This series was adapted from my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which was published at the beginning of this month.
As law firms struggle with internal pressure to retain and improve profitability and external pressure to satisfy client demand for greater value, one tactic has risen to the top of most law firm lists: legal project management.
As discussed previously in this blog, the field of LPM is so new that experts have spent quite a bit of time arguing about what it does and does not include. If you accept the very broad definition that we have been using for the last several years—LPM adapts proven management techniques to the legal profession to help lawyers achieve their business goals, including increasing client value and protecting profitability—it is easy to see that the vast majority of law firms could benefit from implementing LPM in some form.
Which brings us back to the question of exactly how to do that. Educating is relatively easy, but changing behavior is very hard. It is also the central problem in legal project management. The Association of Corporate Counsel and the ABA conducted a meeting a few years ago, “at which leaders of corporate and law firm litigation departments rolled up their sleeves and tackled the complex issues surrounding present day concepts of value in litigation.” In an ACC Docket article summarizing the event, the authors noted that progress will not be based on improved understanding or increased knowledge. Instead, “The challenge is change/behavior management.” It’s not a question of knowing what to do, it’s a question of getting lawyers to do it.
In this research, the managing partner of one firm that invested heavily in education but failed to see much behavior change had this to say:
Project management will probably have the longest-term positive impact, but it’s been the biggest challenge, because it’s something that hasn’t been easily absorbed by a lot of the lawyers. When busy lawyers start scrambling around, the inefficiency creeps right up. At our firm, project management has not met expectations. But it’s improving, and I do think long term it will have a really big impact.
If there is one thing that participants in this survey agreed on, it is that it is difficult to get lawyers to use LPM, as seen in these comments from five more firms:
Project management is not natural to lawyers. We’ve always been trained to get the case done well to win, but now we also have to get the case done efficiently, and that is not part of the natural toolkit for most people. – Managing partner
Getting people to manage engagements is very difficult in this business. So we’re at the discussion rather than the implementation stage. – Chair
We’ve done a better job on the front end, on the developing and pricing piece. Where I don’t think we’re doing as much as we could is on the legal project management end, thinking about whether there are more efficient ways to actually complete certain kinds of work. – Senior executive
We have clients, especially in litigation and corporate, who are saying we need to implement LPM. But it’s hard to get our lawyers off the dime. – Senior partner
I think that it will require a lot of work, and daily support from the top, not just lip service from the partner team twice a year. – Senior executive
Given that the formal field of LPM is so young, and that many lawyers resist its fundamental ideas, it is not surprising that there are still disagreements about what approach to implementation works best. Several major vendors—including my company—offer different solutions. Each believes strongly in its own approach and frankly has a vested interest in proving its effectiveness.
Generally, implementation approaches fall into three broad categories: training, coaching, and law firm staff. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive and many firms use all three, along with software, as described in the next section. All of these approaches can have positive effects. The hard question that every firm faces is one of cost-effectiveness: which approach will produce the greatest impact today for the lowest cost.
Historically, most firms have started with some type of training. Lawyers love precedent, so when Dechert announced in 2010 that it had trained its partners in LPM, a number of firms jumped in to do the same thing. This led to some great press releases about how these training programs proved that firms were committed to LPM, but precious little in the way of results. Consider these comments from three firms that invested in extensive LPM training programs:
Every shareholder and top level associate has had a full day of project management training. I’d like to tell you that they use it, but they don’t. – Chair
Training raised awareness, but I think it will take a longer campaign to significantly move the needle in terms of our ability to change the way we do business. – Managing partner
I don’t want to say it’s stillborn, because that’s too fatalistic, but it has not taken hold like I had hoped it would. I think that there are some attorneys who probably are using it in their own way, but as an institutional concept it has really been put on a back burner. – Senior executive
It took a few years for it to become clear that training every lawyer in the firm was not a cost effective way to go, and that led people to less ambitious programs such as short sessions of “awareness training” that set stage and identified the lawyers who need to dig in more deeply.
In our experience, the most effective way for firms to build LPM momentum is not with large group training, but rather with one-to-one coaching for influential partners to enable them to directly experience the benefits of LPM. As a result, they will become internal champions who will lead efforts to adapt LPM to the particular needs of their firms, practice groups, and clients.
A pdf of this entire series can be downloaded from Altman Weil Direct, where it originally appeared.