In the current economic climate, corporate legal departments are engaging their trusted vendor partners, as well as their outside counsel, in an ends-oriented dialogue about timing, costs and technical proficiency. With the accelerating pace of litigation and rising expectations for an innovative approach to discovery, the responses that these advisors provide must reflect the realities of the market. Not surprisingly, savvy project management has become the key to enabling vendors and law firms to align with their clients, maintain consistency in their protocols and ensure that they operate in a collaborative culture.
That said, there are some organizations that can provide basic managerial oversight and a select few that offer a depth of project management that is so complete, it seamlessly supports every aspect of the litigation process. The results of working with the latter are captured in the following comment from an in-house lawyer: “We give [our vendor] all of our large, complicated litigation because their project management team knows exactly what we need and there is no learning curve we have to deal with.”
While over one hundred vendors claim to offer data-processing proficiency, those who stand out showcase a merger of technology, trust and talent. “They make our lives easier, and we know that they will get it done correctly every time,” adds the in-house lawyer, noting that this level of confidence allows the legal team to focus on litigation rather than on administration.
Given their increasing responsibility for manipulating records and interpreting their findings, savvy project managers are key participants in discussions concerning response time, data volumes and allocating scarce resources. Only those external organizations with experienced personnel can support internal electronic discovery developments that are often characterized by nuance.
By combining execution with consultation, a unique class of support professionals is redefining this role in the context of economic recovery. Aligned with trusted outside vendors and law firms, these professionals serve as the foundation for a successful engagement by acting simultaneously as a consultant and as a coordinator. Further, since they are deeply embedded in each effort, they gain a much richer understanding of the peculiarities of a matter than those simply responsible for status updates or staffing schedules.
The Efficiency Edge Of The Empowered Project Manager
Vendors with an aptitude for project management generally operate at an optimal level of efficiency, which allows them to support multiple projects simultaneously. In lieu of a traditional chain of command, they value individual empowerment. Each project manager assumes responsibility for the deliverables and, as a result, is eager to identify early errors that he or she can quickly remedy.
In fact, the best project managers create and are personally invested in the process. Those with the greatest level of experience in the most diverse matters are sensitive to the output requirements necessary to achieve preset milestones. They consistently serve as gatekeepers of information, ensuring that the right data gets to the right people at the right time.
While there is an inherent imperfection in all things electronic, project managers who grow in their roles with key vendors and established law firms attain an elite level of judgment from exposure to a diverse breadth of challenges. They are also comfortable leveraging consistent defensible processes, rather than haphazardly applying creativity in an electronic discovery market that requires repeatable routines.
To perform at this level, in-house counsel should identify project managers capable of fostering operations in a cohesive, symbiotic environment, where each member of the team works in concert and is aware of the efforts of his or her peers. “A good project manager is someone who anticipates issues and plans for them before waiting for one to impact the outcome of a matter,” says Wendy Axelrod, an eDiscovery attorney and consultant in New York City.
Ultimately, those who are most successful encourage simplicity, build efficiency and remain proactive.
Knowing Your Audience Is An Advantage
Much of the work that a project manager handles can be quite technical, and attorneys are often uncomfortable with the mechanical details. “Don’t assume technical knowledge, which means recognizing who your audience is,” says Axelrod, who encourages her peers to discuss certain technical points with the lawyers for the case in a private setting. “Listening to what is being said as well as what is not being said between the case team and the client is also critical,” says Courtinay Casey, a project manager in the Electronic Discovery & Litigation Technology group at Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, who notes that those in her role should “speak” both eDiscovery and English so that the attorneys have a reliable interpreter.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the decision to select one vendor over another is not solely based on cost and technology but also on the human capital that the budget and tools support. Whether a vendor can serve as a liaison between the problems and solutions is a distinguishing factor in a competitive environment.
Identifying Strengths Yields Client Satisfaction
Clients are no longer willing to pay for a lawyer to serve as a project manager; therefore, when supporting attorneys, project managers should always identify tasks that are better suited to their skills and talents. “Offering to help alleviate their task management burden is a gesture that really resonates with attorneys,” says Axelrod.
She highlights that this exercise both improves resource allocation by allowing attorneys to focus on practicing law and enhances profitability for firms using alternative fee arrangements.
While an associate or partner may be frantic after a call with a concerned corporate executive, the outside vendor’s project manager always remains focused on maintaining balance. He or she considers all of the issues associated with the documents under consideration and collaborates effortlessly with key legal team members. “IT analysts are technologically savvy, but project managers are there to proactively plug the holes and make sure nothing falls through the cracks,” says Casey.
Leaders Learn The Substance Of A Case
As part of that effort, Casey always asks to review the substantive file to understand the basis for the action, as well as the timeline. She then speaks with the responsible attorney to determine the nature of the matter. “As project manager, you are constantly listening and adjusting accordingly,” she says, emphasizing the importance of collaborating with the IT department. She does so to develop a course of action based on the volume and format of the initial information, particularly since the project manager is often responsible for evaluating costs.
That motivation and intuitive understanding is what differentiates a tactical leader from an administrative follower. These characteristics are often the hallmarks of outside vendors with a proven record for success and a loyal client base. They help guide litigants through a maze of potential obstacles.
Toolkits Mitigate Risk
After all, the primary focus of a project manager should be on avoiding the obvious pitfalls in eDiscovery by creating budgets, documenting and managing the evidence from its initial entry into the office and supporting the attorneys. “The project manager must be able to document everything,” says Gisselle Singleton, a senior project manager for White & Case, who is responsible for overseeing the firm’s litigation technology group in New York.
She notes that project managers are more effective when they fully appreciate the type of litigation, the client’s role in the litigation, the firm’s goal for the client, key dates, dispositive motion practice deadlines and other important details. “As the project manager is supporting the legal team, his or her understanding of the litigation will be critical for mitigating the risk,” Singleton adds.
To limit that risk and enhance accountability, she recommends maintaining a toolkit for documentation – which includes forms, charts and spreadsheets – and identifying the initial custodians, their location and position with the company, the language(s) of the documents, date of data collection and the key members of the client’s IT department.
Longevity Has A Lasting Impact
Given the nature of attrition in the current market, Singleton encourages project managers to maintain a shared work environment to ensure continuity and accountability. At White & Case, for instance, she has implemented processes and procedures using an electronic categorization system that organizes the entire matter for ease of access, understanding and use.
Elite vendors ensure continuity by assigning project managers to each client so that they learn not only the client’s business but also its preferences and practices. This long-term approach virtually eliminates training time and allows the team to focus all of its effort on strategically supporting the matter. Both documentation and dedication are critical for a lasting solution.
Organizations and individuals that succeed most often approach their cases and constituents with the goal of providing the highest level of service. “I always want the members of my team to look their very best,” says Singleton. Top-tier vendors ensure that result by employing the very best. They train them to dynamically approach any task or technology, connect them with clients so that they can offer case-specific insight and build on a wide breadth of experience to efficiently approach any legal action.
This convergence of tools, talent and trust is transforming the modern approach to eDiscovery, as well as redefining project management.