Last week, I was in Chicago to
speak on a panel about “Legal project management in the trenches” at the Legal
Marketing Association’s first “P3” conference.
The name came from the three Ps in the conference subtitle: pricing, practice
innovation, and project management.
The organizers had originally
expected a maximum attendance of about 100 people. In fact, more than twice as
many attended, in still another sign of how quickly the legal marketplace is
In February 2012, when I
published an article with Jonathan Groner for Bloomberg Law entitled “The
Rise of the Pricing Director”,
after extensive networking we were able to find only three AmLaw 200 executives
that had that title. Last week’s conference was crawling with pricing directors.
In the privacy of a conference with
their peers, people talked frankly about the challenges of adapting to today’s
deep discount, reduced-demand legal environment. Personally, I was less
interested in the question of how to set a price in the first place than in how
legal project management (LPM) can help firms protect profitability after committing
to a fee.
Different firms had different
answers. According to several speakers, that
is to be expected since firms have different cultures, needs, and goals. But there is still an enormous amount of
controversy about how to select the LPM approach that is likely to produce the
greatest benefits for a particular firm.
At the heart of many of the
arguments was the question of the role that lawyers must play in project
management versus what can and should be done by supporting staff. Very few of
the people who attended this conference were practicing lawyers, so almost all
of the emphasis was on delegating project management to staff and on the
technology used to support them.
Now, I am a huge fan of
delegation. Our Legal Project
Management Quick Reference Guide includes three different sections
explaining what lawyers should do to delegate more effectively. But I also
believe that at the heart of LPM there are some core issues that lawyers must
do for themselves. If you need to exercise, you can’t hire someone to do your
pushups, and if you need to communicate better with your clients, you would be
wise to pick up the phone yourself.
The reason communication is on my
mind is that I am currently spending a lot of my time interviewing managing
partners and decision makers at AmLaw 200 firms for a research study entitled “Client
Value and Law Firm Profitability” which will be published next year. (We will
soon publish the names of firms that have participated so far, but not of the
individuals interviewed. All the quotes below are anonymous, because we’ve
found in past studies that such confidentiality makes it possible for senior
decision makers to speak frankly and openly.)
In one question, I ask
participants to assess the relative importance of the eight key issues we’ve
identified in LPM: defining scope, scheduling activities, managing teams,
planning budgets, avoiding risks, managing quality, managing communications,
and negotiating changes of scope. I’ve only finished about 20 in-depth
interviews to date, but, as I noted in a recent post,
so far the issue that is considered most important is the need for better communication
After the conference, as I
thought about what elements of LPM can be delegated to staff and what should be
done by lawyers, I realized that my eight issues could be grouped together
under two larger categories:
- Budget and schedule management
- Client and team management
The first is where staff and
software can help the most, depending on the skills, interests, and business model
of each firm. The larger the matter or the firm, the more sense it makes to
delegate budget and schedule management. However, no matter how large the firm, client
and team management must largely be performed by the lawyers themselves.
In the non-delegable client and
team management category, communication must begin at the start of every matter
by defining scope clearly and understanding what clients want to pay for and
what they do not. As one participant in our research put it:
need to get better at focusing on what we need to do to meet the clients’
business objectives, not what we need to do to make ourselves feel good that
we’ve just produced the greatest brief in the history of the law… And that is a
monster hurdle to get over with successful lawyers at a top firm. That’s been a
major problem. It’s about how you get people more focused on meeting business
objectives and less focused on the pure intellectual, “I just want to spend all
day and all night doing this, because I’m interested.”
When it comes to team management,
project management staff can and should help with setting up plans, but how
many project managers will be in a position to tell senior partners what they
can and cannot do? To increase efficiency, somebody needs to be in charge. Here’s
another example from our research:
it amazing that you could produce a world class brief, and if it’s due at
midnight tonight, you’ll work right up till 11:55, and you will be ready to
file this world class brief, and everybody will be high-fiving. And if at the
last second, somehow there’s an extension for two days, you will work the next
two days to try and make what was perfectly good, if not great, even better.
This is what lawyers do, and it sometimes has absolutely no value to the
client, but that’s what they do.
Many problems go back to the
perfectionism that has caused so many legal budget overruns in the past. Said
another research participant:
think one of the biggest problems in the industry is that we over-engineer and over-deliver
quality, when there’s not enough discussion with clients up front about the
cost trade-offs and what really needs to be done. One of the very first things
I did when I left practicing law was that I agreed that for every prospective
securities offering or document that I was going to read, I was not going to
correct the typos. At the end of the day, most typos are not important. If a
number was wrong, I might look at that one. We had a discussion the other day
with somebody about what we could do for a certain cost, but only if they
understand that they are not going to get a Cadillac. And so we too often think
that we can only produce a Cadillac, and we don’t have the discussion with the
client about, is a basic car more than adequate for this, or is it worth the
additional cost of building the Cadillac?
Overruling that perfectionism
will require management techniques that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable to
many lawyers, according to another interview:
and scheduling activities: that’s where I feel like we immediately fall off a
cliff. Even if we do the budget down to the level of timekeeper and task code,
I know very few people who out of the gate start managing the case that way.
Are we on track for this small piece of the work? What I see more of is where
people say, “I’ll monitor how we do against the overall budget, and if I start
to see that we’re eating up too much of the budget too quickly, I’ll stop, and
maybe I’ll go back and now dig into this stuff.” A lot of it is backwards looking… we’re light
years away from partners truly managing their cases in real time.
Next week, in Part 2 of this
post, we’ll talk about the role that technology and new staff positions can best
play in the transition to a new and better approach to LPM.