now. The most important thing to know is that LPM is not just the software, but there are softwares and tools that you can use to make the application of LPM a little bit easier.
Good LPM software won’t use too much text speak. It’s also important that the software and tools tie together the scoping process and the prioritization of the project’s phases and tasks.
Obviously, the software you choose should be customizable for your particular firm’s needs. It should be linked to the firm’s financial reporting systems. It should also track current activities, historical data, and the overall project progress against the project plan.
Some examples of Legal Project Management information system tools include BakerManage, Budget Manager, Elevate LPM. Thomson Reuters’ Elite, Engage, Lien for Legal PM, LexisNexis, Redwood Planning Application. In my case Prosperoware and there are many others.
But if your firm can’t afford new software, that’s okay, you can still use a whiteboard, you can use Post-It notes. There are many different types of ways to implement LPM that don’t take a lot of overhead.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Well, now what are some of the challenges related to Legal Project Management?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: I think there are two primary challenges for LPM. First, LPM is useful for firms that use the billable hour and for firms that use alternative fee arrangements. However, LPM was born out of the idea that firms should eventually transition to using more alternative fee arrangements.
That is probably the biggest challenge of LPM, the fact that it opens up a conversation about alternative fee arrangements with attorneys who do not like change. Many attorneys view alternative fee arrangements as a threat to profitability. They don’t see a benefit for the firm, as we discussed before.
In fact, it’s common for lawyers, particularly litigators and law firms to argue that legal matters have too many variables and unexpected developments to work under an alternative fee arrangement.
In addition, these attorneys argue that they actually have opponents working against them, making their actions too unpredictable to account for when trying to price their cases.
Now, seasoned project managers and other industries, notably construction, think that this argument by litigation attorneys is an excuse to avoid change. Construction project managers, for example, have learned to successfully scope and price incredibly complicated projects like building skyscrapers, space shuttles, suspension bridges. Project managers in other industries argue that they have to deal with opposing parties, if you will, in the form of government agencies, third party vendors and subcontractors, et cetera.
In reality, there are very few situations that are completely unpredictable in the legal field. Many LPM gurus assert that unforeseen is not the same as unforeseeable. Most legal events have happened before and experienced lawyers shouldn’t be surprised by these repeat events.
The second is, which I touched on a little bit, attorneys just don’t like change. They think it will be extra work or there will be a learning curve. Although there is more upfront planning in LPM, having a detailed plan that reduces redundancies and inefficiencies significantly decreases the chance for delays later down the road. This translates to more profit for firms that are under an alternative fee arrangement and happier clients. Happy clients are returning clients. Using LPM is an investment. The return on investment is substantial.
It’s important for attorneys to know that LPM does work and more and more firms and lawyers are trying it. It doesn’t have to be a cumbersome process if you are approaching the process correctly.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. And happy clients also refer other clients and that is always a good thing, yes.
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Absolutely.
Vicki Voisin: So in your opinion, what’s the most important quality to have in a Legal Project Management, the ability to communicate or good organization skills, or do you need all of that?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: In my opinion communication and organization are inextricably linked. If you are missing either you are likely to run in all types of problems.
Legal Project Management calls for both, a project charter and a project plan, which is the organization you are talking about, and a communication plan. A lot of paralegals work in what I call a bicycle wheel organization. In these types of organizations the attorney sits in the middle of the bicycle wheel, the hub, and spokes, which are your paralegals, legal secretaries, associate attorneys, et cetera, they are all protruding from the hub.
If you can envision it, the hub is connected to the spokes, but the spokes aren’t connected to each other. This means that in a lot of firms there are inefficiencies, redundancies, lapses in communication and unnecessary misunderstandings, because the spokes aren’t communicating with each other.
Not surprisingly the clients’ most common complaint about law firms is poor communication. They call their attorney and the attorneys and/or paralegals are scrambling to figure out the status of the case and the next step, or clients are having to wait too long to learn about new events that have transpired in their case, or clients are not being told in a timely manner when something has gone wrong. It’s crucial to keep all stakeholders in the loop at all times. Clients are much more receptive to surprises when you communicate with them regularly.
When law firms try to hide inefficiencies and delay from clients, it doesn’t tend to help the business relationship at all. Clients need to know they can trust their attorneys and paralegals. So that’s why I think both organization and communication are essential.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Now, if our listeners would like to get in touch with you or learn more about Legal Project Management, how would they do that?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Well, listeners can contact me on LinkedIn. My profile name is Alicia Mercer. They can also email me at HYPERLINK “mailto:[email protected]”[email protected]. I use that email primarily for contact with professional associations.
Again, if you just want to learn more about LPM on your own, I advise you to go to the American Bar Association website and look for information on Legal Project Management or go to the Association of Corporate Counsel, again, the Value Challenge page. They have a plethora of information about Legal Project Management, how to implement it, what the phases are, and how to make sure you are successful in it.
Vicki Voisin: Well, Alicia, the information that you have shared today is absolutely so valuable to paralegals, and I thank you, because you have explained the core of Legal Project Management. I think it’s something a lot of people hear about, but they don’t understand. So thank you for straightening us out today. I appreciate it.
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Vicki, thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
Vicki Voisin: Well, I hope to maybe see you at the next NALA Convention?
Alicia Mitchell-Mercer: Absolutely.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. We are going to take another short break now, but don’t go away because when I come back I will have news and career tips for you.
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Vicki Voisin: Welcome back to The Paralegal Voice. This is probably one of my favorite times of the show because I get to share with you practice tips and other event information. And I am going to keep my practice tip very short today, because it just has to do with what Alicia has been telling us throughout the show, and that is, if you set a goal, you have to work hard to reach it, and you have to get all the information that you can to make that happen.
So watch for the opportunities. If you decide you want to take an extra step, reach out to someone, learn about Legal Project Management, and I think that this is something that a lot of paralegals are going to be interested in.
That’s all the time we have today for The Paralegal Voice. If you have questions about today’s show, please email them to me at HYPERLINK “mailto:[email protected]”[email protected]. Also, don’t forget to check my blog, HYPERLINK “http://www.paralegalmentorblog.com” paralegalmentorblog.com, and also the resources that are available at my website, which is HYPERLINK “http://www.paralegalmentor.com” paralegalmentor.com. All the resources and the blog, all the information that’s available there is designed to help you move your career in the right direction, and that’s definitely forward.
This is Vicki Voisin, thanking you for listening to The Paralegal Voice, and reminding you to go out and make your paralegal voice heard.
Outro: The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by Legal Talk Network, its officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, shareholders and subsidiaries. None of the content should be considered legal advice. As always, consult a lawyer.
Thanks for listening to The Paralegal Voice, produced by the broadcast professionals at Legal Talk Network. Join Vicki Voisin for her next podcast on issues and trends affecting paralegals and legal assistants. Subscribe to the RSS feed on HYPERLINK “http://www.legaltalknetwork.com/”legaltalknetwork.com or in iTunes.