Components of Effective Legal Project Management #LexMundi

LexMundi_logo_CMYKSpeaker: Lucy Dillon, Director of Knowledge Management at Berwin Leighton Paisner.

[These are my notes from the 2013 Lex Mundi Knowledge Management Roundtable. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • “Project management in law firms is like the global environment: everyone knows it’s an important issue, but very few people are willing to change their behaviour in order to address it.”
  • The 5 stages of a project
    • agreeing with the client on what needs to be done
    • planning the work
    • doing the work
    • closing the project
    • reviewing the project
  • Required Skills
    • communicate, communicate and communicate
    • empower someone to take charge
    • delegation and supervision (these are skills, not just something people do)
  • What effective project management in law firms needs
    • resource — documents, checklists, practice guides
    • small group training that has been customized to specific practice areas and approaches
    • champions and guides with the practice groups and client teams
  • The Client-Driven Approach
    • the process improvement only takes hold on matters (and in practice groups) where the partner in charge acknowledges the for efficiency. When this happens, the process mapping effort helps the team understand how to push the work down to less expensive staff. This improves the price for the client, the time management of the partner and the experience of more junior lawyers.
    • when you create the project map that shows the actions required and the actors involved, it quickly becomes very clear if the work is being done at the right level within the firm. It also shows where there are imbalances in workload.
    • in the course of process mapping, highlight everything that represents an improvement or innovation.
    • measure outcomes so that you can establish clearly what’s working and what’s not

What Makes Lawyers So Challenging?

What makes lawyers so challenging?

No, this is not the beginning of a lawyer joke! Rather it’s the question that was answered at an informative session held at the Practising Law Institute in New York City.  As part of a day-long program on legal project management, the organizers asked Mark I. Sirkin, Ph.D., to speak about the personality traits of lawyers and their suitability to lead or serve on project teams. (Dr. Sirkin is the co-managing partner of Threshold Advisors, LLC and was formerly a consultant with Hildebrandt.) Using recent research and the Hogan Personality Inventory Scales, Dr. Sirkin identified the following challenges:

  • Lawyers are not designed for teamwork. Most lawyers have the personality trait of Autonomy, which means they would prefer to do their own thing rather than work with others.  Further, not only do they score high in Autonomy, but also in Skepticism and Pessimism. They are trained to assume the worst, look for problems, issue spot. Taken together, these traits can make them hard to be around.
  • Lawyers don’t find it easy to work with others. Lawyers score below the general population in Sociability (i.e., the need for social interaction) and Resilience (i.e., they are thin-skinned).
  • Lawyers are trained for independent action. Law schools traditionally have emphasized individual performance. Contrast this with business schools, which require teamwork from their students from the beginning.
  • Law firms traditionally have rewarded individual performance. If the compensation system of a firm is individualized and competitive, it does not provide incentives for teamwork and cooperation.
  • Lawyers feel fungible. If a lawyer feels like a fungible billing bot, that lawyer will find it hard to identify and pursue an inspiring goal. Sharing inspiring goals is key to establishing team spirit.
  • Lawyers tend to be adversarial. Dr. Sirkin’s data show that many (if not most) lawyers tend to be adversarial by nature. Further, they are tough-minded and tolerant of conflict.
  • Lawyers have high Urgency. A high Urgency score indicates a tendency to rush to action.  Most lawyers score high in Urgency, which means that they tend to lack patience for the early planning that is required for project management and teamwork.
  • Lawyers are not detail-oriented. The data supporting this assertion will surprise lawyers and their critics alike.  When compared to the general population, lawyers tend to be more “big picture” people and less focused on small details.  To the extent lawyers do focus on details, it is often because of their Aesthetics score, which tends to push them toward providing good work product.

While a lifetime of hearing lawyer jokes may predispose you to believe that lawyers have few good traits, the reality is more nuanced than that.  Their self-selection over time tends to concentrate particular traits within the profession, but those traits have been viewed as necessary for survival until now. That said, lawyers at the top of their game are highly functioning individuals who have accomplished a great deal of good in the world.  Nonetheless, from a purely self-referential perspective, I do find this research troubling. What is clear is that the personality traits of many lawyers make them less amenable to general law firm knowledge management efforts. When reinforced by an “eat what you kill” compensation system, they apparently have little incentive to share, cooperate or collaborate.

However, the problem goes far beyond law firm KM. In fact, this discussion left me wondering if the people who had been so successful in a profession that traditionally emphasized independent, adversarial action might now be ill-equipped for the new style of lawyering involving project management, focused teamwork, effective knowledge management and transparency.  Obviously, firms will need to change their training practices.  Will they also have to change their hiring practices?

[Photo Credit: slgckgc]


Planning Fallacy and Bad Estimates

It turns out that lawyers are human after all – at least with respect to their all too human inability to plan appropriately.  Heidi Grant Halvorson recently published an interesting post on the planning fallacy, which is what psychologists call the inability to estimate accurately how much time an activity can take.  Halvorson’s review of the research in this area suggests several reasons (or biases) that lead to our bad estimates:

  • “First, we routinely fail to consider our own past experiences while planning.”
  • “Second, we ignore the very real possibility that things won’t go as planned – our future plans tend to be `best-case scenarios.'”
  • “Lastly, we don’t think about all the steps or subcomponents that make up the task, and consider how long each part of the task will take.”

When lawyers work in a world that rewards according to time spent, it becomes imperative that we understand better exactly how much time an activity takes.  This means that we have to create systems to counteract the effects of the biases mentioned above.  Chief among these is keeping track of the components of every task, as well as the time actually spent in the past on those components.  If you think this is something you can put off, consider that as we shift to alternative billing arrangements, bad estimates come out of the lawyer’s pocket rather than the client’s pocket.


Related reading:

[Photo Credit:  American Virus]


Hardwiring KM Into Your Client Work

If you want good knowledge management results, you have to find a way to bridge the divide in your colleagues’ minds between getting their job done and doing KM. If they have a choice between racing to meet client needs and stopping to select and contribute content for the KM system, they will choose their clients every single time. And they should.

So where does that leave your empty KM system? The knowledge management team at HP has a very simple answer to this problem: make contributing content to the KM system an integral part of every client engagement. It should be managed along with everything else required for that client engagement. Managed, measured and rewarded.
– If KM deliverables are part of project Scope, they are managed along with everything else required for the project.
– Planning for KM increases the probability that Time is allocated for KM and actions will be carried out. (The project team works more efficiently by reusing knowledge generated by others; knowledge generated by the project team is then captured in a timely fashion and made available immediately for use by others.)
– The benefits from knowledge reuse and the efforts for capture are part of the Cost equation and our customers benefit from the overall savings.
– Managing the information about capture assets as part of project Communication ensures timely access to assets.
He also notes the following benefits from this approach:
– Reusing knowledge can greatly reduce the time and effort required to meet client needs.
– Reusing knowledge can help reduce risk.
– The time saved through reuse can be put towards improving quality.
Doing this hardwiring is not easy. It requires significant leadership and follow through. And this must be applied consistently to every client engagement. However, by organizing around this goal and using tools like project management you can significantly increase the likelihood of success. Knowledge Capture and Reuse is one of the basic building blocks of any KM system and also one of the biggest KM challenges. Hardwiring it into your client service workflow is a great way to meet that challenge.
(My thanks to Stan Garfield’s Weekly Knowledge Management Blog for pointing out Marcus Funke’s presentation.)