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5 posts from June 2011

June 29, 2011

How to define legal project management

When I give speeches, I usually include a slide that defines legal project management.  But until recently, I had not been satisfied with my own slide.  Legal project management is an emerging area, and no one can be sure what it will look like in a few years.  Which makes it hard to define the term in the meantime.

In April 2009, when Paul Easton started the first blog in this area, his first substantive post was titled “Defining legal project management.”  It included an interesting discussion of how the term differs from case management and this definition: “the application of widely accepted project management standards, such as those promulgated by the Project Management Institute, to legal matters.”

In the Three Geeks post which I discussed last week, Steven Levy offered a similarly straightforward definition: “Legal Project Management is the application of the principles of project management to legal cases or matters.” 

Those definitions are certainly accurate and may in the end prove to be the best approach.  But given the ambivalence of many lawyers to this new field, at least for now I prefer a definition that goes beyond the basics and includes intent.  For example, consider the results-oriented definition that Barbara Boake and Rick Kathuria offer in their new book Project Management for Lawyers: “Legal project management provides a structured approach to planning, pricing and managing legal work that will bring a law firm’s service delivery model in line with the changing expectations of its clients.”  (I will review Project Management for Lawyers in a few weeks.  Meanwhile, here’s a preview: Buy this book.  Right after you buy mine.)

This is similar to the definition we use at LegalBizDev: Legal project management adapts proven management techniques to the legal profession to increase client value while protecting law firm profitability. 

We see it as an umbrella term, which embraces a very wide range of management techniques. 

For example, personal time management is barely mentioned in the traditional Project Management Institute curriculum, or in most project management texts.  But for some lawyers, it is a vitally important skill which can increase value and profitability.  So the topic is discussed in my book and we focus on it in some of our training programs.

Like the authors of Project Management for Lawyers, we believe that “Project management is a tool box – choose only what you need to most effectively manage [each] project” (p. 14).  In our view, even the holy grail of five project management processes – initiate, plan, execute, monitor and control, close – may be ignored in some training programs.  The key to success, we believe, is to find the low hanging fruit, the management tactics that are most likely to help each individual to increase value and/or profitability.

Admittedly, since our definition is based on intent, it could have a limited shelf-life.  If the legal environment changes, and less emphasis is placed on value and profitability, our definition may need to change.  But for now, we believe it is important to state not just what legal project management is, but also what it does: increase client value while protecting law firm profitability. 

June 22, 2011

What’s different about LEGAL project management?

A few weeks ago, Three Geeks and a Law Blog ran a post entitled “Is it ‘legal’ project management or just project management?,” which included very interesting comments by a who’s who of thought leaders in the field, including Pam Woldow, Tim Corcoran, Steven Levy, Toby Brown and Eric Elfman.  I missed my chance to comment in the initial exchange because I was on the road and it was one of those weeks, but I think this is an important discussion and I plan to weigh in now.

The issue had initially been raised by Jeff Brandt in his own blog.  In his comments on the Three Geeks post Brandt argued that you don’t “make a legal call on your legal telephone” or “check your legal email on your legal mobile device… [and] there is absolutely no such thing as ‘legal project management.’”

Since I recently published a book entitled the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, you will not be surprised to hear that I disagree. 

When consultants start working with lawyers, many assume that the differences in the legal profession will be slight.  Project managers who have been working inside law firms for years typically have a different view.  Legal project management poses many special challenges, including deadlines and court calendars that are outside a lawyer’s control and opposing counsel whose scorched earth tactics may purposely create roadblocks to efficiency.  As skeptical litigators like to say, engineering project management techniques may be very effective when you are building a bridge, but engineers don’t have somebody else trying to tear it down.

These are important differences, but in my opinion the most critical difference in legal project management comes from the fundamental fact that project managers must learn how to work effectively with lawyers.

A few years ago, David Maister published a classic article entitled  “Are Law Firms Manageable?” in the American Lawyer.  Maister’s article opened with these words:  “After spending 25 years saying that all professions are similar and can learn from each other, I’m now ready to make a concession: Law firms are different.”  He went on to describe four major differences at length:  “problems with trust; difficulties with ideology, values, and principles; professional detachment; and unusual approaches to decision making.”

Near the end of the article, Maister wrote: 

If lawyers deal with each other so poorly, why do they do so well financially? My answer is only partly humorous: The greatest advantage lawyers have is that they compete only with other lawyers. If everyone else does things equally poorly, and clients and recruits find little variation between firms, even the most egregious behavior will not lead to a competitive disadvantage.

When the article was published five years ago, large firms were experiencing their best years in history, and few saw a reason to change.  But that was before clients began expecting more from their law firms (notably in the ACC Value Challenge) and before a declining economy and declining corporate legal budgets made the law firm environment much more competitive.

In the last few years, the drive for efficiency has led to a sudden demand for legal project management training. In the Law Firm Leaders survey conducted last September, 55% of AmLaw 200 firms reported that they offered project management training to partners.  This is an amazing statistic, considering that the data was collected only six months after AmericanLawyer.com published its first article on project management, and five months after Dechert announced the first major project management training program at an AmLaw 200 firm.  

