OSB Professional Liability Fund

What Can Yard Work Teach Lawyers about Project Management?

shovel
September 23, 2019
by Hong Dao

Anne, the owner of a two-attorney law firm and a single mother of two children, pulls into her driveway after a busy and stressful day at the office. She looks at her front yard full of patches of dead grass, weeds, and random yard debris. Her eyes glance over at her retired neighbor’s perfectly manicured lawn and she lets out a long sigh. After putting her children to bed, she takes a legal notepad from her briefcase and looks at her “BIG ideas to do” list: make firm more paperless; automate office systems; create an office procedures manual. She thinks to herself, “Where do I even begin?” She feels so overwhelmed by the idea of those projects that she puts the notepad away and just sits there. 

Her mind flashes to her front yard. She has seen other people in the neighborhood work on one section of their yard at a time. She searches for a blank sheet of paper at her children’s desk. With a pen and some markers, she makes the following sketch of her home and front yard.

                                                                       

At the bottom of the sketch, she writes an action plan to start working on her yard. She plans to work on the triangle area A first, then move to area B, and finish with area C. She writes down all the tasks and tools she needs to work on area A.

                                    
She does the same for areas B and C.  After completing her action plan for the yard, she feels like she’s already done half the yard work. She’s now motivated to get started because the plan gives her a sense of direction. She says to herself that she will devote her weekends to tackling each area at a time, with her kids’ help.

The following day, Anne goes to work while visualizing how great her yard will look in a few weeks. She enters her office and sees piles of papers and files stacked on her desk, and one tiny pile on the floor by the wall. She thinks back to her “BIG items to do” list and feels mentally paralyzed. She takes out the drawing of the yard from her briefcase and muses, “What if my firm is like my front yard?” She thinks about doing one of those projects on the list at a time, instead of tackling them all at once, which was what she wanted to do before. For each project, she will list the tasks and tools/equipment needed to accomplish that project.

She goes to her computer and starts writing and occasionally looks at her yard action plan for inspiration. She decides to start with the paperless project first, then move to automating office systems, then finally to creating an office procedures manual. She doesn’t know all the steps required to become more paperless, but she knows there are resources available at the PLF, as well as on the Internet. She calls and speaks with a PLF Practice Management Advisor, who gives her useful information and provides her with a checklist for going paperless.

With that information, she decides the following: she doesn’t want to be completely paperless, which would require scanning every single piece of paper that passes through her office. She only wants her case files to be paperless—for now. She writes down notes of who would scan, when scanning would be done, what happens to the paper document after it’s scanned, and where to save the scanned documents. She then writes an action plan similar to the yard for the paperless project to present it to all staff at the next meeting and get their input.

Just like the yard work, she already feels half-accomplished.
 

Takeaway from Anne’s Story

Anne’s story illustrates being overwhelmed when we try to accomplish many things at the same time and the resulting mental paralysis that prevents us from taking any action. Lawyers usually have no problem getting things done once they are on a roll. But it’s overcoming that initial paralysis of “where do I even start?” that may be difficult. The following two tips can help with this challenge:
  • Tackle one project at time – Prioritize what projects you want to do first and what can wait.
  • Break down a project into multiple tasks – Identify and list the individual steps within each task. Use active verbs to describe each step (e.g., “do,” “work on,” etc.).
                                  
It’s common to find that a step takes longer to perform than you expected or that a step is missing or duplicative. Being flexible will allow you to deal with uncertainty and surprises. Adjust your action plan and continue with it until you’re finished with your project.