Why is legal project management so controversial?
A few weeks ago, when I gave a speech at a Lex Mundi roundtable in Denver on AFAs, I heard many different opinions about the value of legal project management (LPM).
Some believe, as I do, that LPM reflects an essential change in the way lawyers must do business in a changing world, and that it is valuable not just for AFAs but also for hourly matters. Some said that LPM’s value is more limited. It can be quite helpful on certain types of matters, such as large complex litigations, but it is irrelevant on others. A few think that LPM is just another fad, and that it will ultimately go the way of pet rocks and TQM. I even heard that one well-known consultant is telling his clients that he “has never seen LPM work in any law firm.”
I spend a lot of my time talking to lawyers who are trying to decide what to do about LPM, and hear that same range of opinions every day.
Why is the value of LPM so controversial? I believe it is because we are in a time of transition where people are still figuring out what works, and they don’t yet agree even about what LPM is, or how the phrase should be defined.
There are a lot of law firms out there experimenting with different ways to increase value and profitability. Some firms are hiring project management staff, some are building tools, some are buying software, some are investing in Six Sigma and process improvement, some are coaching senior partners, some are training every associate, and some are trying other things. All of them are using the term LPM to refer to these very different approaches. When some of these experiments succeed and others fail, people draw the global conclusion that LPM works, or that it does not. But they are talking about different things.
In June 2011, I wrote a post describing the confusion and controversy about exactly what LPM is, and how law firms should use it. Today, this problem seems much more serious than it did a year ago, because more firms have made some type of initial effort and positions are hardening.
I hate to spend time debating definitions. But until people agree on what LPM is, they can’t possibly agree on whether it is valuable and important.
We recommend a slightly modified version of the definition I proposed in last year’s post: Legal project management adapts proven management techniques to the legal profession to help lawyers achieve their business goals, such as increasing client value and protecting profitability.
Note that this is a very broad umbrella definition, which includes developing tools, hiring staff, coaching lawyers, process improvement, and all the other approaches listed above. It also includes a wide range of other more modest changes that are related to the eight key issues described in my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide:
- Set objectives and define scope
- Identify and schedule activities
- Assign tasks and manage the team
- Plan and manage the budget
- Assess risks to the schedule and budget
- Manage quality
- Manage client communication and expectations
- Negotiate change orders
When you define LPM this broadly, it is clear that in one sense there is nothing new about LPM. Any lawyer who has ever planned a budget or managed an associate has already practiced LPM. But in another sense, the LPM movement is quite new because lawyers are taking a more systematic and disciplined approach to these issues. They are studying best practices from other firms and other professions, and they are getting better at providing value and protecting profitability.
To succeed in any business, you just need to be a little better than the people you compete with. If your competitors become sophisticated about LPM before you do, they will offer your clients greater value, and you may lose some clients.
Once lawyers buy in to this broad definition, they can stop arguing about whether it is useful. Whatever works to improve budgets or quality or communication is useful by definition. This allows people to proceed to the practical question: how should we implement LPM?
The answer is “it depends.” What works best varies from firm to firm, from practice group to practice group, and from lawyer to lawyer depending on clients, goals, the firm’s culture and the individual personalities involved.
But we do have one piece of advice which is the same for every client: You won’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so you’d better make sure your first legal project management program is well designed and executed. If it fails, you are going to have a tough time building support for the second one.
We recommend starting with a small group of motivated lawyers who are open to new ideas and who have something to gain. That could be the key partners who are responsible for new alternative fee arrangements. It could be relationship partners who are worried about protecting business with key clients looking for greater efficiency. It could be an entire practice group that is considering new checklists, templates and processes to improve its competitive position.
The exact individuals and groups will vary from firm to firm. But in every case, the best lawyers to start with are those who are open-minded about change, in a position to benefit when it works, and influential enough to quickly spread the word of their success.
If you don’t accept our definition of LPM, please feel free to use a different term to refer to efforts to increase value and profitability. But in the current environment, whatever term you use, lawyers need to run their businesses better. Individuals, practice groups, and entire firms need to change behavior to better serve their clients and to protect their livelihood. So whatever you decide to call it, you would be wise to get started soon.
If you accept our broad definition, it is clear that LPM is scalable, and is needed every day in every matter by almost every lawyer. The only exceptions would be lawyers who are already perfect, so there is absolutely nothing more they could do to improve client value or profitability.
Unless you are one of the lawyers who is already perfect, we suggest you follow the LPM advice of Camden Webb (a partner at Williams Mullen and one of our clients): “Don't hold a series of committee meetings for a year and then do a top-down analysis. Just do something.”