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May 05, 2010

Legal Project Management (Part 7): Training

All of a sudden, legal project management training is hot.  Whether you want a one-hour webinar, a three-day workshop, or anything in between, someone has just the course for you.

What a difference six months makes.

Last November, Paul Lippe posted this query on Legal Onramp: “I am at a Law Firm Managing Partners Conference in Toronto and the question just came up on how can law firms learn about Project Management. Any thoughts?”

Just four people responded.  Of the four, I was the only one who mentioned a legal project management training program which was then in progress.  If Lippe posted that same question today, so many consultants would rush to describe their training that Legal Onramp’s servers might crash.

Why this sudden interest in legal project management?  As I noted in Part 1 of this series, it all started when the economy forced clients to get serious about reducing legal costs.  The first lawyers to get interested in legal project management were those who agreed to fixed-price fee arrangements, and realized that they could only make money if they became more efficient.  More recently, lawyers on hourly rate arrangements have begun to understand that there are only two ways to hold on to clients whose budgets were cut: decrease hourly rates and margins, or maintain profitability by producing an equally satisfactory result in fewer hours.

A few weeks ago, an article on Law.com poured gas on these flames with the headline “Dechert Puts Its Attorneys Through Project Management Training”.  Lawyers love precedent, and all of a sudden, project management proponents had one.  The idea that an AmLaw 50 firm was training every one of its lawyers inspired a sudden fear of falling behind.  The Law.com article did not say what the program cost, but it did say that “The training sessions…included no more than 20 partners at a time...for four- to six-hour sessions.” Given that Dechert has about 900 lawyers, that means at least 45 workshops.

I’ll leave it to others to guess whether the budget for this project was in six figures or seven.  But I am sure it was less than UK-based Eversheds’ eight figure investment of “more than £10m” ($16 million) on project management systems and technology and “training all of our people to apply our project management methodology.”  That program started several years before Dechert, and their web page describes two formal systems: RAPID Resolution, “a project management system for handling disputes,” and DealTrack, the “project management approach for all of our non-contentious work.”  (Although these efforts have been publicized for the last several years through the ACC Value Challenge, Eversheds has gotten relatively little attention in the press, perhaps because all 47 of their offices are outside the United States.)

The day the Dechert story came out, I started getting calls at 10 a.m. from firms that were suddenly thinking about offering project management training to all of their lawyers.  My ambivalence came out quickly in these discussions.  On the one hand, the customer is always right.  On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that a program to train EVERY lawyer is the best way for firms to spend their money in the current economy. 

From my perspective as a professional trainer, I believe most firms could achieve a much higher return on their investment by applying state of the art just in time, just enough training techniques.  (My financial advisors have pointed out that I could make a lot more money by training every lawyer, but I never listen to that kind of advice.)

When I started LegalBizDev 25 years ago, the company was named Brattle Systems and we developed custom training programs for government agencies and for companies from American Express to Zurich Financial Services.  Over the two decades that we specialized in custom training, the business changed significantly as clients cut back on traditional training budgets and shifted instead towards a more cost effective just in time, just enough approach. 

For example, in the late 1980s there was a huge market for people taking classes to learn how to use new software, but when was the last time you took a half-day class on a software program?  These days, when people want to know how to use advanced features of Word or Excel, few would consider signing up for a class or even looking up the answer in a book.  Instead, they use the convenient just in time, just enough training tools that Microsoft has built into each program, and simply look up what they need, when they need it.

Just in time, just enough training tactics have been applied to almost every field you can think of, including project management.  For one example, see the study of “The use of just-in-time training in a project environment” that appeared in the International Journal of Project Management.  The authors start by pointing out that “around 40% of the knowledge acquired in training is lost after a break of one month, rising to 90% after six months,” and go on to show how the problem can be solved. 

LegalBizDev is the first, and so far the only, company to adapt this pragmatic just in time, just enough model to legal project management training. 

Do I think our approach is the only one that will help lawyers increase efficiency?  Absolutely not.  To be honest, at this moment in time, almost ANY training approach can help lawyers to become more efficient.  Given the venerable hourly business model of the legal profession, nobody ever asked lawyers to be efficient, and few lawyers have tried.  With a little guidance, most can quickly come up with dozens of ways to save time and money.  As Lisa Damon noted when I interviewed her last year about SeyfarthLean, “If you get a group of lawyers and staff into a room to discuss how to make things more efficient, it’s very easy to find savings.”

However, please note that I said “almost any training approach.”  I’ve heard a few off-the-record horror stories lately of some rather dramatic failures in legal project management training.  In each case, the course was led by someone who knew an enormous amount about project management and very little about law firms.  Some were academics, some were well-known consultants.  But when they tried to teach the courses that had worked so well with other groups, they fell flat on their face with this critical, busy, focused, and impatient audience.

In a recent article about Canadian legal project management programs, Borden Ladner Gervais’ Andrew Terrett, a professional project manager and lawyer, explained how important it is to get it right the first time: “You only get one shot. [Lawyers are] a pretty skeptical group.”

The article went on to explain that these are confusing times, because “project management is so new to the legal profession that everyone is still trying to figure out what it can do and how to make it work.” 

I believe that project management is a key component in the sea change that is just starting to transform law firms.  It will ultimately require comprehensive, long-term, top-to-bottom changes in the way lawyers do business. 

The question is, how do we get from here to there?  What should your firm do today? 

I say start this long journey with a small step which accepts lawyers’ reluctance to change and their independent streaks.  The first step we often recommend is a large group presentation to review basic project management concepts and help lawyers identify simple and immediate action items.  With some firms, we recommend highly interactive workshops for small groups of key partners who work together to find tactics that fit each practice and personality.  When lawyers implement the action items from one of our presentations or workshops, they will see immediate results.  And when they talk to their partners about what worked, the best practices spread from the bottom up.

Some firms will undoubtedly prefer the “top-down” approach and choose to invest heavily in training for everyone.  That’s what Dechert and Eversheds have done, not to mention Seyfarth’s work with Six Sigma.  This approach will work too.  In the 20 years my company developed custom training, we created a number of very successful programs of this sort.  In one example, we developed and delivered a five-day, top-down training program for 3,500 government employees in 14 cities, and won an award from the US Small Business Administration as the best small business in New England.  Not just the best training company, but the best small business.

But we also know how complicated and expensive top-down programs can be.  To maximize the results, you need to pick just the right moment: when the audience accepts the fact that they need to change.  In my opinion, in the vast majority of law firms, now is simply not the moment.  Many lawyers still believe the good old days will be back soon and that there is no need to change the way they have practiced for their entire career. 

Can I GUARANTEE that our bottom-up just in time, just enough approach will be more effective than a top-down mandate from management?  Of course not.  But I can guarantee it will be a whole lot cheaper.

To download a .pdf summary of this series, see the white paper in the project management section of our web page.  It will be updated from time to time as the series continues.  Additional information appears in the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

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Comments

The Project software application can't begin to replace the professional fellowship, mentoring, training, and academic foundations of a field as broad as project management--nor is it. intended to.

The Legal project management training its to compulsory. I say start this long journey with a small step which accepts lawyers’ reluctance to change and their independent streaks. The first step we often recommend is a large group presentation to review basic project management concepts and help lawyers identify simple and immediate action items.

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