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So, You Have Been Assigned a Project? – Part 1 (Set Up)
By Chris Fortier

You get called into your supervisor’s or partner’s office and after some small talk, you realize that they want to give you something large. It is so large that it will involve a lot of time and people and will involve a significant portion of your attention.

Welcome to the world of project management! You may have done group projects during law school or college, but projects in the professional world have a different twist. Your team members will have time conflicts and possibly live or work hundreds or thousands of miles away.

With these considerations, you will have to do some additional planning. Here are a few things to think about in your planning:

What is the problem?

Be sure to understand the need for the project before you start any planning. You will need to state the problem or need in one sentence. Think in terms of, “My client cannot do a certain task efficiently and effectively,” or, “I have been asked to create a solution for a problem confounding my client.” Getting a concise statement of the problem allows you to communicate your needs clearly.

What is the end goal/final product?

This is the most important question you need to answer. If you do not know the answer to this question, sit down with the person assigning the project (the partner, the client, the supervisor, we’ll call him or her the customer) to clarify this.

In litigation, the answer is usually concrete, as it may be a written motion to the court or a set of relevant documents to produce as evidence for your case. However, the goal may be open in most other projects. Do not be afraid to ask questions about how the customer will use goal or product, why the customer needs it, and what the customer wants to accomplish with the goal or product. These are all clues to help you shape the final objective and clarify your next question:

What has to be accomplished to get there?

You now know the end product but now you ask how do you build it? As you already know, your final product does not magically appear, as pieces have to come together to build the parts of your final product. Initially, you need to ask yourself what needs to happen and what needs to come together in order to achieve your vision from a high level. Think in general terms as you likely will not know the specifics. In some cases, you may not know the specifics until you are actually working on the project.

If your project is linear, you may be able to set numerical or concrete mileposts (such as reviewing 2,500 documents or putting together the first of three arguments you want to put in front of the court). However, in other instances, your vision will have to be general as other variables will greatly affect the project’s outcome.

Establish the timeline.

To get a handle on how your project will work, you will need to establish a timeline for tasks to happen. Your deadline may already be set but you will need to set progress deadlines to have your established tasks complete.

After you set your ideas on the amount of time a particular task will take, budget extra time. Issues happen, but you do not need them to surprise you.

If you have more tasks to complete than time to complete them, prioritize the tasks. Review everything to determine your essentials (cannot live without) and your less-essential tasks (the nice to have but not necessary). Make a list ranking from highest to lowest priority. As you get to know your client or your supervisor, you will get a sense of how these priorities will sort; however, you will want to have a conversation to clearly set expectations and boundaries of what you will accomplish and how you will get there.

What are your needs to get to “there”?

In addition to your checkpoint goals, your timeline, and your expectations, you will need to figure out what assistance you will need to get your end goals. How many people will you need to help you? What resources will you need in terms of information technology, physical space, subject matter experts, instructions, and devotion of a work day to accomplish this task? To determine these questions, take a sample of the work and perform it yourself. You will get a sense of what someone working on your project will encounter. Compare your work with the total task and its goals. This should assist you with answering the questions regarding total work hours and how many people you will need to assist you.  From there, the other questions of resources will fall into place.

Be prepared for limitations.

Murphy’s Law always has time for you! Something will always come up to mess with your master plan. If you have done your preparations, you should be able to handle the surprise limitations. Your budget request will not be completely granted! Your priority list will guide you as to potential cuts or additions to your final product. These plans will make the surprises less stressful as the project end product comes closer to reality.

Set up the project – the parameters.

As a manager of a project, you get to establish many aspects of the project but the most important portion of the project is the culture. What philosophy will you use to manage the project? There are many different styles and philosophies of project management, but you will need to choose one and adhere to it for the duration of the project.

More practical concerns include setting up methods of conflict management, your management team structure, meeting agendas, and the weekly setup for your team. In some instances, your team may assist you with setting up the project culture and boundaries. However, doing this planning assists you in dealing with future problems.

Chris Fortier is the President of the Young Lawyers Conference and has served in many capacities with the Virginia State Bar and the American Bar Association. He works for the Social Security Administration in Falls Church, Virginia. His remarks do not reflect the opinions of SSA or the Federal Government. He prepared this work on his own time.