Lawyers and farmers are two groups not usually found in the same room. I’ve noticed an overlap in project challenges found in farming and legal work during the unusual experience of growing up, and later returning to, a small Maryland horse farm, while building a career as a Legal Project Manager (“LPM”) in Manhattan and DC.
LPM, which is relatively new to the legal industry, addresses a need for increased project discipline in an industry that is mostly priced on an hourly billing model. As a result of the pricing model, clients’ best strategy for controlling legal spend is managing how their lawyers spend their time. LPM gives clients more visibility and input along the way into their law firms’ projects.
My parents’ horse farm, like many farms, was languishing in its old age, and I became immersed in the goal of restoring the farm in an effort to preserve agricultural history that is quickly eroding in Maryland. I worked with my family to restore hundreds of feet of fence line, remove brush overgrowth, build a gravel driveway, replace gates, re-wire 50-year old electricity, and restore grass quality, among other projects. Reflecting on both my LPM and farming work, I unearthed three key similarities.
In both industries, the looming number of possible tasks that need to get done carry the potential to quickly overwhelm budgets, not to mention a human’s capacity. Before diving in, it is important to consider the farm or client’s priorities by ranking projects by their position to advancing the farm or client’s most important goals.
At any one time, I could either work on fixing the barn, repairing the fence line, seeding the grass, or building an irrigation system to fix the constant water excess. I prioritized fence line repair because of our limited number of securely fenced in pastures, which restricted the number of fields in our pasture rotational system. As a result, the horses ate the grass to a length where it was difficult to grow back, leading us to spend money on hay to make up for lack of grass. It didn’t make sense to spend time seeding the grass if we lacked the available pasture for the necessary rotational system to keep grass a healthy four inches. The irrigation system is important but expensive, and we would be fine waiting a bit until the pastures were fixed. The barn is a problem because of structural issues and, if it fell in a snow storm, the cost to rebuild would be much greater than if repaired while still intact. As a result, we also invested in barn repair and tabled the other tasks until we completed our priorities.
Clients usually feel pressure from their other business units to minimize legal spend, so they want their outside counsel to engage in this type of prioritization exercise. An investigation might warrant dozens of reviews responding to internal investigations, regulator requests, or subpoenas. Document review fees add up quickly, but ranking reviews by relevance to the most important goals makes a clearer path forward. The subpoena response might fall in the category of the grass seed: needs to get done, but a third party obligation can wait until the client’s responsibilities to its regulators are completed. Regulator requests fall in the camp of fence lines as the highest priority. Even within priority number one, there is room for further consideration: are all documents equally important or are only documents belonging to five out of 20 custodians the most relevant? I selected one pasture over the other five for fence line repair because doing so would add the most acreage of grass to our rotational system, and the same value for money can apply when responding to a stack of requests.
Farming, like legal, is an old practice reliant on systems rooted in a different generation. In both fields, those systems are often time consuming so they create capacity issues as scale increases.
We reduced time spent filling the horses’ water buckets every night by adding a 150-ft light-weight collapsible hose that would reach every horse’s bucket from the water spigot. We used to spend about 20 minutes/night on the water buckets lugging water back and forth, and now spend 5 minutes/night and save our lower backs for projects that really count. Over a year, we save about 90 hours. In the winter, since there is little available grass, the horses rely mostly on hay. Feeding hay on the ground in the field led to roughly 30% waste because the horses would step on it and lose an appetite for any hay that was trodden into the mud. We moved the hay from the ground into hay nets attached to the fence posts, which encouraged them to eat 95% (compared to 70%) and helped us collect uneaten hay in one spot so we could save it as leftovers for the next day. We are re-designing water access in our pastures so one water source sustains multiple fields. Rather than transporting barrels of water to five different water troughs, we want to fill one large trough positioned at the intersection of multiple fields. One improvement leads to another because one water access point also makes our pasture rotation more efficient since we can rotate freely without changing the water.
Similarly, LPMs are empowered to improve systems to meet clients’ needs, save lawyers’ time, and organize across large teams. I’ve transferred project reporting from local Excels to online platforms that give client real-time access. I moved an Excel financial report to an online dashboard report fed by a pivot table from the data source. As part of a weekly fee estimate project, I replaced five recurring email threads with one short online questionnaire that collects scoping info from lawyers in one place, which arms me with the qualitative data I need to complete the estimate. Consolidating this info saved about an hour/week in back in forth communication. I’ve used Gantt charts to track project status against milestones in online tools shared with clients so clients have an updated clear picture of where their legal work stands. By the end of the project, we have an organized record of the tasks and timeline, which can be used as a roadmap for future, similar projects. In both spaces, the challenge is keeping a critical eye on the ways work gets done. Identify low hanging fruit first, like the 150 ft water hose, build successes, and then use that confidence and experience to tackle high impact projects, like designing your water source at your pastures’ intersectional point.
I look for tools after I prioritize the work and understand the design. This upfront work leads to selecting a tool that is the best fit, and positions me well to prep the material I have to successfully work with the new tool.
As part of our project to replace 600+ ft of fence line, we needed 64 new fence posts in the ground. Digging by hand would take over three days at one hr/post, and probably do immeasurable damage to our backs. We decided to rent a post-driver, which was attachable to our tractor, to absorb that labor by using gas power and hydraulics to bring enormous weight down on the post, which drove it 6+ feet in the ground with a few button clicks. Before we rented the post-driver, however, we spent several weekends clearing debris around the pasture perimeter so the area was open for the tractor and post driver. With the area prepped in advance, we spent one weekend driving posts in the cleared area, and weren’t short changing ourselves by burning up rental time navigating the tool around uncleared brush and vines.
While supporting a company’s large compliance program, we used a cloud-based document management system to store, share, and control versions of their compliance documents with four parties. Investing in the collaboration tool saved us from a disorganized process of four groups emailing versions back and forth with each other with only their Outlook inboxes. While our tool made a huge difference in many ways, we would have used only a fraction of its power without designing a process to go with it. I drafted a document storage protocol so that all project stakeholders named files in a consistent way and used the folder structure according to our definitions. Rather than picking a tool and expecting it solve our document management problems, we invested some time up front creating a process forward that built upon the tool’s best features.
Comparing project challenges across industries shines a light on the importance of effective project management in achieving a goal, whether that goal is to deliver better nutrition to your horses, or demonstrate your clients’ progress to a regulator. The common importance of operations in any field should be empowering for LPMs, who have built a career for themselves doing just that.