Monique Roberts: Leading the way on legal project management

  • January 13, 2016
  • Ann Macaulay

When she started practising law after her 2009 call, Gowlings associate Monique Roberts quickly realized that the traditional billable hour model “encourages inefficiency and just didn’t make business sense.”

Roberts was interested in how technology and innovation can be used to improve the way law is practised. She had previously worked closely with Karyn Bradley, the Toronto office’s managing partner, who approached her about becoming involved in the development of Gowlings Practical, a cutting-edge approach to legal project management. Roberts enthusiastically said yes despite not knowing a great deal about it. But she began investigating and “it just made perfect sense to me.”

Project management in law firms has gained greater acceptance as clients clamour for changes to the way legal services are provided. Lawyers may already use basic file management principles, but LPM can help increase efficiency and the predictability of fees throughout the planning and management of a deal. A survey by legal consulting firm Altman Weil indicates that one of the biggest demands in-house chief legal officers are making is for more efficient project management.

Once the Gowlings team members started exploring project management, they connected with Elevate Services, a new startup, to create their own LPM program. “We got to work with them in the early stages and help develop the program into something that we wanted to use,” says Roberts. The subsequent cloud-based software that was developed is called Cael. Other products were available, she says, “but we knew that in order for people to use it, it had to be really, really simple.” That meant developing software that’s not technologically challenging, which provides a road map that keeps legal matters on track, on time and on budget.

Roberts and two colleagues train the firm’s lawyers on Cael. Some lawyers do the project plans themselves but often Roberts or her team members will be called on to guide others through the process and develop templates for various types of legal matters. A complete project plan and estimates can be developed in about an hour.

Gowlings’ project management begins with a simple four-step framework. The first step is to define the client’s expectations. Second is the planning stage—thinking about all the pieces, scope of work and who will do it. The third step is to monitor and manage, ensuring that the project is on budget and deadlines are met. The final step is a “lessons learned” session once the matter is complete, in which the team meets and talks about what went well and how things could be done differently next time. “We use that information to update our precedents, for example, and improve our templates,” says Roberts.

Once a matter is started, Cael is hooked into the firm’s time and billing system and dockets are fed into the software daily. It allows clients to know how they’re progressing throughout the matter. “We get almost real-time information about where we are against budget,” says Roberts. To show how much of the work has been done, there’s a simple slider for each task that the lawyer can pull across to indicate what percentage has been completed. “That gives us the ability to look at it and say, well, overall you’ve done 30 per cent of the work but you’re at 40 per cent of your budget. So we know you’re going to go over budget here.” That allows them to raise the alert and talk to the client about it before the end of the matter.

“Clients are asking for this now,” Roberts says. They understand what project management is and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. At this point, she adds, the only thing they want is access to Cael themselves.

Reaction from the firm’s lawyers has been surprisingly enthusiastic, says Roberts, although some lawyers have resisted using it. “But I think this is really going to change as clients demand it.”

Project management ensures that client and lawyer are on the same page from the outset. “Everybody knows the timelines, who’s working on the file, and it allows us to have a continuing dialogue with the clients as the matter progresses,” says Roberts. LPM doesn’t make sense for every type of legal matter, including small, one-off matters managed by one lawyer. But if it involves more than one office, or more than $30,000 in fees, or multiple professionals, it makes sense to use it, she says.

Roberts will present on LPM as one of eight core modules of the CBA’s 2016 Skilled Lawyer Series. This year’s program, titled Anatomy of a Deal, has a total of 16 modules that look at all aspects of an M&A deal from start to finish through the lens of a scenario developed by Cassels Brock & Blackwell partner Jake Bullen.

Despite her relative inexperience, Roberts has become heavily involved with Gowlings Practical. She is moving away from her corporate and commercial practice to work full-time on LPM, developing templates, delivering internal training and mentoring lawyers on its discipline.

Roberts may have found her niche doing project management, but the path there wasn’t direct. Before law school, Roberts was employed as an accounting manager in the magazine publishing industry for several years and went on to become a scuba diving instructor in the Philippines, Egypt and Ontario. Living on beaches and working in a bathing suit was “kind of great,” she admits, but when she turned 30, she followed her mother to law school. Her mother was in third year at Osgoode when Roberts started her first year.

She advises younger lawyers to concentrate on building their legal skills but to also learn the business of law as early as possible. “Learning how to do a budget and estimate for clients is an important skill.” She believes some of the best ideas come from younger lawyers and tells them not to be afraid to speak up if they have an innovative new way to make the practice better or more efficient. “The way we practise law has changed enormously over the past few years and is going to continue to change. I think those who get with the program and are open to change are in a much better position than those who are not.”

Ann Macaulay is a frequent contributor to PracticeLink.