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5 posts from March 2016

March 30, 2016

Agile vs. traditional approaches to LPM

By Ed Burke, Jim Hassett, and Michelle H. Stein, LegalBizDev


As more and more law firms have begun to adopt LPM to increase client satisfaction and their own profitability, a number of experts have begun to discuss the potential value to law firms of “Agile” approaches to project management.

The traditional approach to project management (also called the “waterfall” approach) is based on a sequential series of steps, such as:

  • Initiating
  • Planning
  • Executing
  • Monitoring and controlling
  • Closing

In this model, a project starts by creating a plan, and you then work your way to the end, one sequential step at a time. Agile speeds up the process with an iterative approach that gets client feedback more quickly.

The Agile alternative first emerged in software development, when programmers found that the old saying “Perfect is the enemy of the good” was delaying many technology rollouts. The goal of getting a complex, diverse collection of needs correct on the first try was getting in the way of rolling projects out in a timely manner.

This alternative iterative approach was first described in the Agile manifesto written by a group of influential software developers in 2001. Under Agile, technology firms:

  • Develop programs as quickly as possible
  • Try them out on users
  • Make changes based on feedback
  • Then try them out again

Rather than starting out by defining the perfect requirements document, they recommended developing release after release until they had a product that truly met user needs. Anyone who owns a computer or a smartphone has seen Agile in action. Regular updates are common, delivering incremental improvements that benefit the customer while giving the company feedback quickly. Today Google, Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of other technology companies rely on Agile.

But what is the exact definition of Agile project management? Unfortunately, as Alan Shalloway has noted in an article written for Eric Verzuh’s Fast Forward MBA in Project Management (Fifth edition, p. 57) , “There is a lot of confusion about the answer… a movement was created around the term agile but the movement is not governed by a single body and agile methods continue to evolve.”

Shalloway defines the essence of Agile as focusing on the following questions:

  • “How do we deliver value quickly to our customers?
  • How do we discover as early as possible what is needed?
  • How do we accurately gauge the progress we’re making in our project?
  • How can we accelerate the learning of the development team?”

These questions hit the nail on the head for many areas of the law, so it is not surprising that a variety of experts are now working on ways to apply Agile to LPM. To date, this has had the greatest impact as a general mindset rather than as a particular collection of well-defined techniques.

In one sense, almost all of the LPM work we’ve done over the last several years is more closely based on an Agile mindset than a traditional LPM approach. Instead of urging lawyers to develop a complete, end-to-end plan for an ongoing matter, we urge them to “look for low hanging fruit,” try out promising techniques as quickly as possible, to build on what works and discard what doesn’t. This approach is also the defining element of both our individual coaching and our “just in time” training workshops, which focus on providing just enough training to benefit individual lawyers quickly.

The Agile approach runs counter to the “committee decision process” at many law firms, which would prefer to have a five-year strategic plan in place before taking the first step. This type of overthinking has doomed many LPM programs to death by old age before the committee made its first recommendation.

Seyfarth Shaw, which has been working on legal project management longer than any other firm, initially found that in many cases the traditional approach was not “well received or effective” with lawyers. In the article “Agile: A Non-traditional Approach to Legal Project Management”, Kim Craig, SeyfarthLean’s global director of legal process improvement, and Jenny Lee, a senior project manager with Seyfarth, explained that:

Traditional project management focuses on robust, comprehensive, mandatory project documentation with lengthy project charters, detailed project plans, complex status reports and rigorous, formal change control logs… [But] the world of legal service delivery is fast-paced and unpredictable. In legal matters, we cannot possibly know everything that will be involved with litigation at the outset. Developing an overall strategy is generally common practice, but detailed, cradle-to-grave planning is impossible.

Their solution was to incorporate Agile concepts and techniques into their work. Once Seyfarth embraced Agile, it led to many changes in procedures, explained Heather Eskra, a senior project manager at the firm, in an interview. Seyfarth began to improvise more. The typical two- to three-page static project plan—which in many cases had been ignored by lawyers—was replaced by dynamic bulleted must-read emails sent out as needed. Clients were involved earlier and more often in meetings that in pre-Agile days would have been purely internal. This investment of time actually sped up the process by unveiling misunderstandings or changes in direction much sooner than in the past.

