A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation at the Toronto office of Fasken Martineau, a firm with over 675 lawyers in Canada, the United Kingdom, France and South Africa. The topic was Legal Project Management (LPM): What law firms are doing today, and what each individual lawyer should do to get started.
To me, the most interesting part of the day was not my own talk; I’d heard all that before. The most interesting part was the follow-up presentation by Ontario Region Managing Partner Martin Denyes, who has recently taken on the task of coordinating LPM efforts within the firm. Some Fasken Martineau LPM initiatives have been going on for months and others for years, but all of the examples Martin talked about illustrated the kind of bottom-up approach to LPM which we believe is the wave of the future.
This contrasts with a top-down approach, in which senior firm management directs lawyers on tools and techniques. To date, most of the LPM headlines have gone to firms that have spent years implementing top-down programs, such as Seyfarth, Eversheds, Dechert and McCarthy Tetrault. That approach can certainly work, especially if you have strong leaders who can afford to spend a few million dollars and wait a few years for proof of the results.
But most law firms are flat organizations, headed by partners who lead by building consensus rather than enforcing their will. In this environment, a grassroots, bottom-up approach that starts by helping a few influential partners is much more likely to succeed. As another one of our clients put it:
Don't hold a series of committee meetings for a year and then do a top-down analysis. Just do something. This will spread project management, because when lawyers succeed, others in the firm will imitate their success.
In his review of Fasken Martineau initiatives, Denyes highlighted two workshops we offered at the firm last April – one for litigators, the other for corporate lawyers. Both used our just-in-time training approach to change behavior. Each lawyer started by focusing on a specific aspect of an actual matter where project management might make a difference. Then they used our proprietary approach to identify a concrete action item, which they followed up on for the next 30 days with coaching assistance from one of our legal project management experts.
For example, in the litigator group, Berkley Sells completed a retrospective budget of an actual case to estimate the cost of ten categories of work, from the preliminary fact investigation to the final settlement negotiations. He also prepared a detailed cost estimate for a client in an ongoing shareholder dispute, showing thirteen separate steps, such as “Preparation for and conduct of cross-examinations.” For each step, he explained key issues that would affect schedule and cost, and included the estimated range of possible costs.
When I interviewed Berkley a few months after the workshop to get his perspective, he said:
Sometimes you need to stop and take a look at how you’re managing a project. What are we doing, what is our next step, what is this going to cost, are there options, is all of this essential? The physical act of having to write it down brings a certain clarity of analysis. It makes you stop and think rather than simply putting one foot in front of the other.
Sean Morley, a participant in the corporate workshop, had a similar experience. Sean’s practice focuses primarily on mergers, acquisitions, equity financings, and public-private partnerships. In our workshop, he developed a work plan and budget for one type of transaction which he handles frequently, and where clients are pressing for lower costs. Sean broke the transaction down into nine separate activities – what professional project managers would call a work breakdown structure – and then looked for innovative ways to reduce the cost of each activity. He will be using this plan over the next few months to manage new work.
As Sean summed it up:
Project management can improve efficiency and productivity. It provides lawyers with a framework to proceed on a focused, disciplined basis, to examine what we are doing and whether we are using the best people to achieve the desired results. We all think that we do that already, but taking a consistent and systematic approach will make a real difference.