Please enjoy this blog post authored by Tanya Pereira, Discovery Services and Litigation Support Coordinator, Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP.
As a Discovery Services and Litigation Support Coordinator, I have a 360-degree view of how projects are managed, both on the internal legal operations side as well as the eDiscovery and client matters side. Legal project management is becoming increasingly prevalent in the industry as more firms build out dedicated project management offices and encourage teams to be trained in legal project management. In eDiscovery, it remains critical to adopt a standardized approach to projects due to the need to monitor and control all the moving pieces, along with competing factors such as scope, time, quality control and cost. Participating in these projects has provided me with the experience of managing different project objectives and demands, as well as the opportunity to examine many of the different ways legal teams are using PM tools and tracking their projects’ progress. Let’s explore some of these methods and tools!
The Best Laid Plans…
Taking the time to build a solid plan is your best tool to ensure deadlines are met, projects are managed, and to ensure the eDiscovery principle of Proportionality is considered. It is important to build a plan that takes these factors into account and to apply a cost-to-benefit analysis when developing project considerations. This will help with budgeting and resource allocations. Ideally, at the onset of a project, the legal team will meet to discuss the scope of the project and plan out their strategy. To effectively manage project intake tasks and details, you will want to lay out each individual project’s requirements such as timeline, budget, resources and risk.
One of the main things to watch out for is scope creep. Essentially, scope creep is when the project expands in unexpected ways. How scope creep is addressed can affect whether a project is successfully managed and completed. eDiscovery projects are particularly prone to scope creep due to unknown factors that can affect volume, data and resources. Scope creep leads to added costs or delays to the timeline, which can quickly derail a project. By having a well-defined scope for your project, you minimize the requests coming in for additional work and ensure that you are accomplishing the goals that the original project was meant to achieve. A well-defined project scope will create a baseline so that as the project is monitored, risks to the timeline, costs, etc. can be traced back to the assumptions made at the beginning of the project.
A project plan can be as simple or complex as necessary, provided that it clearly defines your project goals and objectives. A project plan should set out the overall goal of the project, resources required to execute the project, an estimated budget, and timeline for completion. A good project plan will account for a re-evaluation if elements that were unknown at the start of the project make it necessary to re-work the timelines, budget, etc.
There is a saying in project management that the most effective team cannot overcome a poor project plan, and this saying rings true for eDiscovery projects. A great way to set your project up for success is to leverage an existing database of templates, checklists and precedents for project planning and budgetary purposes. A formalized project management office can help manage client expectations and minimize risk by managing matters more efficiently and ensuring all project milestones are met.
Tracking Decisions – Document, Document, Document!
The daily influx of communication we receive can be overwhelming. Work requests and decisions are no longer limited to emails and meetings. We receive requests through various media such as messaging platforms like Microsoft Teams or Slack, notifications through workflow apps, text messages and more.
The need for documenting decisions applies across every stage of a project. When looking at the lifecycle of a project, how you track and manage work might differ between the various stages of the project. A recommended best practice is to have a working document (preferably in the project plan if not using a dedicated software) to track these work requests as they come in and document the date of the request and the stakeholders involved. This helps to minimize your risk, defend any changes made to approach or scope, and ensure good project management principles are followed.
Additionally, documenting decisions helps to track any issues that are encountered that were not anticipated. It allows the team the opportunity to analyze the problems and defend which solutions were chosen. In addition to project management, applying change management principles such as tracking and documenting change requests can help reduce the risk of scope creep.
How you manage and track these requests and decisions will ultimately depend on the tools available to you.
The Tools – Leveraging Your Uniqueness
No two projects are ever going to be the same, however, you want to avoid reinventing the wheel for each one. This helps you to efficiently manage future projects. Technology can be leveraged to develop a standardized process that works for most of your projects, most of the time. The tools that work for your organization and process will vary, but the need for it to be repeatable, standardized, and defensible does not.
Let’s explore a few of the available tools that are being used to manage projects and track decisions:
While emails may be the most common form of business communication, the email inbox is not a great tool to manage and track decisions. Consider how many 10’s or 100’s of emails you receive on a given project in a day, and the effort that would be involved if you had to determine, for example, why a change was made 6 months ago.
If emails are going to be used to manage and track decisions, you could consider keeping a running memo or a spreadsheet that allows you to have a high-level working document of key project details, deadlines, and decisions that are made. This tracking document does not replace the project plan, which is still essential for the success of a project. At a minimum, try to establish a folder structure for filing emails that will reflect the differing stages of the project. Consider linking key emails to the tracking document to save yourself time down the line.