Seyfarth even began collaborating with opposing counsel in an effort to speed up a deal, for example by letting the other firm use some of its software, sharing task lists, and housing both sides’ documents on a single platform. This sped up the process on both sides because the other firm did not want to be seen as falling behind. The process also affected the outcome, in the sense that it could help both sides reach “yes” more easily.

Seyfarth lawyers and staff frequently hold joint “lessons learned” debriefing meetings after a matter closes—indeed, sometimes after every phase in large matters, adjusting approaches and tactics based on what worked and what didn’t in the prior phase. Some lawyers who once complained about the debriefings are now pushing to have them earlier, Eskra says.

These days, Seyfarth transactions that are complex, fast-moving, and/or likely to change often take the Agile approach. The program has proven to be a significant step forward in the firm’s pioneering, decade-long focus on improving client service.

Thus, Agile is becoming an increasingly effective approach to LPM, both as a general mindset and in terms of specific techniques, some of which will appear in the fourth edition of our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

March 23, 2016

Legal project management: What works best? (Part 3 of 3)

An edited version of this series appeared in the February 2016 issue of Managing Partner magazine with the title  “LPM: An evolving process” and can be downloaded from our web page.

4. Invest in technology at the right moment

As firms gradually implement LPM to increase efficiency and avoid surprises, a time is likely to come when firms will need to invest in software to improve tracking of budgets, assignments, and more. However, many firms have wasted time and money by focusing on technology before lawyers had clearly defined their needs or were ready to change their behavior.

In his book Smarter Pricing, Smarter Profit (p. 215), Stuart J.T. Dodds, director of global pricing and LPM at Baker & McKenzie, noted that:

Many of the initial LPM efforts failed… due [in part] to an initial focus on technology… [LPM software] was frequently difficult to learn and then apply to matters at hand, leading to lawyer frustration and limited adoption.

To cite just one cautionary tale, consider this report from a senior executive at an AmLaw 200 firm in our survey (p. 126):

We spent an incredible amount of time and resources coming up with a very sophisticated reporting system that would allow people, with a couple of clicks through our intranet, to go into any particular matter that had a budget and see, down to the timekeeper and task level, exactly how they were doing. Nobody uses them, as far as we can tell. Literally nobody.

In an interview for this blog, Paula Uscian, director of quality assurance at Project Leadership Associates, noted that:

There are very useful LPM software programs available, but we advise clients to first look at the tools that they already have and to leverage the investments that they have already made in software, without buying anything new.

5. Don’t stop

As one AmLaw 200 senior executive in our survey (p. 192) summed it up:

I think that [LPM] will require a lot of work, and daily support from the top, not just lip service from the partner team twice a year.

The Bilzin Sumberg case study cited above provides an excellent example. It would be nice to be able to report that once Bilzin Sumberg completed coaching a critical mass of partners, their LPM work was done, but in fact it was just beginning.

One of the most important steps that Bilzin took to sustain progress after the coaching was the formation of an LPM committee to monitor and sustain progress. Practice group leaders are required to report regularly to the committee and to the managing partner about how they are applying LPM and what works best. “We’re following this so tightly because it’s an enormous priority,” said Michelle Weber, the firm’s chief operating officer. The result is that best practices are spreading. 

It is true that the firm’s clients have already seen significant benefits in reduced costs and greater responsiveness, and this in turn has led to new business. But when we interviewed Bilzin’s leaders for a number of follow-up reports, they continued to use phrases like “baby steps,” “infancy stage,” and “aspirational rather than obligatory” to describe the firm’s current use of LPM. 

They should see the other guys. We spend our lives looking behind the curtain at a wide variety of law firms as we work with them to increase efficiency. Many firms have individual lawyers or practice groups that are quite advanced in LPM, but in our opinion not a single law firm in the world, including Bilzin Sumberg, can yet say that LPM has truly taken hold across the entire firm.

And the LPM bar will keep going up. As the chair of one AmLaw 200 firm interviewed for my book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability (p. 182) said:

It’s an evolving process. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a point at which you can say: Now I’ve arrived.

Summary:  How to avoid pitfalls in implementing LPM


What works best

What doesn’t


Coach key lawyers to change their behavior and become internal LPM champions with quick wins.

Begin with large scale training of lawyers and staff.


Hire or assign staff to provide the financial and other help that lawyers ask for.

Hire LPM staff too soon and expect them to accomplish their objectives without lawyers’ support.


Begin by providing lawyers with the budget and other information they ask for using existing systems, even if it is awkward at first.

