Management and Creativity to Embrace Remote Work

In a moment where the personal and professional lives of lawyers are being upended, how can lawyers adapt and successfully manage remote work in times of uncertainty?

Author: Anna Marra, Project Manager, Consultant and Trainer. Director of IE Law School’s Executive Education Management for Lawyers programs

Albert Einstein famously said that “in moments of crisis, only the imagination is more important than knowledge.” Likewise, John F. Kennedy concluded that, in a crisis, while you must always be aware of the danger, it’s equally as important to recognize an opportunity.

The world’s current state of emergency is probably the most significant crisis we have suffered in the last 50 years, not least because we’re confronted with an invisible enemy. We’re all aware of the threat but as we wait for it to pass we must capitalize on our creative and imaginative sides, and take advantage of the unique opportunities self-isolation presents us with.

In the legal sector, this translates to becoming a remote lawyer. It’s quite intriguing because this is exactly the trend that several ALSPs (Alternative Legal Service Providers), such as Axiom and Ambar, had been promoting beforehand. In some way, this experience is contributing to a type of lawyer that had already begun to take shape within the sector.

The challenges of working remotely are numerous—the main ones being related to the efficiency of the delivery of the legal service alongside the management of virtual teams. Another major challenge comes from the oft-turbulent relationship between 45 to 65-year-old lawyers and technology. In this sense, millennial lawyers, who are already accustomed to working in virtual teams and with digital platforms, are one step ahead.

We must capitalize on our creative and imaginative sides, and take advantage of the unique opportunities self-isolation presents us with. In the legal sector, this translates to becoming a remote lawyer.

So where do we start? How do we become productive remote lawyers? Project management offers us some great tips to get started. The International Institute of Legal Project Management has published an E-Tips Manual for those legal professionals who want to adopt legal project management in their organization. The tips have been created by a pool of experts in LPM from across the globe.[1] Here, I have selected 15 of the most relevant pieces of advice for working from home:

1. Matter Definition—When working remotely, some individuals believe they have all the information they need within arm’s reach, but this is a dangerous mistake. Make sure you have regular conversations with your clients to better understand what they really want. Do you know why the client has come to you for this specific service? What level of service is the client expecting, especially with regards to communication? Use these questions to help you fully understand, plan, and deliver as effectively and efficiently as possible.

2. Identify Smart Objectives—While working on a virtual project, it’s key to have teams and clients working under common, clear, and concise objectives. Before planning your project, spend time with your client identifying these objectives. It helps to use the acronym SMART—objectives should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-framed.

3. Plan Appropriately—Whether you’re using a predictive method of planning (traditional project management) or adaptive methods (agile) you’ll need to plan tasks properly.

4. Break Your Project Down into Small, Achievable Tasks—An essential tool to help project managers to plan is a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) chart. Using a WBS means that project activities are easier to schedule, assign, budget, track, and deliver.

5. “Process Map” It—Process mapping provides insights into the project tasks that need to be done throughout a project, helping a team to visualize the project’s path and ultimately improve its workflow. This includes discerning by whom, when, and in what sequence tasks must be completed, in turn minimizing wasted time and effort and improving the quality of the team’s execution. For example, some tasks must be accomplished in a particular order while others can be completed at the same time. Reducing the project to a process map format takes the guesswork out of legal project execution.

6. Project Planning Improves Delivery—Nowadays, it’s quite common to be affected by a tremendous sense of urgency that encourages you to start the work you need to do as soon as you’re given it. However, try to spend more time on legal project planning before diving straight in. Every hour you spend properly planning a project can save you to up to five hours during project execution. By spending time on planning, you will increase your productivity, reduce inefficiencies, and increase the likelihood of your project’s success.

post-it notes, a tool for remote work and project management

7. Schedule Compression Techniques in Time Management—During these uncertain times you may face critical delays throughout your project. If this happens, try to adapt and shorten your schedule by using techniques such as fast-tracking and crashing. With fast-tracking, the goal is to review the project path and identify which sequential activities can be performed parallel or partially parallel to each other. Crashing is used when fast-tracking has not saved enough time—it aims to add extra resources to the project for the smallest cost possible.

8. Assessing Impact and Probability Will Help You Prioritize Risks Effectively—When you work remotely, and even more so in time of crisis, risks can be a lot higher. Are you able to identify and prioritize risks that might affect your project performance? Make a list of the risks involved in your project and then establish your own metrics to figure out the probability of each risk occurring and its relative impact on your project. If probability and impact are high, then you’ll need to prioritize the management of these high-risk events. In PM we use a tool called Risks Management Matrix to help with this.

9. Engage The Project Team—Have you ever seen how some people can become easily disengaged from a legal project? This is extremely common in virtual teams. Use a Responsibility Assignment Matrix to ensure each team member is aware of and understand their role and responsibilities in each of their tasks.

10. Adopt Agility When Unpredictability Is High—Have you ever started a project and wondered where to begin and how it might turn out? In many legal projects nowadays, unpredictability is exceptionally high. In these cases, a waterfall-driven approach is unlikely to be the best one. Project management is all about choosing the right methodology to ensure the best delivery. An agile approach based on fixed-length project iterations or “sprints” will help you to manage those unpredictable projects.

11. Provide Clarity Through Communication—In the absence of information, as may be the case when working from home, people tend to jump to negative conclusions. For instance, when you hear the Managing Partner wants to see you, you may automatically think you’ve done something wrong. The flow of information to the right person, at the right time, and in the right format, eliminates rumors and ensures effective communication.

12. Build “Psychological Safety” to Boost High Performing Teams—In the upcoming weeks you are likely to experience a feeling of insecurity as you transition to a virtual work environment. If so, try to build a “psychologically safe” environment in which team members feel comfortable interpersonal risk-taking. Only in a supportive working environment can you achieve optimal working performance.

13. Building resilience—You and your team will need to develop resilience to enable you all to bounce back from the inevitable setbacks you will encounter when managing legal matters virtually. Build up your resilience by looking after your health, fitness, and diet, as well as thinking positively and remembering to be grateful about the positive aspects of your life.

Here are two more universal tips which can also be applied to every remote job:

14. Organize your physical and mental space.

15. Create boundaries between work and leisure.

Shows the picture of the author, Anna Marra.Anna Marra is a PM trainer and consultant for private and public organizations. Anna was a pioneer in proposing the discipline of Legal Project Management to improve performances in law firms and in-house legal departments. In 2017 she became Councilor of the LPM Global Advisory Council of the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM). Presently she is IILPM Accredited Training Provider (ATP). Anna is author of various publications on legal project management, corporate social responsibility, and strategy for law firms 

Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution

[1] Easy Legal Project Management, by the IILPM ATP: Anna Marra (Spain and Italy), Todd Hutchison (Australia), Antony Smith (UK), Larry Bridgesmith (USA), Cat Moon (USA), Gustavo Carmona (Mexico), Aileen Leventon (USA), Harald Evers (Germany), Ignaz Fuesgen (Germany), International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM).