Making the Case
DeAnna Burke, PMP, COO at Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig, Washington, D.C., USA
ILLUSTRATION BY JOEL KIMMEL
DEANNA BURKE, PMP
ORGANIZATION: Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig
LOCATION: Washington, D.C., USA
A project by any other name is still a project. That's what DeAnna Burke has found at Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig, where “projects” go by the name of “legal matters”—and benefit from solid project management practices.
With about 60 attorneys in 11 U.S. offices and one office each in Canada and England, Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig focuses primarily on corporate and business law. To help ensure that its attorneys provide their services as efficiently as possible, the firm brought on Ms. Burke as its first COO in April. She has over 15 years of experience in IT project management, primarily in the aviation industry, where she led initiatives such as implementing air traffic management solutions.
Why did the firm decide it needed a COO with a project management background?
The firm has been growing rapidly, and the partners no longer wanted to manage daily operations while they focused on growth and their clients. So they looked for someone who could take that off their plate while also making the firm's legal teams more cost-effective. I identify ways that the attorneys and paralegals can work more efficiently. The ultimate goals are to improve outcomes and deliver value to our clients.
What led the firm to realize it needed greater efficiency?
It was our need to improve realization—meaning increase what is actually billed compared to attorney time and expense. If our firm spends over expectations, then we'll often discount our services to align with our initial estimates, and this reduces realization. So we need to monitor and control the attorneys' time.
What kinds of project management practices have you implemented?
We first come up with a plan for our clients and set expectations with them, including budget expectations. And we make sure that plan is communicated to the clients so they're on the same page. In the legal world, especially litigation, there are so many unknowns that it's hard to say it's going to cost you X dollars. But we can say, ‘This is typically what this type of case costs.’ Attorneys identify risks and assumptions and, if a risk or change happens, we communicate it to the client. For example, we might expect a case to be held in a certain jurisdiction with a certain judge, but there could be a change of venue with a less-favorable judge.
So we apply the initiation and planning phases to the legal industry. Then we continually monitor as the bills come in to see if we're on track and if there's been any unexpected scope, like something new from opposing counsel. We apply project management principles to make sure our clients are well informed and, in the end, happy with the services they receive.
It sounds like much of it entails bolstering communications with clients.
Yes. In general, the legal industry isn't amazing at that. The attorneys know what they're doing, but as I tell them: If I have questions, so does the client. There are a lot of verbal practices that we need to document to make sure the client has the same information.
How would you describe the delivery approaches you take?
I keep the five main processes of waterfall project management as a general guideline but lean more toward a customized agile approach. Attorney time is expensive and hard to come by, so meeting every day at a specific time is really not possible. That said, the idea of a weekly check-in about what everyone is working on and what roadblocks people may have encountered has proven useful to keep teams on the same page. You have to be creative, and there is some trial and error to see what sticks, but we are finding ways to improve communication within the team. Ultimately that translates into improved communication and expectations with clients as well.
Do you plan to bring on project managers to work alongside the attorneys?
Eventually we'll hire project managers and put them on cases to help the attorneys. The project managers will monitor the case, communicate more readily with the client and make sure communications are clear and don't suffer from too much legalese.
How have you gotten the attorneys to buy into this change?
I don't want to change what the attorneys are doing. They do their jobs well, so I just evaluate what they're doing and try to modify or add to it, as opposed to replacing it. I started by focusing on our trademark group of eight attorneys and four support staff. We implemented a project management process within that group, fine-tuned it and then expanded it to other areas. Also, I work very closely with the firm's four main partners. I have 100 percent support from them, which makes change happen smoothly.
How do you measure the benefit of project management to your organization?
Before, we didn't track and record our clients' happiness. Now, we do: We've ramped up our client services team, which gathers clients' feedback. We had two client services support members, and we hired three more last year. So we know if our clients had a great experience. And if they didn't, we gain lessons learned. PM
What's the best professional advice you have ever received?
“Never send an email while angry.”
What is a book that has special meaning for you?
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. It's one of the first books that activated my environmentalism.
What's your favorite leisure-time activity?
Riding horses. When you're riding, you're in the moment.
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