Microsoft Suite: Excel and One Note
Microsoft Excel is used frequently to manage small and midsize projects. There is a plethora of different project plan templates available online that can help you create a plan that works best for you and your team.
Excel is an excellent tool for a project plan as you can add different worksheets to cover all aspects of the project. In addition to the project plan itself, worksheets can be added to include all your data analysis reports for categorizing documents, custodian responses, collection tracking log, production QC work details, and important decisions and key dates for tracking. It can also be instrumental in managing budgets and keeping costs on track. However, one drawback is that depending on where the spreadsheet is stored, and the rights assigned to it, other members of your legal team may lack the ability to collaborate on it. For example, the ability to assign tasks in the document is vital when determining your individual needs for the project.
Microsoft One Note should not be overlooked as a viable tool for project management! The program compliments a good project plan very nicely and provides a user-friendly notebook that you can create for each individual project or matter. It is a perfect place to keep meeting minutes and allows the user to track any decisions that are made during meetings. There is a lot of power behind this tool, similarly to Excel, as you can link sheets back to each other throughout your workbooks. As the pandemic has pushed teams to be more electronic, OneNote is a fantastic tool to replace our old paper notebooks.
General Project Management Software
There are many PM software programs available today. Some are complex and costly, while others are more simplified and are free of charge. Some of these include: Asana, Basecamp, Monday.com, Sharepoint, SmartSheet, and Workfront,
When dealing with eDiscovery projects, the best PM software is one where there is an ability to create a custom task workflow to suit the needs of your team. A custom workflow is one where you can tailor the project tasks from initiation to completion to meet your unique processes and map directly to each stage of the project. As an example, a custom workflow can allow you to streamline work requests to Litigation Support Analysts. When considering these tools, you will want to ensure that there is an ability to export the history of the file for tracking and defensibility purposes.
There are also many organizations who are starting to build proprietary in-house tools for their own use. Legal teams will want to exercise caution if free software is being used and ensure that your IT and General Counsel departments are consulted so that the program is secure and that documents are stored in a safe location.
eDiscovery Specific Software
As eDiscovery review platforms continue to develop, so to do eDiscovery specific project management tools.
- Agility Blue is one such tool that is dedicated specifically to eDiscovery project management. It follows a hierarchy of client – matter – project and is well suited to eDiscovery. The software features customized workflows and is a great way to manage analyst workflows and categorize or tag a project. It has the ability to connect to Relativity as well.
- Doculogix Project Tracking System is a tool that also has a workflow management component. It allows users to manage projects, track cases and documents. Other features include litigation management, customer onboarding and case deadline management.
- Built-in Modules: There are some eDiscovery platforms that come with project management modules and functionality built into the existing infrastructure. The benefit of this is that you can build the process into your existing workflows, however you may not be able to leverage it for other components of the Discovery lifecycle.
In many cases, there are multiple types of project documents that are important for project tracking. These can include a scope document, a communications plan, a project schedule or a budget. Consider merging these documents into your project plan where possible as a good project plan is the best tool in your arsenal to track all important project details. A recommendation for tracking decisions would be to ensure there is a tab or page in the plan for “Key Decisions”.
Reporting metrics and documents are an important piece of the Quality Control phase. These project documents may include various exportable reports from document review platforms and other tools, QC reports, updates to clients and approvals, metrics from collection tools, etc. and will be relied upon when defending project tasks and decisions.
Consider folding in the high-level summaries of these documents into the project plan and ensuring documents are stored with the other key project documents.
Avoiding Pitfalls – The Bottom Line
There is no one size fits all for each matter. Sometimes multiple tools may be needed depending on the specific nature and requirements of a project. Technology should not be the driver of the project – it needs to support the project and how you work. Your MVT (or ‘Most Valuable Tool’) will have good documentation and communication features. Tracking your decisions and changes help to minimize the risk and ensure you are applying good change and project management principles to your project.
As the old saying goes, the best offense is a good defense. Project management is no exception. There is no industry standard across the board for how Firms use project management tools to support eDiscovery matters. Whether you use a managed services model, white glove or concierge service, or conduct all your work as a cost-centre in-house, the overall guiding principles of project management and the need to be defensible are what typically guide the approach you take. When in comes to project management, the bottom line is to get defensive about it!