Construction-to-Law: Gantt Charts

Technology doesn’t have to be new to add value. Innovation is as much about matching an old idea to a new application.

The Gantt Chart was developed over a century ago. It is a visual design tool which communicates the relationship between, and duration of, different activities in a project. Despite its age, it remains a staple tool for project managers across the economy, in particular in the construction industry. But despite the many process-driven practice areas in law (such as litigation, migration and M&A) the gantt chart hasn’t yet made its way into common application in legal. That is a wasted opportunity, as gantt charts are useful both for managing resources internally and for communicating to clients externally.

A gantt chart is a static, 2D visualisation of a project schedule. It lists the time scale horizontally and each task vertically. Each task is represented by a bar whose size represents the duration of the activity. It shows the start and end dates of the project, the critical path and any ‘slack’ tasks.

A gantt chart is so useful because it represents all of this information in a consolidated, intuitive visual.

The classic alternative for a lawyer is the text summary – simply writing in an advice note, email or costs agreement the start and end date of each task: “We need to complete disclosure by 5 April. Then we will start our witness statement. Then there is a 3 day hearing on 19 August. We expect to receive judgment within 8 weeks….”

It gets a bit cumbersome and doesn’t communicate the core information intuitively: What comes after what? How long will that take? When is each task due? When will this all be over?

The gantt chart does all of this in one intuitive visual.

The gantt chart is also particularly useful for communicating a change in the procedure to a client. This goes someway to addressing a common response that lawyers might have to fixed price work and scoping, being that “it is too hard to predict the scope of litigation because of the uncertainty.” To some extent, there is no getting rid of that uncertainty. Litigation will always involve some surprises, from the other party’s unexpected applications, to witness and expert availability, to the discovery of new evidence, an unexpected ruling or broader economic event. But what the gantt chart does is provide an easier way for lawyers to communicate to clients the particular effect of a change in the scope of works. That makes conversations with the client about scope change much easier. And anything that makes a lawyer’s life a little easier should be welcomed with open arms.

I will illustrate this with an example of a simple litigious procedure:

Gantt Chart Litigation

The gantt chart above shows the schedule for trial, leading up to and including receipt of judgment. It shows each step in the litigious process: Pleadings – Disclosure – Statements, etc. It shows that these steps are dependant, in that one cannot (substantially) commence until the other is complete. It also shows the date on which judgment is expected to be received, based on that timeline. This chart might be provided to the client at the commencement of the law firm’s engagement and serve as the basis for any future scope changes.

Then an unexpected event occurs. For example, after the pleadings and disclosure is complete, the other party makes an application to re-plead because they have discovered new evidence. This application is successful, but as a result the balance of the hearing schedule is delayed, and your client will need to fund additional re-pleading and an additional disclosure round.

Gantt Chart Litigation Change

Traditionally, this would need to be explained to the client in a memo, email or phone call. It would likely be big blocks of text, explaining not only the new application, but then all of the flow on effects and the increased duration of the entire hearing.
But using a gantt chart provides a simple, engaging solution to communicate this change to the client. In a consolidated, intuitive visual, the client can see the old schedule to date, the new work, and the knock-on effects on the balance of the hearing. The second gantt chart, above, show these changes. The client can see that the new application from the other party has caused a 3 month delay to judgment receipt.

In summary, despite its age and relative simplicity, the gantt chart is a highly useful tool for planning legal projects and communicating procedure to clients. It can be used as a baseline for scoping fixed-fee legal agreements and can effectively communicate the knock on effects of procedural amendments.

(This is my third piece in a series on the parallels between the construction industry and law. For my introductory note, see here.)

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