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Alice Burns on Project Management for Litigation

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One of the benefits of maintaining this blog is that it brings me into contact with experts in the fields of legal project management, legal process improvement, and legal technology. It is my stepladder to the shoulders of giants. Recently, I've started approaching members of the legal and legal support communities to ask them to share their views on legal project management. Most have been very encouraging and willing to speak with me.

A while back I came across Baker Robbins & Company's Project Management for Litigation Clinic. It was exciting for me to see a two-day program devoted entirely to applying project management tools and concepts to litigation. After some e-mails back and forth, Alice Burns, who teaches the clinic agreed to answer some questions and allow me to post them here. 

Alice Burns is a Manger with Baker Robbins & Company, a Thomson Reuters business.  Her consulting expertise extends to litigation support business economics, organization, workflow and technology issues. 

Alice previously held positions as Vice President Business Development for a litigation service provider, and President and Consultant for a litigation consulting company. She has also worked for two Am Law 100 firms in paralegal and technology positions. She serves on University and industry boards focusing on forensics, e-discovery, and litigation support issues. 

PAUL EASTON: When did you first see the need for legal project management?

ALICE BURNS: The first time I began to think about the need for project management was toward the end of my first paralegal job when we still lived in a paper-as-evidence world. In that job I learned how to manually organize large-scale document collections, how to create indexes to track information, how to manage resources, how to meet deadlines and move work along. I got more serious about project management starting in 1997 when I had my own litigation support consulting company, which brought on a whole new interest in environment evaluation, resource allocation, cost predicting and data management.

PAUL: You teach an interactive clinic entitled "Project Management for Litigation," geared toward litigation support professionals, paralegals, and attorneys. How has this program been received? [N.B. More information and links to the program are provided after the interview.]

ALICE: The program has been well received in both the United States and in Canada. Recent participants have said this about the program: 

  • "Best training course I have attended in last 4 years." 

  • "Attorneys should hear this!!"

  • "Putting paralegals and practice support in same room was perfect."

  • "Plan to implement items right away to improve current cases, and use framework on next case to do it right from the start."

  • "Practical, informative. The framework you need to manage cases involving e-discovery. Very timely." 

PAUL: Who are your main clients? Law firms, litigation support bureaus, corporate legal departments, individual lawyers and legal-support professionals? Is it a mixed bag?

ALICE: It is a mixed bag. Ideally, those who are searching for a methodology and approach to handling discovery. I have taught the program's framework to a wide ranging audience including lawyers, paralegals, litigation support and IT professionals. 

The Canadian version, which was sponsored by Commonwealth Legal, was taught across the country to invited guests. Those sessions included a wide variety of legal professionals from various backgrounds, firm sizes, and included both law firms, corporations, government, and vendors. It was a nice mix of lawyers, legal assistants, litigation support, and IT. 

A top twenty United States law firm brought the program to their paralegals and litigation support professionals. I taught that program with the firm's Director of Paralegals in four of their offices--two East Coast and two West Coast. That firm saw the value in better coordinating the role of the paralegal with the role of litigation support. It was an opportunity to give that firm's paralegals and litigation support a framework for working together. That was how the program was initially designed--to harmonize a law firm's staff and their inner discovery framework. 

Ideally, I'd like to bring this program to every law firm in the United States, then onto the international firms--to help each firm find it's own framework for handling discovery (e- or not). An ideal scenario would be to teach an entire legal team--corporate legal department, in-house counsel and discovery staff, their chosen vendors--the framework. It would be a train-the-trainers program; that team would then teach another team at their firm the framework, which would then become popularized and refined through repetitive use and lessons learned. 

PAUL: What are your thoughts on e-discovery and litigation support certifications? For example, consider the current efforts of the Association of Litigation Support Professionals (ALSP) and the Organization of Legal Professionals (OLP), which I've written about before. What role should project-management training lay in any such certificate program? 

ALICE: Certification is a challenge, and a lofty goal. Paralegal associations have been working toward certification for more than 20 years, and still it is not pervasive. I know some within ALSP, and now OLP, who are looking at certification issues. Until certification is mandatory through some authoritative body, I continue to be a champion of programs that teach discovery management skills and evidence issues similar to the one I am involved with at the University of Washington: their Electronic Discovery Management program.

PAUL: What benefits your clients have reaped from improved project management? 

ALICE: In their own words, "an understanding of what I should be doing and when, with whom, and to what extent." 

I like helping people realize how and when they should interact, how they should communicate, what types of documentation to create and keep (based on legal requirements, client obligations, or their own business requirements or for risk protection). I think these have been valuable benefits learned for many participants. 

PAUL: What role do you see in litigation support for traditional project management standards, such as PMBOK and PRINCE II? What value, or lack thereof, is there for lawyers and legal support staff in obtaining project management credentials (e.g. PMP)? 

ALICE: I go back and forth on the value of obtaining PMP credentials. I have gone online and looked at any number of PMP certification courses. Is it valuable to me? Will it be required in the future to work in a law firm? As a passionate champion in the value in applying a framework for handling litigation cases, I am not fully convinced (yet) that current PMP certifications [focused on sales, manufacturing, warehouse distribution] is an ideal program foundation for litigation. The methodology, approach, and the values may be there, I am just not sure the examples and exercises typically used as instruction directly apply. I'd like to see a PMP course geared for discovery management; that might get me to sign up for my PMP. University programs coming along resonate more for me right now than PMP certification, or certification through ALSP or OLP. 

PAUL: How applicable are specific methodologies such as Six Sigma and Total Quality Management to legal and litigation support work? Are there any methodologies you feel are important or interesting? 

