Complex case project plans – an administrative burden or an essential management tool?

Ian Hopkins 12-09-2023

In this article Ian Hopkins Senior Associate Consultant at cpm21 explains why all law firms should embrace the importance of project plans in complex cases to better manage matter and firm wide risks.

The Lexcel standard V6.1, Section 7.1 which deals with file and case management states that law firms must ensure that the strategy for a matter is always apparent on the matter file and that in complex cases a project plan is developed.

The guidance notes for legal practices which accompanies the Lexcel standard contains little detail as to how firms should approach complex case project plans stating that it is for practices to define what constitutes a complex matter.

In my experience law firms identify complex cases using different criteria – For example where multiple areas of law are involved; where there are multiple defendants; where complex legal issues are involved; the seriousness of the injury in personal injury and clinical negligence cases; the value of the property or net assets in real estate and private client type work. It’s for each firm to decide how it defines complex cases depending on its circumstances, there is no right or wrong answer.

Once you have defined what constitutes a complex case, the next stage is to record the information on your project plan. The guidance as to what information should be recorded is more helpful, stating that it is crucial to ensure that each matter file contains a record of “all the relevant information.”

Currently there are around 1,600 Lexcel accredited law firms in England and Wales out of a total of approximately 10,000 law firms.

Lexcel firms will be very familiar with the requirement of S7.1, but are they approaching the mandatory requirement for project planning correctly? And, what about those 8,400 non Lexcel firms? Is project planning in complex cases part of their matter management culture or non-existent?

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for Lexcel law firms to approach the need for a project plan in a complex case as an administrative task, a tick box exercise that must be completed for the benefit of the Lexcel assessor at audit. Law firms that adopt this approach miss out on the clear benefits that a well-considered project plan can bring to a complex case.

There are four main benefits from a well thought out project plan in a complex case as follows.

  1. Improved matter planning – Every now and again, the lawyer should take a step back from the matter and consider the future strategy. It will allow the lawyer to adopt a “helicopter view” of the matter and plan future action to be taken. The future action should be broken down into bite sized chunks. Establish 90-day priority planning within the project plan and set SMART targets as to what action is to be taken, by whom and by when to ensure that the matter is driven forward during the 90-day period.
  1. Improved client care – The action to be taken on the matter as set out in the 90-day priority planning in the project plan can be cut and pasted into a client update letter, ensuring the client understands what action is to be taken to progress the matter and thereby minimise the risk of a client complaint.
  1. Improved risk management – Complex cases should be subject to a strict file supervision regime with the project plan forming the basis of the file review which is regularly updated so that it becomes a living document.

There may be occasions when external third parties, such as insurers or regulators will need to review a complex file. The project plan will aid this process by setting out the strategy for the matter and what has taken place without the need to seek further information from the fee earner.

  1. Improved financial management – Complex cases are likely to carry significant levels of work in progress, particularly if funded by way of a CFA, for example in a serious personal injury or clinical negligence case. Such cases may take many years to resolve and carry £ 000’s of WIP.

The Finance Team will want to know from a budgeting perspective the % chances of winning the matter; how much of the WIP will be recovered, when the matter is likely to settle and when the cash will arrive?

The project plan should contain this information which should be shared with the Finance Team. Such financial forecasting information is essential for the preparation of future budgets and cashflow forecasts and the financial well-being of the firm.

Whilst forecasting is an imprecise science, fee earners can predict outcomes within defined parameters. For example, fee earners should be asked to forecast in which financial quarter, 1, 2, 3 or 4, of which financial year they expect the matter to conclude and when the cash will be received – the more forecasting the fee earners do, the better and more accurate they become.

Changing a cultural approach to project planning in complex cases in a law firm is not easy. In my own experience, once the fee earner understands and buys into the importance of project plans from a matter, client, risk, and financial management perspective, the culture will start to change. Project plans will no longer be seen as an administrative chore by fee earners, but instead as an essential management tool to ensure progress of the matter and improved management of risk across the firm.

If you’d like to discuss any of the themes raised in this article please contact Ian Hopkins, Wayne Williams, or Paul Jones of cpm21.