Real World Legal Project Management

Some skeptical lawyers have wondered if Legal Project Management is a conspiracy created by law firm consultants. A few have used this as an excuse to bury their heads in the sand in the belief that legal project management is just a passing fad. For those of you who are willing to take a closer look, here are my notes from a presentation by two large law firms about their experiences to date with legal project management. While I’m not at liberty to identify these firms by name, I’ll call them Firm #1 and Firm #2 to help organize the notes below.

How Firms Implement Legal Project Management

* There is no single best way to start a legal project management effort. Firm #1 appointed a partner to do the early due diligence and planning for bringing legal project management to the firm. Firm #2 had a project management office sitting outside their IT department. (This is a key distinction.) Therefore, Firm #2 took advantage of the existing autonomy of their project management office by adding former practicing lawyers to its staff and focussign them on both legal process improvement and project management.

* Firm #1 undertook legal project management as a strategic initiative before its competitor firms in response to changes they saw in their clients.

* Firm #2 starts by identifying the components of a project. They also gather and maintain a great deal of matter data that they then analyze to find inefficiencies in their business processes that can be removed. Throughout, they focus on the client’s perspective of what constitutes “value.”

* Firm #2 has created a series of business flow diagrams/ timelines that indicate the tasks and phases of a matter. Each task is linked to resources in their document management system such as checklists, templates, etc.

* Firm #1 focused on one practice area that was particularly susceptible to fee pressure. This had the benefit of creating a prototype and good outcomes data that could be shown to other practices.

* Firm #1 works on a project at a time. They haven’t yet tried try to change business processes of the firm across the board. They aren’t as far along as Firm #2 and haven’t realized the same wholesale cultural change that Firm #2 has achieved.

* Firm #1 understands that lawyers have to overcome their reluctance to use task codes in their timekeeping. Task codes are important for clients, so it has to be important for lawyers. Firm #2 noted that task codes are critical for their legal project management efforts and to meet client e-billing requirements. Therefore, Firm #2 has made task codes mandatory.

Early Learning from Legal Project Management Efforts

* Focus first on your process and then think about the tools. While professional project managers may be accustomed to using MS Project, it rarely is a good choice for a lawyer facing tool. Both firms acknowledged that MS Excel can do a credible job for legal project management. In addition, there are some newer budgeting/project planning tools that can be purchased.

* There are several key benefits that Firm #1 has realized from legal project management: (i) it imposes a helpful discipline on the sometimes chaotic reality of matter management; (ii) it brings useful learning from other industries to the legal industry; (iii) it forces clients and their external counsel to have early, frank and continuing conversations about project scope and expectations; (iv) this dialogue improves the relationship between client and external lawyer.

* In Firm #1’s experience, legal project management done well can improve law firm profitability through leverage, volume and better processes. Firm #2 is finding that they now have the data necessary to provide accurate fee estimates. Further, their estimates often are lower. Critically, their profitability has improved despite these lower fees because they have been able to remove inefficiencies from their matter processes. This is a powerful result.

* Both firms understand that they ultimately need to tie compensation to process improvement. Neither firm has yet figured out how to do this properly, but are working on it.

Change Management Efforts

* Firm #1 started with a small planning group that had management committee support. Once they had a pilot, they consciously decentralized the process, brought in more experts (e.g., knowledge management) and pushed it out to other parts of the firm. They also have had participating partners tell their partners about the benefits of project management. These presentations are bolstered by the good data they have been able to gather. Further, their senior most partners have been very supportive and speak publicly about the benefits of the effort.

* Firm #2 confirmed that the key to their efforts has been been “support from the top” that has allowed them to “drive it through the firm.” The firm as a whole has adopted legal project management as a core competency for lawyers in the firm.

* Get as much feedback as you can from clients and then broadcast that within the firm. This helps emphasize that legal project management is here to stay and is not just a passing business fad.

The Role of Knowledge Management

* The first efforts at legal project management in Firm #1 were focused on translating traditional project management principles and methods for a law firm environment. This involved primarily professional project managers and partners. In retrospect, they should have involved their knowledge management lawyers earlier since they are skilled at preparing templates and checklists, identifying and improving business processes, linking existing firm resources into project documents, developing naming conventions that help bring order to matter materials, etc.

* Firm #2 has non-practicing lawyers in their IT department who help translate legal process and technology for the lawyers and technologists. They aren’t driving the legal project management effort at Firm #2, but are an important part of it.

[For more information on this topic, see my notes from a subsequent session on the role of knowledge management in legal project management.]

A Parting Thought: Susan Raridon Lambreth told the story of a presentation to a group of lawyers who clearly were resisting change and didn’t want to adopt either business process management or legal project management. One of the presenters told them that by failing to try to systematize their work, they were consigning themselves to living “as if they have a head stuffed full of post-it note reminders of small details.” You don’t have to be a devotee of David Allen’s Get Things Done to understand how stressful and inefficient this way of living can be.

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