I wrote this piece a few years ago for my own personal blog because I thought then and I still think now that paralegals are e-discovery project managers. I also wrote something similar for NALA’s Facts & Findings publication, and again, my argument holds up.
Whether you’re traveling a long distance, going on a short road trip, or just heading out to buy dinner, the most important piece of information you need is where you’re going, right? To figure out how you are going to get somewhere, you must know your destination. While this is more difficult as we traverse our goals in life, when it comes to success in e-discovery and the world of legal and litigation support this analysis is much easier.
Managing a project is like managing a case
Every case and each part of a case can and should be viewed as a project. A project is a temporary, non-routine endeavor limited by scope, time, and cost that creates a unique product, service, or result. Projects have a start and an end, and they are unique. Paralegals are drafting motions, performing research, working on discovery, or a trial –all of these are projects or sub-projects of a larger case. Project management principles will help get the work done more effectively and more efficiently.
Who’s a project manager?
Project management, defined, is the structured application of skill, knowledge, tools and techniques to organize project activities and efficiently bring about a desired outcome. Paralegals do this day in and day out as they apply their skills to casework at law firms and corporations around the world.
Paralegals and legal assistants are as much project managers as any attorney leading a case. A project manager is the person possessing the applicable skills, knowledge, and talent who is assigned by an organization and responsible for overseeing and actively managing, among other things, the scope, time, and cost of a project to achieve project objectives. A project manager, like paralegals, must manage the interests and expectations of stakeholders and ensure that the project is completed at scope, on time and within budget. Along the way, they also measure and manage risk, ensure the quality of deliverables, and manage the personnel and other resources associated with a project.
If this doesn’t describe the role of paralegals working on a case, then it’s not clear what does. From the time their phone rings and they receive a new case assignment, paralegals are helping to manage and organize as the case moves through the stages of the litigation spectrum. Drafting, filing, organizing, researching, managing documents or discovery, cite checking – each of these are projects that require specialized skills, have dependencies, and must be performed efficiently. Without a doubt each of these tasks have time constraints and cost limitations. So, lest there remain any doubt—paralegals are project managers.
What does Done look like?
But confusion remains regarding exactly how project management principles integrate with legal work. Perhaps the most important question a project manager can ask when he or she leads a project is “What does done look like?” That question, as simple as it seems, together with the answer, should resonate throughout the project. Otherwise, the scope of the project lacks definition, and when a project lacks proper scope definition the outcome will likely not be successful. When you take on a new case or assignment, it’s important to gather all the information, requirements, and parameters. Remember, successful projects have a vision, a purpose, and a goal, and they have time and cost constraints.
But scope management is just one aspect of project management. There are several components to project management that should be understood, starting with an understanding of the project lifecycle.
The Project Management Lifecycle
Projects have a life; they have a beginning and an end. The project lifecycle begins with the five pillars of traditional project management, called Process Groups. Process simply refers to the discreet steps, actions, or operations one takes to achieve project objectives, the tools used, and an understanding of what each part of a project will look like as well as the final result. Process is identifying the inputs, tools and techniques, and the outputs required to produce results.
The Five Project Management Process Groups
To begin a project, it makes sense to have an orderly framework. The project management process groups provide that framework:
At each stage of a project, the project team should consider the following:
- Initiating: Should we take on this project? What are the alternatives? Should we make it or buy it? Do we have necessary agreements in place?
- Planning: What does done look like? What is and what is not included? What resources do we need? Who will lead the project? How much is it going to cost? How long will it take? What risks are involved? How will quality be maintained?
- Executing: Project work begins and deliverables are prepared.
- Monitoring & Controlling: Are we on time? On budget? Are we maintaining quality? How are we monitoring changes?
- Closing: Document what was done, record metrics and perform post-project review.
The Project Management Knowledge Areas
The lifecycle does not end here. Within each process group are specific areas of responsibility that a project manager focuses on throughout a project. Known as the Knowledge Areas, these are the core elements in each of the five process groups that a project manager must manage:
- Integration management
- Scope management
- Time management
- Cost management
- Quality management
- Human resource management
- Communication management
- Risk management
- Procurement management
- Stakeholder management
The Knowledge Areas help to structure, categorize, and navigate the order of project work. They must be consistently integrated, managed, and monitored across the five process groups during a project.
Together, the five process groups and ten knowledge areas provide a consistent framework for project work. This framework has been time-tested and it works.
The Ins and Outs of PM
Within the framework, a project manager is responsible for the Inputs, Tools & Techniques, and Outputs in each knowledge area. The project manager first gathers information and identifies the requirements of the project (Inputs). Second, decisions are made about the equipment, methodologies, and resources necessary to achieve project success (Tools & Techniques). And third, the completed tasks and activities become deliverables and, ultimately, the final product, service or result (Outputs).
To illustrate the point, an example is helpful. Tasked with collecting electronically stored information (ESI) from a client for discovery, what Inputs are needed before beginning the project? What information is necessary to enable the collection project to move forward? In the very least you need the location, the names of custodians, and the sources from which you will collect the ESI.
Next consider the Tools & Techniques. Is there a particular collection methodology suitable to the case? What tools are required? Are there written protocols or best practices for performing a collection? Here you need to know if you’re going to forensically collect the ESI or use other less formal procedures. Ideally, you’re going to use a trained technician who employs software or hardware that write-protects the ESI to prevent it from being altered.
And finally, what is the Output? Obviously, one output is the collected ESI. But how is it maintained? What form is it in post-collection? Are there any other requirements or documentation that is required at the conclusion of an ESI collection? The expectation when collecting ESI is that it will be in native form and all the metadata will be intact. Additionally, you are going to want a collection log and, because the ESI is potentially evidence, you will need to prepare a chain of custody form showing who handled the ESI.
This is but one example of the how the traditional project management methodology works. The project management framework above and the process of moving from inputs to tools to outputs are a proven methodology. More than 1 million project managers across the globe in nearly every industry, including the legal business, use this methodology to achieve effective results. Paralegals should adopt these processes as well.
I began my career as a paralegal and made the move into legal technology, litigation support and e-discovery. Through hard work I built a reputation for getting things done, for educating and training attorneys and paralegals, and for managing people and successful projects. I have managed some of the largest class-action securities litigations ever filed. At some point, it occurred to me that there is a better way and so I began to look at the principles of project management and their applicability to case work in the legal industry. Doing so has served me well over the past two decades. My point here is simple: paralegals and legal assistants, like anyone working in any industry, are project managers too. They perform important project-oriented work that can only improve with the use of project management principles.