Using Project Teams Effectively

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At this point in the coronavirus crisis, your firm’s management team has probably sized up your firm’s circumstances and made decisions relating to compensation adjustments, expense reductions, cash flow improvements, summer associate employment and the like. Carrying out decisions of this type can usually be assigned to the managing partner, COO, CFO, HR director or another leader in the firm with relevant authority and expertise.

Other decisions may be more complicated, requiring additional study, brainstorming, broader input or the preparation of detailed implementation plans. In such cases, a special project team or task force might be charged with performing analysis, making recommendations or executing a new policy or system. The team might be charged with making a decision, contributing to a decision to be made by others, implementing a decision already made or designing a plan of some sort.

In our experience, the success of any ad hoc project team is greatly aided by the preparation of a clear, thoughtful charter to guide its work. This article sets forth how-to advice for preparing a useful project charter to guide the work of a project team or task force.

The Project Charter

A good project charter defines the project’s objectives, assigns the project team’s membership and establishes clear deadlines and parameters for the work. Typically, the charter should not exceed a page or two and should include the following elements.

Project Number and Name

Give each project a name and number. The numbers simply indicate the order in which the projects were assigned, not their relative importance or priority. The third project is called Project #3, along with a short, descriptive name. Numbering the projects may help you track the work more efficiently and will indicate a commitment to selectively managing work in this way.

Issue Date

The issue date is the date on which the project charter was shared with or issued to the project leader.

Project Description

State the broad objective of the project in plain language. This is different from the specific objectives and deliverables to be defined later. Following are several examples of a project description:

  • Analyze the profitability of our Houston office in each of the last three years.
  • Improve the flow of information into and out of our time and billing system.
  • Assess the profitability of the firm’s three largest insurance defense clients and make recommendations on how to improve our margins.
  • Reduce the Managing Partner’s management burden from 2,000 hours to 1,200 hours annually.
  • Select an e-discovery vendor to replace our existing vendor.
  • Audit and improve our lateral recruiting processes.
  • Assess the value of our participation in [law firm network] and make recommendations regarding future participation.
  • Recommend systems for determining how busy staff members are and whether support tasks are being performed by the right people.
Project Owner

The project owner is a leader or manager in the firm to whom the project leader will report. Typically, the project owner issues the project charter but does not actively work on the project. He or she briefs the project leader, then serves as a sounding board and resource during the work of the project team. The team’s final report will be issued to the project owner according to the time and manner specified in the charter.

In smaller firms, the managing partner or chief administrator may serve as project owner for most projects. In larger firms, the project owner could be the managing partner, management committee, recruiting partner, COO, another chief or director—whichever decision maker is appropriate, depending on the subject matter and organizational structure.

It is not always necessary that the project owner have oversight responsibility for the area under review. It may be appropriate, for example, to conduct a third-party review of the firm’s lateral recruiting procedures or collections practices. A defensive or overbearing project owner may prejudice the work of the team or distort the team’s findings and recommendations to protect his or her interests.

Project Leader

The project leader is primarily responsible for directing the work of the project team and is accountable for meeting all objectives by the stated deadlines. He or she is given the “what” (the objectives, parameters, deadlines and team roster) and determines the “how” (who will do what to achieve the objectives). The project leader should be given a great deal of latitude in how the work of the project gets accomplished. The project owner should resist the temptation to check in with the project leader aside from the stated deadlines.

Project Team

The project team is the group (typically four to seven people) who will work together on the project. Project leaders and team members are usually expected to carry out their normal daily responsibilities while also working on the project.

A benefit of project teams is that the short-term work assignments bring people together from different parts of the firm: different practice groups, operational departments, offices and generations. Placing lawyers and non-lawyers together as collaborators can help bridge the chasm that exists in many firms and may tap into latent creativity and capability.

Project team membership should be assigned with the following considerations in mind:

  • Capability. The team must be able to understand and execute the project.
  • Diversity. The team should represent a variety of perspectives. This is important for avoiding “groupthink” and because flashes of insight frequently come from outside the group that is closest to the problem.
  • Inclusion. The team might be constructed to include at least one member who would not normally be invited, such as a legal assistant or young associate, to help develop the project leader’s ability to direct a disparate group of people and to assess the capabilities of those invited to participate.

Project leaders should encourage participation and contribution from all team members. Many organizations have identified future leaders through their work on project teams.

