Legal Project Management: Fad or Focus?

Like alternative fee arrangements, Legal Project Management (LPM) has become somewhat of a new fad – or at least a very popular topic to discuss and write about. While it’s still unclear how much attention the broader legal landscape truly gives this discipline (although some are making a noticeable commitment to it), I’m of the opinion that LPM should be a key focus of the legal profession moving forward.

LPM is not only about getting things done cheaper and on time, it’s about using best practices and process to accomplish desired goals and budget predictability. To accomplish this, the project manager (PM) must have authority, as Paul C. Easton states in a recent blog post. It’s key, and not only with the attorney team, but with the different departments and personnel involved in any project. That level of responsibility requires experience and a track record – the ability to develop and oversee processes, meet benchmarks, stay on or below budget, and develop consistency -- and having done it many times over. Simply pushing the task down to the lowest possible billing rate, a practice Easton frowns upon in his post, is counter-productive in most instances.

While we commonly see its use in discovery-related matters today, LPM should be the focus of any-size project requiring coordination of more than one person and there have been many successful PM-led initiatives in other areas of the law. It doesn’t matter the area of law, really, because budgets, organization, timelines, process, quality standards, and repeatability are universally necessary considerations. Each is part of the LPM role, and each can be improved dramatically with a great PM. A PM who understands a client’s bigger picture is even more valuable and can help bring core disciplines from one department to another, building on previously successful practices (e.g. e-discovery to due diligence or employment work).

However, without authority – or at least a seat at the decision-making table -- the PM’s power to generate results is effectively non-existent. Spinning wheels, waiting for sign-off by the higher-ups on everything, direction that differs from previously successful results, and choices that are subject to constant overturning… this breeds confusion, stagnation, indecision, and ultimately higher costs.

If you go the route of project management, don’t go halfway. Make a commitment and give it the resources (and power) it needs to be successful.
 

Early Case Assessment Provides Bang For Your Buck

It’s been nine months since my Review less data, and review it faster post -- a lifetime in the e-discovery universe -- so I thought it time to brush off the dust and revisit the post's underlying principles.

First, let me note that I think in-house decision-makers have become more informed consumers of all things e-discovery since that post (and others) was written. More people understand the basic concepts around reducing legal costs and more people know the right questions to ask. So while I agree with much of what what was written on the '3 Geeks' blog regarding the question “if clients are smarter now,” I believe that the overall knowledge level within the in-house community has increased.

That being said, I have been involved in several discussions with potential clients recently and when I ask questions on how they currently handle the e-discovery portions of their cases, it has often been apparent that a key component to reducing costs has been overlooked (or at least has not been the focus of cost-reduction efforts). It is still common to hear of strategies focused on the hourly rate of the attorney reviewer. While the cost savings from a law firm attorney to contract attorney are certainly substantial and save big dollars, the cost savings of a contract attorney versus another contract attorney is not significant in the overall cost of litigation. In fact, it is not uncommon to see the lowest-cost provider produce a result that’s higher in total costs due to the layers of review required to ensure a consistent work product.

A real opportunity to save major dollars in e-discovery is through an effective early case assessment (ECA) strategy. This requires implementing a repeatable and defensible process that is targeted toward finding relevant information and safely eliminating non-relevant information. Through advanced ECA technologies, one can filter out clearly non-relevant email domains from a review, limit the universe of reviewable documents by date parameters, and most importantly apply AND TEST well-crafted key term searches to the collected data. The importance of comprehensive and effective key term searches cannot be overstated. Done correctly, it can consistently reduce the amount of data to review by 85% or more.

Well-crafted key term searches are not a one-time task. Rather, effective (and defensible) key term development requires application of key terms, sampling of the results of those key terms, and expansion and narrowing of the search terms. It is critical to properly document every step of this process so that you can demonstrate the good faith efforts in targeting relevant information and eliminating clearly non-relevant information.

A little bit of Early Case Assessment can go a long way. This became apparent in one of our year-end reviews with a client in which we compared 2009 to 2008 numbers. It did not surprise me at all that we handled twice as much data for the client in 2009 versus 2008. The client simply had more litigation in 2009. What popped off the page was that despite this significant bump in volume, we reduced costs by almost 60%. That’s mainly because we implemented an early case assessment protocol for all the client’s matters, which not only reduced the number of hours our attorneys spent reviewing documents, but sliced the client’s overall technology/review software expenses as well, saving millions of dollars over previous years’ expenditures.

So while application of key terms prior to review may not always be possible in a matter, the principles of early case assessment are. Spending a few hours on the data prior to batching for review can ultimately save significant dollars. There are several great ECA tools on the market – including a couple of new ones we’re experimenting with – and the costs are comparatively small. And if you’re looking for some bang for your buck, ECA is a great place to start.

Speaking of ECA, our friends at Clearwell posted an entertaining video today (it’s April 1, lest we forget).