David Rueff has practiced law for more than 20 years. He also is a certified project manager through the Project Management Institute (PMP®) and is certified in the Toyota Manufacturing Production System (Lean). David leads a team of attorneys and project managers to implement project management for Baker Donelson clients, in-house corporate legal departments and disaster recovery programs. He was responsible for the development of the Firm’s patent pending legal project management model – BakerManage®, the Firm’s Lean model– BakerLean™ and the Firm’s proprietary budgeting tool – Budget Designer™. I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his project management expertise and how lawyers can apply project management to the practice of law.

What was the impetus behind your interest in legal project management? 

The impetus for my interest in project management could be best characterized as three separate storms that converged in 2010.

The first storm was my personal experience practicing law.  Prior to law school, I worked in the IT industry where project management was core discipline for managing design and development projects.  In 1994, I went back to law school and started as an associate in my first law firm in 1997.  I was amazed at the lack of project management in the practice of law. It always seemed like the primary business objective was to load up hours.  New matters came in the door, associates were put to work with limited guidance and there was no discussion with anyone as to the estimated cost.  The end result was clients who did not expect the cost, and even though the result might be good, clients were dissatisfied.

The second storm was actually a real storm – Hurricane Katrina.  This storm hit the southeastern United States in 2005, and while catastrophic to my State of Mississippi, it exposed me to an improved process for legal services. Immediately after the storm, a state program was launched to help victims rebuild or repair their homes.  Several bids were put out for professional teams to assist with the disbursement of the funds.  These project teams included engineers, accountants, lawyers, environmental scientists and other disciplines.  Our team was a successful bidder and we implemented a process to take an applicant for assistance through several phases, including legal.  I was responsible for the legal function and managed a team of 11 lawyers and 20 paralegals.  The State oversight authority required each phase lead to identify their process, estimate the productivity of their team,  prepare an estimate of costs and manage to that estimate.  For the first time in my career, I was asked to prepare a process map, detailed budget and production schedule and stick to it.  After I developed and confirmed this information with the State, they paid our bills, with minimal write offs.  This approach was refreshing and established a client relationship built upon clarity and communication before work began.

The third storm was the pressure being placed on law firms by client trade organizations.  Clients were becoming very dissatisfied with the legal service model and were demanding change.  This was evidenced by the ACC Value Challenge in 2007, a growing interest in alternative fees and the increase in client ebilling systems designed to curb law firm over billing.  The management of our firm, Baker Donelson, recognized the need to change and sponsored me to become trained as a traditional project manager and design a legal project management system.  I accomplished both in 2010, and thereafter, the Firm requested that I implement BakerManage with other lawyers.

What do lawyers currently “get” and not “get” when it comes to implementing legal project management strategies and principles?

I think most law firms now realize that legal project management is here to stay, and more clients are recognizing the benefits of the approach to control outside counsel legal spend.  However, I don’t believe that most lawyers  really understand what we mean by legal project management.  The term is used so loosely that it can mean different things to different professionals including oversight of ediscovery, managing a large portfolio of cases or sophisticated case management technology solutions.  Lawyers don’t understand that the core of legal project management can really benefit them as well.  At a high level, legal project management is really clarifying the work to be performed (scope), using that information to craft a detailed and realistic budget and then managing to that budget. The simple development of good budget, instead of a guess, and communication of the terms of that budget with the client are really insurance that a lawyer will get paid for all the work they perform.

How do you see technology fitting into the broader legal project management puzzle?

When I first implemented legal project management in a single case, I used an excel template to create my project plan and share it with the client.  My plan included a budget, but I had to manually update the budget periodically based upon billing reports from my file.  I also had to manually create changes to scope and case management updates.  After I had updated them, I circulated a new version of the file to the client.  Even with this rudimentary approach, I was able to control the scope, budget and necessary changes on my matter so that the client was satisfied with the final cost.  Technology can even further improve a lawyer’s efficiency for the management of an individual case or for a portfolio of cases. For the single case, technology allows a lawyer to automate reporting of budget to actual spend, receive alert notifications regarding spending thresholds and assemble all project information (calendars, notes, relevant documents, etc.) in one location.  When managing a team, technology allows a lawyer to share this information regardless of where team members are located or whether they are in the office at the same time.  Most importantly, by assembling all this information in one location and keeping it regularly updated, lawyers can provide the client with access to receive a greater level of transparency.  This type of approach to managing legal matters will soon be the new normal.  I heard a speaker recently say that some pizza vendors  have a mobile application that can show you where your pizza is in the delivery process as it makes its way to you.  If a client can get this kind of transparency for a $10 pizza, what are they going to expect from their law firm?

What is the biggest lesson law firms and legal departments should draw from legal project management?

The key to successful legal project management is collaboration.  LPM works best, where the client and the legal team work together to design a statement of work and budget that is consistent with both parties’ expectations, and then manage to it throughout the engagement.  This is true whether you are managing a single matter, a portfolio of matters or handling transactions or litigation services.

What has most surprised you as you have gone about implementing LPM principles?

If you look closely at the ethical rules in your local jurisdiction or the model rules of the American Bar Association, you will find that LPM principles are at the core of our responsibilities as lawyers for things such as informed consent, reasonable fees and communication.  What has surprised me most, is that lawyers don’t realize that LPM is a solution for satisfying ethical obligations, improving the client relationship, getting paid for the work performed and helping lawyers and their teams avoid mistakes. With these benefits, why wouldn’t you incorporate it into your practice?