Project Management for Paralegals – Q1 2023 Career 101
The role of the paralegal naturally encompasses basic project management principles. For example, litigation paralegals situated in a solo practice or small law firm may act in the capacity of the case management lead, overseeing a case from pre-litigation through post-judgment and enforcement. In a larger law firm, a paralegal manager or supervisor may take ownership of these duties and responsibilities by managing the overall case but delegating project-based assignments to balance the workload amongst the support staff. So, then, just what is the difference between project management and legal project management and how can this be useful for paralegals?
What is legal project management?
Let us begin by breaking down how project management relates to the law. The Legal Lean Sigma Institute has developed the P+ Ecosystem that includes the following areas in its framework:
› Process Improvement
› Project Management
› Performance Management
› Performance Metrics
› Practice Management & Innovation
Project management principles are the same, no matter the field of law. But those principles are used in every field of law and can be customized to a specific field of law. From corporate and contracts, mergers and acquisitions, and litigation, the project management workflows used essentially stay the same. Further, the workflows are always limited by time, costs, and resources. The time (deadline), costs (such as filing fees), and resources (such as the availability and bandwidth of staff to work on a matter) all affect how a project is planned and carried out.
Project management centers around the following steps:
1. Defining the project
2. Planning the project
3. Executing the project
4. Closing the project
Defining the project is stating what actually needs to be done. What are the client’s and case team’s objectives and expectations? For example, in a probate matter, the objective is generally to take stock of all the decedent’s assets, assess the outstanding debts in order to pay those debts, and then to distribute the assets to the decedent’s beneficiaries.
But how are those three steps done in a probate matter? That is where the paralegal plans the project. The paralegal needs to determine who are the beneficiaries and executor, what are the assets and their location, and the debts of the decedent. In executing this probate project, the paralegal needs to prepare the probate petition, contact the beneficiaries, arrange for the inventory of the assets and payment of debts, and then the petition for distribution of assets and arranging for the assets to be distributed to the beneficiaries. Closing the project is ensuring that the executor of the estate has accomplished everything and is discharged from being the executor. The field of eDiscovery is where legal project management principles are often used. eDiscovery often is approached from many directions where the client may handle it in-house or ask the attorneys to do it. The attorneys, in turn, may engage service providers to handle the eDiscovery. But no matter who does it, it still centers on defining the project, planning the project, executing the project, and ultimately closing the project. eDiscovery can be complex, but project management can help break down what needs to be done into manageable components. Under legal project management, each project is made up of a sequence of modules called phases. Those phases are comprised of various tasks that are carried out by whoever is delegated that task. As in probate, the eDiscovery project needs to be defined, planned, carried out, and ultimately closed. The same general steps are followed, but more specific topics may be added as eDiscovery can be complex in ways that a probate matter is not: A budget, process improvement, and measurement of metrics may be incorporated into an eDiscovery project.
Why has the legal project management not been widely adopted in the legal industry?
The short answer is bandwidth, buy-in, scalability, and sustainability. Lawyers are busy people practicing law and cannot spare the time to learn project management. Most lawyers are not trained in business administration or management. Opportunities abound for legal professionals to offer valuable contributions to effectively manage cases and clients within the framework of legal project management as a collaborator. In tandem, highly skilled, well-trained paralegals and properly utilized paralegals can be an effective strategy for law firms and in-house legal departments alike. In small firms and for solo practitioners, the paralegal often already is taking on the role of the legal project manager without realizing it; however, in larger firms and legal departments, a paralegal’s duties and responsibilities are already defined and it is an uphill battle to make changes to that role.
How can learning about legal project management help me as a paralegal?
One of the primary duties of the paralegal is to support the lawyer’s practice. By advancing our knowledge and training in technology and business principles such as legal project management, we are better equipped to provide sound workflows and processes and procedures to mitigate liability or risk to the lawyer. For example, best practices for managing a matter or client for the best client experience and with as little risk to the lawyer include standardized and well-documented intake processes, as well as systems and workflows to facilitate and progress the case in compliance with laws, rules, and regulations that apply to each specific circumstance and situation. Having a case management plan or project plan in place helps the lawyer and support professionals to operate fluidly and seamlessly. There are many ways to approach developing a case management plan. Some firms have used Microsoft’s One Note for this purpose, and others used law practice management software such as Smokeball, Rocketmatter, Clio, MyCase or AbacusLaw to assist with these types of tasks.
Where can I find more resources on legal project management?
There are many resources to learn about legal project management. The book Legal Project Management in One Hour for Lawyers by Pamela H. Woldow and Douglas B. Richardson offers a solid foundation. The book Implementing Legal Project Management: The Legal Professional’s Guide to Success by Susan Raridon Lambreth, Aileen R. Leventon, and David A. Rueff, Jr. provides a guide to utilizing legal project management principles.
Kristine Custodio Suero, ACP, is an award-winning legal professional, a published author and a highly sought-after speaker. A true servant leader, she has led the San Diego Paralegal Association and California Alliance of Paralegal Associations as President. Kristine teaches legal courses for a local San Diego paralegal program and lends her time to the program’s advisory board. Kristine is a member of the NALA Professional Development Committee and a past member of the NALA Continuing Education Council and past Ethics Chair. Kristine is a Senior Paralegal/Business Development Director for Butterfield Schechter LLP. Kristine may be reached at email@example.com.
Christine Stansall, ACP, CEDS, began her legal career after earning her undergraduate degree and paralegal certificate in 1995 and worked the first 20 years as a paralegal where she gained extensive experience in multiple areas of law while earning several professional certifications. Christine’s traditional paralegal career evolved into Ediscovery and litigation support after earning the title of ACEDS Fellow and the CEDS credential from the Association of Certified E-Discovery Specialists. She regularly provides presentations on Ediscovery and legal project management. Christine is a Practice Technology Project Manager with Latham & Watkins LLP where she assists the legal teams in managing eDiscovery projects for multiple matters. email: firstname.lastname@example.org.