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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.


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As a long-time consultant to law firms, absolutely agree there are definitely differences between Project Management and Legal Project Management. Much of what is important in LPM is innately being done by the matter's responsible attorney, but formalizing it and sharing the plan with the client can make a critical difference in client satisfaction.

Good post Jim. I think you missed the point I was trying to make, or our definitions of project management differ greatly. You seem to have boxed PM into the engineering only category. True enough, it started there, but it’s been used successfully by service companies around the world for projects that have absolutely no engineering components. I’m not arguing that legal projects aren’t different from construction projects. Every project is different in scale or scope or requirements that make you adjust the approach and level of project management you give it. But regardless of the project, the underlying tenants of project management still serve.

I also don’t disagree that working effectively with lawyers is challenging at times. I’ve worked with lawyers, both as a consultant and as CIO, for over 25 years and couldn’t agree more (My colleagues who work with doctors and professors often argue with me that lawyers have nothing on their patrons.). But I don’t think that “changes” PM. Dealing with project sponsors and project managers in many companies and industries can be an issue.

Should lawyers be project managers? Is it harder to train lawyers? Is it harder to effect cultural and behavioral changes in law firms? All good questions. They go to the difficulties PM faces in a law firm (and perhaps justification for the lack of its use to date) but not overly germane to the processes of PM itself. Project Management, IMHO, is flexible enough to deal with all the “differences” in the legal market without a specialized prefix.

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