ALICE: It makes sense that looking at Six Sigma or Total Quality Management may help one develop a methodology. I read a lot of Six Sigma books in developing the framework I use. It's very different from project management used in business; however the principles translate. That's what I took away from my readings, and what I think I bring to the table in the program I teach--a set of principles, a methodology, an easy to use framework, and of course, the level of communication and documentation. 

Where we might be headed is redeployment of business analysts (or PMPs) to the corporate legal department; perhaps even those with green or black belts,[1] who can apply their talents to discovery from an inside-out approach. If that happens, then those analysts, if not already familiar with the litigation workflow, will need to learn the legal lifecycle, and all its uniqueness and nuisances. That role would have to be adept at customizing Six Sigma or TQM to the legal process. In that case, I would want someone with a PMP degree versus an industry-lead certification. 

Brett Tarr, of eMag Solutions, wrote an article entitled, Skills, Savvy & Something More: The New E-Discovery PM, in the September 2009 eMag newsletter. [Paul - a version of this also appeared in the September issue of ALSP Update, which I discussed in an earlier post.] In it he said:

[the e-Discovery Project Manager] connects the client data, technology architecture and legal presentation. The successful project manager in electronic discovery today is, by necessity, an amazing individual: part manager, part paralegal, part litigator, part technical expert, part salesperson and part problem fixer.
I agree, and go even a step farther. 

I believe there are different levels of project management to consider for any single litigation case. There are also several different and interchangeable project manager roles which different people may take on, share or transfer to one another throughout the litigation case lifecycle. See diagram example below:


The table above illustrates the inter-play of roles and the possibility of shared or transitioning project management responsibilities. 

Project management isn't a single person's effort, it's a team sport. There has to be someone in charge--the uber Project Manager; that person needs to know the uses, values, trades and craft, and costs of each player, of each move; but this game can be unique which means multiple people may need to wear the title of Project Manager. The "amazing individual," the "Uber Project Manager," knows when to pass the PM hat on, and when to ask for it back. 

More law firms are beginning to pay attention to the need for some level of control over the discovery process, the costs, and the quality. Some are focused on (1) vigorous early case assessment; (2) a rigorous and detailed budgeting process with a mechanism for mid-course modifications; (3) a cooperative partnership between in-house and outside counsel in establishing tactics, strategies, and overall goals; or (4) greater transparency into the day-to-day activities of the legal team. Each of those four times would involve one level of project management. 

Project management starts with the relationship between outside and inside counsel, with strategy, tactics, environmental assessment and budgeting as part of early case assessment efforts, then project management should trickle all the way down through each stage of a case, all the way through the everyday workings of each case stage. It should encompass a framework for mapping out the details of case, its strategy, tasks, costs and activities, roles and responsibilities, documentation requirements, vendor selection and management, collection, processing and review management, database setup and management, production and quality control efforts, presentation, and the management of records for that case. 

PAUL: What is next for you on the Project Management front? 

ALICE: I will continue to teach and advocate for project management to those who are interested. 

Also, I have begun to look at the roles and process for establishing a Litigation Project Management Office ("LPMO") within a corporate or law firm's organizational matrix. The LPMO would help the lawyer (and their client) assess case information and focus on how to better predict cost for the prosecution or defense of a litigation case. Project Management would be used to help define workflow efforts all along the way, and not just be applied to discovery efforts. 

LPMO effort and analysis would be placed on early case assessment tactics, including better budget predictability based on historical litigation cost information, as well as go/no-go milestones inherent in the litigation lifecycle -points in time where progress, scope and cost could be measured against outcome potential. 


I would like to again thank Alice for taking time out of her busy schedule to share her legal project management experience and wisdom with the readers of this blog. Below I have included material the Alice provided, which give more information on her Project Management for Litigation Clinic. You may contact Alice through the Baker Robbins Web site:

Project Management for Litigation Clinic

Interactive clinic entitled, "Project Management for Litigation," geared toward litigation support professionals, paralegals and attorneys. 

The program applies the traditional IT project management stages - Initiation, Planning, Execution and Closure - to the EDRM model. The interactive program is designed to address mission critical deficiencies found in today's management of litigation cases, including adequate case planning, role and responsibility definitions, team communications and defensible documentation, as well as quality control and cost management, among other topics.
The program is taught as either a one-day and two-day seminar. I have taken a number of approaches in bringing this role-, skills- and document-based curriculum to the profession including (1) program customization for specific law firms; (2) overview presentations at industry conferences; and (3) road show - boot camps across the US and Canada.  Consideration is being given to videotaping the program as a downloadable mini-series accessible anytime via the web.

Value to Firm: Participants learn how to use Project Management Framework to:

  1. Gain better control over complex litigation cases involving challenging discovery issues

  2. Document important legal, strategic and technical decisions using change management procedures

  3. Improve quality control and vendor management by aligning legal and workflow timelines

Clinic Format: Your legal teams taught onsite at your Firm's office(s) in discussion and practice-based interactive format. Clinic is offered as either a one-day or two-day clinic, custom tailored to the unique needs of your firm.  It is also taught as a web-based framework tool.  Intended audience is litigators, paralegals and litigation support staff.


[1] "Green Belt" and "Black Belt" refers to Six Sigma certification levels and implementation roles. See:

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Here’s an interesting interview with Alice Burns regarding legal project management.  Litigation support jobs are certainly going to take on more of a project management role moving forward, as lawyers are willing to sacrifice a bit of control ... Read More

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This page contains a single entry by Paul C. Easton published on October 15, 2009 12:40 AM.

Job Advice: Legal Project Management is Swell, but it Won't Make Up for Technological Ineptitude was the previous entry in this blog.

Tomorrows Corporate Lawyers: Some thoughts on Richard Susskind's Five Categories is the next entry in this blog.

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