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October 09, 2013

What lawyers can delegate in project management, and what they cannot (Part 1 of 2)

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 changing.

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 with clients.

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:

  1. Budget and schedule management
  2. 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:

We 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:

Isn’t 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:

I 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:

Identifying 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.


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I was at the conference also Jim, I largely agree with your outline of how pieces of LPM can be delegated, based on our experience with lawyers and legal professionals sharing the work and learning what's effective. Although I seem to recall at the conference Seyfarth (may be another firm) I believe it was saying their PMs are client-facing which initiated some discussion about how that works practically. They didn't get into details but it's certainly something to explore. It's a serious culture issue for law firms of course, maybe even partner by partner, I can see some trusting their staff enough to permit it.

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