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  • Melanie Farquharson

Are law firms serious about legal project management?

Last week I attended the Legaltech conference in New York. As has been the case for the last few years, much of the conference focused on e-discovery (as it is still called stateside) and ‘predictive coding,’ reflecting the heavy emphasis on large scale litigation in the US legal market. However, there were some sessions on other topics, and in particular I was interested in the amount of attention being paid to the idea of legal project management.

Is legal project management something new?

Law firms have, of course, been talking about legal project management for many years (I recall as a lawyer being on a weekend project management course in the early 1990s). Many lawyers would say that they managed projects, but a professional project manager would find their efforts lacking, although there are a few who are truly excellent at it. Invariably, lawyers will be applying a very ‘lite’ form of project management – the fact that very few lawyers have had more than a few hours’ project management training is indicative. They may be giving some focus to planning, scoping and budgeting for their work, and to communicating with their clients and colleagues about progress, but time spent on these activities is still undervalued. Applying the full rigours of a project management approach such as PRINCE2 to most legal projects would be wholly inappropriate and unnecessarily bureaucratic. But law firms need an approach that works.

Why? Because clients increasingly want predictability and are forcing lawyers to live with the predictions (particularly in terms of cost) they give. Where lawyers have had to live with this in commercial dealings with their clients for some time, the impact of the implementation of the Jackson reforms in April 2013 will put the courts in a position to force lawyers to live with their predictions – and they may be even less understanding than firms’ clients. As well as price predictability, clients want predictability about the resource they will need to deploy at their end and about the dates by which work will be completed. Such predictability requires a controlled, well-managed approach and this is exactly where project management comes in. Even though there may be a number of variables that affect these predictions, identifying those variables and discussing them with the client in advance helps to manage their impact, particularly when client behaviour itself is one of the most influential variables.

Why hasn’t it been more widely adopted?

By temperament lawyers tend to be action-focused, and see time spent planning and thinking ahead as getting in the way of ‘doing’. Even when a piece of work is carefully scoped, planned and budgeted, the results of that effort often get ignored once the ‘real’ work starts in earnest. In part this may be because the tools available to lawyers are not particularly well adapted to their way of working and do not promote a holistic approach to project management. Amongst the range of tools that firms have used in this area are:

  • Budgeting and resourcing tools, which may be very helpful at the beginning of a matter, especially where a fixed fee or firm estimate will be involved, but which are not always adapted to monitoring progress against the planned approach as the matter develops;

  • Dashboards/matter portals which show the financial progress of a matter, but which often depend on fee earners recording their time accurately against unfamiliar task or phase codes;

  • Checklists and proforma reports, which can be extremely helpful but which in practice are only used by those lawyers who are temperamentally inclined to take project management seriously (and therefore not by those who really need them); and

  • Case management systems, which work fantastically well for certain types of matter which follow a clear path capable of being mapped out in detail in advance, but are not so good for matters whose progress is less linear.

There has been much talk about ‘matter management systems’ (i.e. tools to assist lawyers in managing work that is not suitable for true case management) for some time, but although there are products which claim to offer this, they have had relatively little take-up and even where implemented, it has been hard to get lawyers to adopt them. In part this may be because they do not yet offer the lawyer anything they see as particularly helpful. This needs to change, both in terms of the tools being more useful (and there are signs that they are getting there) but also in terms of the lawyers understanding and appreciating the benefits that legal project management can bring.

The relationship with process mapping

Sometimes there appears to be some confusion between legal project management and process mapping. This is surprising. In simplistic terms, process mapping enables a firm to identify what activities are taking place in the delivery of a particularly type of legal work and then to consider how that process can be made more efficient and more closely adapted to what the client values (process improvement). Legal project management should enable the lawyer then to apply the improved process to each individual matter.

Should firms be employing qualified project managers?

In many walks of life, project managers are brought in to manage but, very specifically, without any responsibility for ‘doing’. It is sometimes said that a project manager does not need to understand the subject matter of the project they are managing and this helps them to stay out of the ‘doing’. We would question this approach. An understanding of the underlying legal work is going to be needed in order for the project manager to have any credibility in managing what lawyers do. Lawyers are notoriously chauvinistic in the sense that they believe that lawyers are capable of just about anything and undervalue the contribution of others 1 – it is very much us and them. An additional non-lawyer member of the team is going to struggle to deliver change in working practices, and unless the lawyers themselves are convinced of that person’s value, they are unlikely to be willing to ask their client to pay for them (even if in practice they are effective in bringing down the overall cost of the matter). Furthermore, we understand anecdotally that law firms have found it hard to recruit and retain non-lawyer project managers for legal work, because (surprisingly enough) lawyers can be hard to work with. Our view as 3Kites is that the best approach is for all lawyers to be properly trained in an appropriate project management technique, recognising it as a key skill, and for a designated lawyer to act as project manager in all matters above a certain size.

The question then becomes whether firms should start training their lawyers from the bottom up or from the top down. In our view, the approach has to be comprehensive. You would not expect the most senior partners to be acting as project managers, but unless they understand and appreciate the value of the project manager, they will not use a more junior member of the team working in this capacity appropriately. On the other hand, junior lawyers coming in with project management qualifications will not be in a position to influence the way their more senior colleagues operate.

Legal project management as a relationship tool

It comes as no surprise that clients want to see their lawyers managing their work properly. It inspires confidence when the law firm is thinking ahead and appears to be in control of the process, rather than being blown off course by developments along the way. At the Legaltech conference there were some encouraging stories of firms winning much larger volumes of work from in-house counsel, not by pitching the lowest fee, but by pitching a sensible, well thought out fee, backed with a project management approach that demonstrated they would be able to deliver the work to that fee reliably.

Change management and the Power of Habit

Introducing legal project management seriously in a law firm is a change programme like any other, where habits can easily slip back into old patterns. Consequently, ensuring there are some simple key mantras which are heavily enforced around the firm, backed by clear rationale for the change, is essential. Leadership (not just buy-in) from the top is also important. And shouting about successes will always help.

One of the plenary sessions at Legaltech was a talk by Charles Duhigg, New York Times journalist and author of The Power of Habit. His talk about how large organisations had gone about changing the habits of their employees was fascinating. He stressed that research shows that habits are most flexible at times of crisis. If law firms feel they are reaching crisis point, with costs having been cut as far as is practicable and margins still under pressure, perhaps now is the time to take the introduction of project management habits seriously.

Melanie Farquharson, 3Kites Consulting, February 2013

3Kites Consulting is a limited company registered in England and Wales. Registered number: 5644909. Registered office: 1 High Street, Knaphill, Woking, Surrey, GU21 2PG.

© 3Kites Consulting, 2013

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