This article was first published November 4, 2010

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series examining how individual firms implement project/process management techniques.

As the call for alternative fee arrangements morphed from lip service to something that might actually become a part of law firm business models, Reed Smith head of strategy Michael Pollack wanted to get out ahead of the game and have a plan in place before clients had to do the asking.

By the middle of last year, the firm had a three-pronged approach in the works that included budgeting processes, technology to support project management and the training of its lawyers on how to apply project management to their matters. The firm is still in the implementation stage in some aspects, but has made headway on the budgeting and technology side with around 60 clients tracking hundreds of matters using a website designed specifically for Reed Smith.

The "OuRSite" tool went live in the last few months and enables clients to access any matter they have with the firm. Not only can they access actual work product, such as briefs filed or documents related to the case, but they can also track how the firm is progressing against the budget set out for a certain matter or a certain phase of a matter.

Reed Smith Chief Knowledge Officer Thomas Baldwin said recently in an article for Law Technology News , a Legal affiliate, that showing budgeted versus actual time worked only gives part of the picture.

"To truly understand the significance of those figures, clients also need to know our progress toward completion of the matter," he said. "Our extranet provides that level of detail, showing clients the percentage of budget used against the percentage of tasks completed. With those two data points, clients receive a sharp vision of matter progress."

Baldwin told The Legal last week that many other industries have project management training methodologies in place that can easily be rolled out in any company. There’s really no such thing for the legal industry and every firm is approaching the process a bit differently. At Reed Smith, the focus is coming from the top down, which helps drive things on an institutional level, he said.

Baldwin says a holistic approach is crucial to project management. Creating the technology was, to a degree, the easy part. At a recent conference he attended, Baldwin said one firm pointed to budgeting as the most important aspect of legal project management. He said he would disagree, because no budget will matter if an attorney doesn’t know how to manage a matter to that budget.

The budget process is a work in progress. Even if firms had all of the historical data to know how much a case or piece of a matter was worth in the past, those numbers don’t necessarily still apply because staffing models have changed so much, he said. The amount charged for three associates to handle a matter before is irrelevant now that fewer attorneys are working on cases, he said.

Reed Smith’s budget tool has a budget slot for phase and task. Right now the firm is asking its partners to sit down and give their best estimates from experience as to what a matter will cost when broken down into those categories. Because the firm’s site can track both the budget by phase and the time spent on each phase, it can track the delta between the two. Over time, that will give Reed Smith the historical data it needs to accurately reflect the changing business model, Baldwin said.

The firm has also joined a small but growing number of law firms that are training their attorneys on project management. While, as Baldwin pointed out, there hadn’t been a detailed project management process designed specifically for the legal industry, the firm brought in Pam Woldow, formerly of Altman Weil and now of Edge International, to train its attorneys on basic project management skills. That part of the process takes time, Baldwin said.

"We are going through a methodical process to get it rolled out firmwide in a meaningful way, to not only get our lawyers conversant on it, but, more importantly, effective in implementing it," he said.

The implementation is in both process and technology, Baldwin said.

And the overall project is one geared toward both the firm’s attorneys and Reed Smith clients. The goal is to have both attorneys and clients directly involved in matter management.

"We are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to provide lawyer-friendly, intuitive tools that help us reach the ‘holy grail’ all firms want to achieve: better, faster, cheaper legal services for our clients," Baldwin said in Law Technology News . •