Practice Management

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Tools to Tackle the To-Do List in Law Firms

By Brian Balistreri posted 01-23-2023 13:27

***Please enjoy this blog posted on behalf of the author, Sachin Gupta, Knowledge Management Attorney, Latham & Watkins LLP.'

The “to-do” list has been around since, well, since lists have been around.  Yet many businesses still struggle with managing an ever-growing task list and copious amounts of email.  The marketplace for solutions in this space has seen explosive. There are multitude of tools available from kanban-based Trello to software development-oriented Jira. Yet a recent ILTA survey revealed that many law firms have not implemented any project management software and still heavily rely on email.  Even at firms that have implemented solutions, such software often sees limited use, even more so among practicing attorneys. While law firms face the same difficulties managing tasks that other businesses do, the nature of legal practice presents particular barriers to potential solutions.

Extreme Simplicity

               Adopting project management software in a law firm faces similar challenges as any other technology, such as the inevitable learning curve and resistance to change.  While adopting simple solutions is always a prudent approach, it takes on even more importance for project management tools.  Software such as contract analysis can be picked up by individuals one at a time, but collaboration is one of the most beneficial functionalities of project management software.  Achieving the network effect of multiple people using a tool requires near-simultaneous adoption, making extreme simplicity the goal.  Even small barriers such as the mere requirement that individuals register for an account with a web-based tool can be enough to stop a rollout of project management software in its tracks.  A project management tool selected for a law firm environment should require minimal to no training, or allow for implementation with an initial minimal feature set.

Too Much Email

               Simplicity can aid in overcoming resistance to change as well, but another factor can also be exploited.  Most of us have moved away from email for everyday communication in our personal lives.  Other businesses, led by the technology sector, have done the same in the past decade.  Many law firms, on the other hand, are still drowning in it.  While tools such as Slack and Teams have a greater impact on reducing email, project management tools have a role to play.  None of the respondents in our survey stated that the amount of email they receive was manageable.  However, those whose firms had implemented project management software found it to be more manageable than those who had not.  In my anecdotal conversations with staff and attorneys at my firm, nearly everyone I speak with expresses interest in software tools that could reduce the amount of email they receive.  Many models of change management begin with getting stakeholders to recognize the need for change. A rollout of a project management solution in a law firm can take advantage of the fact that colleagues are already well aware of this need.

The Email Chase

               With the growing ranks of internal-facing roles at law firms, there can be little doubt partners recognize the importance of the business of law.  Yet anyone in these roles will tell you it can be difficult to get attorneys to complete non-billable tasks.  The reason, if not obvious, is that lawyers are busy.  The economics of law firms still require lawyers to spend the vast majority of their time on billable work, often under very tight deadlines.  An attorney in the middle of a deal that needs to sign tomorrow does not have time to address an email about an internal project.  When she does have a few spare hours, that email is likely buried in the hundreds of other emails and may be forgotten.  So then a follow-up is sent sometime later, at which point she may be in the middle of her next deal.  Thus, the cycle of email chasing begins.  Project management tools can end this cycle by surfacing tasks when attorneys are not fully occupied with client work.  Our ILTA survey found that respondents at firms who had implemented project management software were not only the most satisfied with how projects were managed but also were better able to manage their email compared to those at firms that had not implemented project management software.

Bringing Order to Chaos

               Project management tools can be a tremendous aid to a law firm’s operations.  However, successful implementation of such solutions requires careful consideration of the particular challenges presented in a law firm environment.  The collaboration aspects of these tools necessitate even greater simplicity than other legal tech, while the frustration with excess email can be used as a driver to adopt change.  If done right, project management tools can ensure law firms complete projects that might otherwise languish and allow staff and lawyers to focus on what they need to get done instead of trying to figure out what they need to get done.