The most critical issues in legal project management (Part 1 of 3)
This three-part series previews results from my book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which will be published this summer. All quotes are from managing partners, chairs, and other senior decision makers at AmLaw 200 firms. Each participated in 30-minute in-depth interviews and spoke freely based on the understanding that they could review their quotes before publication, and they would not be quoted by name.
In 2009, when many firms first started talking about how to apply traditional project management techniques to legal matters, we proposed that lawyers think about the field in terms of these eight key issues:
- Set objectives and define scope
- Identify and schedule activities
- Assign tasks and manage the team
- Plan and manage the budget
- Assess risks
- Manage quality
- Manage client communication
- Negotiate changes of scope
When we coach lawyers on LPM, we always start by asking which issue is most important to a particular client or matter, so that we can focus on the low hanging fruit. Not surprisingly, the answer depends on the situation, and each of the eight has sometimes been rated as most important. However, in this research we wanted to get a sense of which issues seemed most important to the profession as a whole, and so one of the questions we asked was, “Which of these eight LPM issues do you consider most critical for client value and/or profitability in the short-term and why?” Of the 37 people who answered that question, 8% said that they were all basically equal:
It’s very difficult to rank order them. They are all important. There may be subtle variations, but these all work together, and I really can’t differentiate in terms of which is most important and which is least important and what’s in the middle. They all have to come together.
However, 92% were willing to single out one or more issues as particularly critical, as in the following quotes, the first from a managing partner, the second from a C-Level executive:
There are two that I would rank the most critical: the setting of objectives and scope, and managing client communication and expectations. Those, to me, are linked at the hip. You really have to understand what the client’s expectation is, and you also have to have a good relationship to be able to tell them whether or not their expectation is real and achievable. A lot of things can happen in litigation that can change the scope of an engagement. You can run into difficult parties and unforeseen problems, and that’s where an understanding between you and the client has to be solid enough that you can have those kinds of conversations and work your way through it.
There are three things I don’t think we do very well. The first thing is negotiating changes of scope up front. The second is clearly setting and understanding the objectives and the scope from the beginning. Lawyers think they do it, but I don’t think they get the right level of detail. The third is assessing risks to budget and schedule. They don’t wear the project management hat and think through what might go wrong.
When we analyzed the answers from people who saw some issues as more critical than others, they were ranked in the following order:
|Most critical short-term issues in LPM|
|Set objectives and define scope||50%|
|Manage client communications and expectations||38%|
|Plan and manage the budget||28%|
|Assign tasks and manage the team||22%|
|Negotiate changes of scope||20%|
|Identify and schedule activities||12%|
|Assess risks to the budget and schedule||10%|
The top two – defining scope and communicating with the client – are especially interesting because they have nothing to do with software or Gantt charts or anything a relationship partner should delegate to an outside project manager. Instead, they come down to understanding what clients want, and giving it to them.
In this three part series of posts, we will briefly discuss each issue, arranged in this order of importance.
Set objectives and define scope
The short-term issue that was mentioned most often as critical starts on the very first day of each new matter, or before:
Setting objectives and defining the scope are crucial. You can budget. You can do anything you want. But if you don’t know what those objectives are, and what the client is willing to do or wants to do, you’re just putting stuff on paper. – Senior partner
Defining scope is the most critical in my mind. That’s where we struggle the most on the front end. – COO
The critical issue is sitting down with the client at the beginning and deciding what their goals are with the matter. Is it getting it done quickly? Is it getting it done so that nobody ever brings a matter like this again? Is it getting it done in advance of the big merger on the books a year from now? There are all different considerations as to what will lead a client to think this was a successful representation. And I find that the more you push your client to think through what they care most about, the better off both of you are. – Managing partner
Obviously clients have got to know what they’re paying for. How many times in a litigation matter do the clients say, let’s beat the guy, and then after you spent the money, they have buyers’ remorse? – CFO
I think the lawyer really has to understand what the client’s objective is, and manage to that objective, which is a hard thing for a lot of litigators to learn, in particular those who are from the win-at-all-costs school. – Chair
However, defining scope properly can be quite difficult. As I noted in our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide (3rd ed., p. 20), lawyers who are trained to prepare for every possibility can get in trouble if they try to be too specific:
If a list of carve-outs gets too long or too specific, it can annoy the client and lead to lost business. Unfortunately, there is no simple general way to create assumptions that balance client needs and firm needs. The details must be worked out case by case. This can be especially difficult in a highly competitive environment.
One way to deal with this challenge can be seen in the following comments from a C-level executive:
I counsel people against a three-page list of assumptions, because it just drives clients crazy. I tell them to pick the big ones, and I say, “If you’re assuming very limited document review under 300,000 documents, and then it comes in that you’re going to have to review two million, you’ve got to be able to identify that that’s a huge variable and cost driver, and you’d better make sure that you’ve been very clear in your assumptions, so that if that happens, you can quickly pick up the phone and say, ‘We’ve got a major change in scope. Let’s talk about how to deal with it.’”
Another major complicating factor in defining scope is that with large clients, different stakeholders may have different objectives:
There is sometimes less than optimal communication within some of our client organizations, between the legal department and the corporate higher ups, as to objectives, priorities, timing, and budgets. We often receive our work directly from the legal department. The legal department at times may not quite understand what top management wants done, at what cost and in what timeframe, and that leads to inefficiency.
There’s no question that this is an art that needs to be developed further. We find sometimes with clients that the people we work out the sale with aren’t the same people that we work out the delivery with, so whether the scope has been properly defined or not becomes a really big deal, and changes in scope needing to be negotiated depends upon how well you defined the scope in the first place. This is something law firms have not historically done well, compared to, say, contractors and others who are used to a fixed fee type environment. So there’s a lot of room for improvement on that.
Finally, it is worth noting that the emphasis on scope does not apply to all clients and all law firms. In the statement below, one AmLaw 200 chairperson argues that it applies to only a small percentage of his firm’s clients:
In a world where your client is cooperative and just as accountable as you are, then I would say that setting objectives and defining scope would be the most important. We just haven’t found clients to buy into that, for the most part. For our firm, about two-thirds of clients use the word value just as a polite way of asking for a discount. Right off the bat, those two-thirds are not interested in setting objectives and defining scope. They’re just interested in price. Another sixth of my practice has no need for this at all, because they’re completely price insensitive. They just want really good work. They trust us. So it’s only that last sixth that actually cares about scope.
In Parts 2 and 3 of this series, we will discuss the remaining seven issues.