Based on my personal observations, most of the 55% who say they are training partners have started with modest educational programs, but getting lawyers to actually change their behavior has barely begun.  I’ve written a series of posts in this blog about the difficulty of overcoming lawyers’ resistance to change, and about the importance of short-term wins

The differences between legal project management and other types of project management have many implications.  Perhaps the biggest is that training lawyers in project management poses special challenges.

In the most common type of traditional training, an instructor stands in the front of a room, conveys information, and conducts a few breakout groups for participants to discuss key concepts.  This educational approach may lead to behavior change in some professions, but it does not seem to be working in law firms.  Senior lawyers are not employees who must follow rules set by the CEO, they are partners and co-owners of the business, with strong opinions of their own.  They also have a long history of financial success based on habits that have everything to do with delivering the highest quality legal services, and little to do with efficiency. 

The central problem in implementing legal project management is behavior change.  The Association of Corporate Counsel and the ABA recently conducted a meeting “at which leaders of corporate and law firm litigation departments rolled up their sleeves and tackled the complex issues surrounding present day concepts of value in litigation.”  In an ACC Docket article last month (May 2011, page 130) summarizing this meeting, Susan Hackett and her co-authors argued that progress in this field will not be based on improved understanding or increased knowledge.  Instead, “The challenge is change/behavior management.” 

In legal project management, figuring out what lawyers should change is easy.  The hard part is getting them to do it.

Note:  Portions of this material originally appeared in a post I wrote for the private members section of the Project Management Institute web page.

June 15, 2011

Four ways lawyers should improve project management – A litigator’s view




This guest post was written by Jonathan Cooper, a partner and trial lawyer at Tucker Ellis & West.  It is an edited version of an essay he wrote as a participant in our Certified Legal Project Manager™ program, after completing readings from several leading project management textbooks.




Project managers are required to plan and to set objectives, up front, in detail. I think that we as lawyers fall down on this. Often we do not sit down, with our clients and with our teams, and discuss how to solve the issue. What is the objective? To win at all costs? To settle the case early? To settle the case between X dollars and Y dollars before the end of the year? We often dive right in and just start working.  The second area for improvement is that I do not believe that we as lawyers budget with the team in mind. Budgets are drafted with almost no thought to how to implement them or measure whether they are being followed or will be accurate. Budgeting needs to be done after a “road map” of the case has been at least sketched out. It then needs to be done in conjunction with the team of players involved.  Third, we do not do much to reassess how we are doing in the middle of the matter. We get some data, but we often do not get useful data. The budgeting that we do is seldom revised.  In fact it is seldom reviewed at any point after it is drafted.

We need to start letting the budget drive our decisions which means we need a better way to interact with it. This is difficult when you have team members that are not dedicated to only one project. We need to track time spent on a case or a matter and then put it in the right bucket.

Currently, most budgets are built along topical lines to set forth dollar values for various portions of the case. But billing software often does not work that way. It is therefore hard to extract what Associate A did on the XYZ case that relates to drafting the first set of interrogatories without examining time entries. The best solution that I can come up with is to create the budget using the ABA task and activity codes and to require billing according to those codes. That way, at least we would know what was billed to that particular task.

The fourth and last area for improvement is that I think we need to do a much much better job at the end to see if we achieved the client’s goal.

Part of the problem is fed by the fluidity of litigation. You are never sure what the case will look like at the end. Facts will come out that were unanticipated. Rulings will be made. Strategic choices will be made. However, I think for the reasons outlined above, we make this harder than it should be.

Better planning and orientation would lead to a better understanding of the case and fewer surprises. The possible results could be narrowed and ranked and there could be certain “check offs” like a wide receiver and a quarterback learn depending on how the defense sets up.

With better budgets, and better ability to see where we are midstream with the budgets, we could have a much better chance of steering toward the expected or hoped for result. With better budgeting and better accountability, we would know whether we came in under budget.

This is not just a budget issue. We also need to do a better job of holding people accountable for doing tasks in a timely manner. If the plan says that associate A is going to draft the opening set of interrogatories within the first month, we ought to know if it happened on the right timeline as well as whether it was done “on budget.” Without that you cannot really tell if you succeeded. All you may have is the sort of subjective belief that the client seemed pleased. Maybe the client is polite and doesn’t really know.

The best thing for the client is to be shown that you did what you promised.  You changed strategy when events dictated and kept the client informed.  The result was within the anticipated range and the budget was met. Then clients will know what they got. 

June 08, 2011

Legal project management: Fundamental shift or flavor of the month?

Last month, the Canadian magazine Lexpert ran an article about legal project management that began by describing two partners at Stewart McKelvey who participated in our Certified Legal Project Manager™ program.

The article went on to discuss other project management initiatives at such firms as McCarthy Tetrault, Ogilvy Renault (now part of the Norton Rose Group) and Osler and said that legal project management has “the potential to cause a fundamental shift of the tectonic plates of the traditional law firm business model.”