Objectives

Earlier, we set forth the main purpose of the project with the project description. Now we spell out the specific goals and tasks to be accomplished by the project team. One example might look something like this:

  • Project Description:  Assess the profitability of the firm’s ten largest clients.
  • Objectives:
    - Identify the firm’s ten largest clients for last year based on total fee receipts. If considerations other than total fee receipts are applied to come up with the list of ten clients, then explain how the list was compiled.
    - Assess the bottom-line profitability for each client. This should be a financial calculation, without regard to intangibles.
    - Clearly and fully explain your methodology. Show your work.
    - Discuss the implications of your findings.
    - Make recommendations to firm management on how to improve profitability overall or for specific clients.

In the above example, someone from the firm’s accounting department should be on (or available to) the team to facilitate data gathering. Management would have to decide whether to include partners whose clients are on the top ten list, which might depend on the partners and what management expects the team to find.

Here’s a second example:

  • Project Description: Evaluate the pros and cons of outsourcing legal work to India.
  • Objectives:
    - List and assess the pros and cons, generally, of outsourcing legal work to India. Summarize your overall assessment.
    - Discuss the kinds of legal work that are well suited for outsourcing.
    - Recommend whether the firm should outsource legal work to India, and if yes, what kind of work and how much of it. Be as specific as possible.
    - If yes, recommend a short list of vendors to consider.
    - Discuss the implications of outsourcing legal work to India. If the team recommends doing so, also recommend safeguards to protect the firm.

When constructing the charter, firm management must decide how much authority to delegate to the project team. Is the team evaluating, recommending or implementing? Are any recommendations out of bounds?

The project objectives make clear what will have been accomplished at the end of the project. They should give good direction to the team without biasing its work.

Resources and Parameters

Set forth any parameters or constraints to be observed by the project team, including budget and other resources available to them during the course of the project.

  • Budget. How much money is available to the project team? Does the team have full authority over how this money is spent? May the team request additional funds if needed? 
  • Resources. May firm leaders be interviewed if deemed necessary by the project leader? Can others in the firm be consulted? What firm information is available to the team? Can the team hire outside assistance (such as vendors or consultants) as needed within the project budget?

It might be hard to know in advance what it will cost to fulfill the project objective. Management can establish a not-to-exceed figure and let the project team ask for additional resources if needed. You can always say no.

Deadlines and Deliverables

For a small project, one final deadline is all that is needed. For a larger project, the project team should be given at least one interim deadline to report findings to date, lay out next steps, request additional resources or an extension to their deadline if needed, and receive feedback from the project owner. Interim deadlines will help minimize the effects of Parkinson’s Law (which posits that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”) as well as the human propensity to do all the work right before it is due.

Any events that bear upon the project deadline could be noted here, such as a meeting of the management committee or the partnership at which the project team’s findings will be discussed or a date by which a final decision must be made by the firm.

Deadlines should be clear both in terms of due dates and what is expected at each milestone. (A verbal update? Written report? Presentation to management?) Be clear regarding expectations and space the deadlines appropriately given the project’s complexity, any anticipated scheduling difficulties and the general workload.

Keys to Success

A well-designed project will have the following characteristics:

  • Clarity. It all begins with a well-constructed project charter that sets forth clear objectives, parameters, deliverables and deadlines.
  • Importance. The project must matter. Smart people know when they’ve been assigned busywork. Do not assign a project if completing the project will not advance or improve the firm in some way. Projects should be thoughtfully designed and should be prioritized so that only important work is being done in the project teams.
  • Accountability. The project team is accountable to the project owner and the project owner must care about the success of the project.
  • Participation. Every member of the project team is expected to contribute to the project, although not necessarily equally.
  • Continuity. Generally, the team that is assigned to the project should complete the project, although substitutions can be made by the project leader if approved or delegated by the project owner. Someone may not have time available to participate, for example, or may be disruptive to the rest of the team.
  • Momentum. The spacing and pace of deadlines should require the team to meet and do work related to the project on an ongoing basis. It is difficult to revive any project once momentum has waned. Encourage the team to get to work and hold them accountable for performance.
  • Contribution. Firm management must do something with the results of the project. Members of the project team will be disappointed if they submit their report and are rewarded with silence. Moreover, any other project teams will quickly conclude that their efforts are not likely to receive management attention. Management is not obligated to agree with a project team’s findings nor implement its recommendations, but the team should know it has been heard and that its work is appreciated.

Conclusion

The project team methodology described in this article presents simple guidelines for assigning temporary work teams to important business projects. There is no reason why multiple project teams cannot operate concurrently. This proven methodology will help you get more done while also developing collaboration skills and identifying leadership potential among your people.



Eric A. Seeger is a principal with Altman Weil, Inc. He advises law firms on strategy and management issues. Contact Mr. Seeger at eseeger@altmanweil.com.

The downloadable article also includes three Sample Project Charters. 

An earlier version of this article appeared in the August 2009 issue of Law Firm Partnership and Benefits Report, Incisive Media Properties, Inc.

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