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September 12, 2012

New legal project management survey provides data on the best way to make progress

You know a topic is important when people start selling opinion surveys about it.  That just happened in our field when ALM Legal Intelligence released a $499 report entitled Legal Project Management (LPM):  Much Promise, Many Hurdles.  The report includes data on software, training, pilot programs, firm culture, influential stakeholders, staff and much more.  In this post, I will review their data on how much progress has been made to date, and the best way to keep moving forward.

ALM emailed survey invitations to managing partners, attorneys and staff.  236 answered the initial screening questions, and 108 said they were involved in applying LPM at their firms and filled out the entire survey.  About half were from firms with more than 500 lawyers, and half from smaller firms.

The percentages reported below for this self-selected group are likely to be different from what one would find with a random sample of law firms.  But the survey offers the best data yet on LPM, including important insights into what is working, and what is not.

The first question they asked was “Does your firm employ legal project management processes to its casework?”  51% said yes, 26% said no, and 22% were not sure. 

Is the glass half full or half empty?  By the glacial standards of law firm change, this sounds to me like significant progress.  Before 2010, if you asked this question, most lawyers would probably have replied:  What is “legal project management”?  The fact that a majority of this group is using LPM in casework reflects a significant change in two short years.

In my opinion, the most interesting question in the survey was: 

The following are some key tenets which should be regularly practiced as part of LPM.  How well would you say your firm adheres to each of the following: 

  • Setting objectives and defining the scope of a project
  • Identifying and scheduling activities
  • Assigning tasks, managing the team
  • Planning and managing budget
  • Assessing risks
  • Managing quality
  • Managing client communication and expectations
  • Measuring ROI

That list may sound familiar to regular readers of this blog.  Several years ago, we published a list of the eight key concepts in LPM which we use in our training and coaching programs.  It has since become widely accepted, and the first seven tenets above are virtually identical to our original list.  (Our eighth item is “negotiate changes in scope”; we consider measuring ROI to be part of managing the budget.)   

When 108 survey participants who were involved in LPM were asked to rate their firm’s adherence to each tenet on a scale from 1 (does not follow) to 5 (firm completely adheres to it), the average scores fell between 2.2 and 2.9, leading the authors to this conclusion (p. 12):

Law firm LPM efforts on the average adhere only moderately… [which] suggests at least one of the following conclusions:

  • Law firms are confused about what LPM entails
  • A lack of resources has pushed firms into implementing only parts of a full LPM package
  • Firms prioritize what they see as most important
  • The firms think that other systems handle some aspects

I suspect all four of these are true to some degree, but I think the most important explanation is a simpler fifth factor:  LPM requires fundamental changes in the way law firms do business, and lawyers change very very slowly.    Glacial progress can equal success when the other alternative is no progress at all.

We were reminded of this when a client contacted us two years after we offered a just-in-time training workshop at her firm.  She reported that they had just won some new business as a result of using LPM.  She went on to say that she had been frustrated by the slow pace of change in her firm, but in this case it did not matter because their competitors were even slower. “If you move like a turtle but you're racing a bunch of snails,” she said, “it all works out in the end.”

The survey’s conclusions about the best way to implement LPM are consistent with this view (p. 16):

The most important principle is to implement LPM in an incremental manner.  "You’ve got to introduce one element of change at a time and work that," [said Christopher Spizzirri, e-discovery counsel at Morris James].  "I learned early on that if you try to change too many things at once, you get a lot of resistance.”

Of course, that is exactly the approach that we have been using for years, and that we first published in AmLaw Daily in March 2010.  It is worth noting that two weeks after our AmLaw Daily piece appeared, Law.com shook up the LPM world with an article that announced that every partner at Dechert had completed project management training.

Our phones started ringing the morning that article appeared, and over the next several months we talked to many firms who wanted to take the same approach.  We did our best to discourage them.

I particularly remember one case where we got an RFP which asked us to bid on training over 500 lawyers at an AmLaw 100 firm. We had a spirited internal discussion about whether we should bid.  If you multiply 500 by a reasonable cost per lawyer, you get a big number, and this was a serious test of how strongly we felt. 

We asked the client if they would consider our just-in-time training process instead, and focus their efforts on a smaller number of lawyers, the ones who were motivated to change.  The client said no, they wanted to train everyone.   In the end, we declined to bid.  We explained that while we thought the top-down “train everyone” approach could have limited success, it would be a very expensive way to get modest results and it could even backfire by increasing resistance among some lawyers.  

In the quarter century that our team has been developing and delivering award-winning training programs, we have found that the single most important factor in success is selecting the right people to be trained.  This is particularly critical in an area like legal project management, where there is resistance and skepticism about the behavior changes, not to mention more than a generation's worth of inertia.

We recommend starting with lawyers who are open to new ideas and who have the most 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 that are looking for greater efficiency and increased value from their outside counsel.  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 and efficiency, in a position to benefit when LPM makes a difference, and influential enough to quickly spread the word of their success. 

The good news in the survey is that even though LPM change is slow, firms are already seeing benefits.  When the survey asked “which of the following benefits has your firm realized from its project management effort?” every single one of their 13 benefits was realized by at least 20% of the group.  The most common benefit – “More productive relationships with clients” – was achieved by 62%.  (In our standard list of benefits we prefer to focus on the results of these enhanced relationships: protecting business with current clients and increasing new business.)

The survey concludes that (p. 17): 

LPM can help bring increased effectiveness, reduce wasted time, and manage client expectations… Law firms can overcome [the] hurdles by targeting initial efforts in areas that would be most receptive, incrementally rolling out initiatives, and getting experienced help.  Those that can successfully implement LPM will find over time that they gain a competitive advantage.

If we had hired a survey company to prove that our approach to implementing LPM works, we could not have come up with more convincing data.



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Hi Jim,

Thank you for summarising the report. It's really interesting to see some industry wide data about LPM implementation (even if, as you say, the respondents will be self-selecting and therefore not entirely representative).

Over here in the U.K I am finding that a steadily increasing number of law firms are implementing LPM. Those I have spoken to directly also say that the single biggest benefit of applying LPM is that it promotes closer and more productive relationships with clients.

Most commentators seem to agree that the pace of change in the U.K (or more precisely, the jurisdiction of England and Wales) is picking up in response to the increased competitiveness of the legal services market (new market entrants, external investment opportunities in law firms etc). It would be fair to assume therefore that the adoption of LPM will also gather pace as more firms appreciate its benefits, as outlined in the ALM report.



Great post - added to that list, now that law firms are now more business rather than profession oriented, is to have a proper strategy on marketing, a budget, a continuing programme of marketing, constant testing and evaluation. without these fundamentals, no business will succeed unless it has a unique product, and few law firms have this. It is still astonishing here in the UK that so many law firms don't think marketing is critical.

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