However, perhaps in the interests of journalistic balance, the article also interviewed skeptics. Keith Mitchell, chair of Farris, Vaughan, Wills & Murphy, was quoted as saying that "project management is just another ‘flavour of the month’ idea being pushed on law firms by consultants” and that “prudent clients have always done this on large matters. It’s just this week it’s suddenly being called project management."

I would certainly agree that clients and their law firms have always used some elements of project management informally. However, I would strongly disagree with the implication that there is little room for improvement, or that the movement is just a fleeting fad.

This is not a change being pushed by consultants or law firms; it is one that is being demanded by clients. The Association of Corporate Counsel, which describes itself as “the world's largest community of in-house counsel, with more than 26,000 members in over 75 countries,” has been instrumental in promoting legal project management, and even offers a course entitled Project Management for the In-House Law Department.

The legal project management movement aims to improve legal procedures by adapting tactics that have been refined over several decades by professionals in engineering, manufacturing, information technology and other professions.

I first became aware of its importance several years ago, when I interviewed AmLaw 100 chairmen and senior partners for the LegalBizDev Survey of Alternative Fees. As the chairman of an 800 lawyer firm put it:

In the world of construction, architects engineers and contractors have been working on a fixed price basis for a long time. There is a body of learning about how to estimate, contract, define scope, manage changes, allocate risk, and how to manage fee disputes, delays and changes in scope that could be adapted to the legal profession.

That adaptation is precisely what lawyers do in our Certified Legal Project Manager™ program. They review the body of learning from other fields by completing selected readings from seven key project management textbooks (including my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide), and answering questions about how to adapt these principles to the legal profession.

The precise way they apply the principles, and the value they derive, depends on each person’s practice. When I wrote about the results from the first lawyers to complete this program, I highlighted the work of Fraser MacFadyen, one of the Stewart McKelvey lawyers who was also mentioned in the Lexpert article. Fraser has developed a number of templates to improve practice-wide procedures for handling certain types of secured financings, including budget spreadsheets, working agendas and more. His certification program has been completed, but he is continuing to work on sustainable tactics to use these templates to maximize benefits to clients, and to implement them throughout the firm.

I have also written about the results for other lawyers, but not for Daniela Bassan, the lawyer whose interview started the Lexpert article. The reason for that information gap, in both my blog post and in the Lexpert article, is that Daniela’s certification has not yet been completed, and we are both reluctant to say too much before it is. I can tell you that Daniela is working on an internal training program for Stewart McKelvey lawyers on how to apply project management principles to e-discovery. But if you want more details than that, you will just have to keep reading this blog until she completes certification.

Does this program produce value? As you can see from the quotes on our web page, the participants certainly think so. As Stacy Ballin, the Litigation Group Business Partner at Squire Sanders put it:

These days, clients want to make sure their firms deliver quality management of cases that drives a better value for them, and firms want to improve the bottom line. This program will help lawyers accomplish both.

Some lawyers are sure to remain skeptical. That’s what lawyers do.

In the Lexpert article, Mr. Mitchell was also quoted as saying: “Certified project managers may look very good on marketing brochures, but our clients haven’t been asking us about accreditations, they’ve been asking us for value.”

I would certainly agree with the first part of this statement. Certification DOES “look very good on marketing brochures.”

However, since I started the program, the biggest surprise to me is the fact that nearly half of the lawyers who have signed up for certification insist on remaining anonymous. They believe the program will help them personally deliver greater value, but want to do this in their own quiet way. The client is always right, so we will never mention their names in print or in conversation.

But I must go on the record as disagreeing with this philosophy of anonymity. Clients care about improving project management, and some are starting to specifically ask about it in their RFPs. It is always a good business practice to find out what clients want, give it to them, and make sure everybody knows that you are giving it to them. Publicizing certification is one way of doing that.

Mind you, certification is not the only way to produce more value. For most lawyers, it’s not even the best way. The program requires a substantial time commitment, and is designed for lawyers who want to take a leadership role on these important issues, help change policy inside their firms, define new processes, and train others.

We also offer a number of other training and coaching programs that are designed to produce immediate and practical results for time-pressed lawyers, including several types of just-in-time training, and an Introduction to Legal Project Management course. In our opinion, those less demanding programs are more than enough to meet the needs of most lawyers.

If I were a client hiring a large law firm to advise on a multi-million dollar matter, I would not care HOW they had learned to be efficient and provide maximum value. But I would be extremely interested in knowing that they were open to the idea that project management is a “fundamental shift,” as described in the Lexpert article, and that they did not dismiss it out of hand as just another “flavor of the month.”

June 01, 2011

Legal project management tip of the month: Plan

Failing to plan is planning to fail.  In research with 5,000 project managers and stakeholders, effective managers spend twice as much time planning as ineffective ones.  Find the balance between planning too little and planning too much. 

The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a very short and simple tip like this to help lawyers increase efficiency and provide greater value to their clients.