Invest time and money in new technology too soon, before you have a clear idea of what lawyers want and need


March 16, 2016

Legal project management: What works best? (Part 2 of 3)

An edited version of this series appeared in the February 2016 issue of Managing Partner magazine with the title  “LPM: An evolving process” and can be downloaded from our web page.


2. Develop internal champions with quick wins

There is a large body of research on tactics that promote behavior change in large organizations. In the book, Leading Change (p. 123), John Kotter, professor emeritus at the Harvard Business School, argues that one of the most effective tactics is to create short-term wins which “provide evidence that sacrifices are worth it, reward change agents with a pat on the back, help fine-tune vision and strategies, undermine cynics and self-serving resisters, and build momentum.”

This approach is the key to behavior change in law firms.  As ALM Legal Intelligence noted in its 2012 survey “Legal Project Management: Much Promise, Many Hurdles” (p. 17): “The quicker there are demonstrable positive benefits, the faster other partners will take notice.” 

The most effective programs we’ve seen were built around one-to-one LPM coaching  for influential partners to enable them to directly experience its benefits. When they do, many become internal champions who lead efforts to adapt LPM to the particular needs of their firms, practice groups, and clients.

Bilzin Sumberg, a Miami firm with over 100 lawyers, was one of the first to put this approach into practice with a significant proportion of the firm. In a case study describing their approach, I’ve argued that no other firm on the planet has gotten such a large percentage of the partnership actively involved so quickly in using LPM.

In March 2012, Bilzin Sumberg formally kicked off its LPM initiative at a partner retreat. A few months before, three influential partners had begun one-to-one LPM coaching to enable them to increase efficiency and client satisfaction. At the retreat, they discussed exactly what they did and how it had worked. All three reported numerous examples of increased client satisfaction, including one case in which LPM had immediately led to a substantial amount of new business. Not surprisingly, the testimony of these respected colleagues was far more persuasive than the words of any outside consultant ever could be.

As a result of this discussion, a number of other partners became interested in seeing if LPM could help them increase client satisfaction, new business, and realization. All 51 Bilzin partners were offered the option to complete the same coaching program that the three panelists had received. By May 2013, a total of 26 partners had volunteered for and completed the program, representing just over half of the firm’s partnership.

At that point, belief in LPM had reached critical mass and developed enough momentum that no more coaching was needed. The partners themselves and Bilzin’s internal staff took ownership of moving the effort forward and sustaining progress. The first quick wins had led to more wins, and an LPM committee was formed to assure that LPM continued to change the firm’s culture.

According to Paul Vandermeer, the firm’s chief knowledge officer and a member of the LPM committee, “The more successes we have gotten, the more converts we obtained and the more that LPM has permanently changed the way we do business.” To cite just one small example, the firm has begun requiring lawyers to systematically track work that falls outside the scope defined by each engagement letter. This idea came not from any outside consultant, but from within the firm itself.

This basic model – start by coaching a few lawyers one-to-one and then have them publicize their success – has been used in many other firms. In our experience, it works best when there is strong management support and a continuing commitment, and is clearly the most effective way for any firm to get started.

3. Assign staff to support lawyers

It is impossible to keep a project on time and within budget if the relationship partner cannot obtain timely information about how much has been spent and what has been accomplished. Therefore, after key partners have made a commitment to LPM, the next obvious step is to assign staff to provide lawyers with financial information and perform tasks that help partners to manage more effectively.

As the chair of one AmLaw 100 firm that has committed to LPM put it in our research on Client Value and Law Firm Profitability (p. 195):

We are starting to hire different people to manage the non-legal aspects of the practice, not the relationships. Lawyers are notoriously bad managers. You could be a fabulous trial lawyer, but you might not be able to get your hours in on time, or bill on time.

In our experience, it is often more effective to promote from within for this role than it is to hire outsiders, which is why we used the word “assign” above. To be effective in the support role, one must be detail-oriented, willing to learn, and familiar with the individuals and the culture of the firm. This last factor – inside knowledge – is critical to success and can take time for an outsider to develop.

The larger the matter or the firm, the more sense it makes to delegate management of the budget and schedule to staff. However, some key aspects of LPM cannot be delegated.

In our survey, we asked AmLaw 200 leaders to rank the urgency and importance of eight key issues in LPM. The top two were defining scope at the outset of a matter and communicating with the client as it proceeds. Neither can be delegated to project management staff.

Too many firms act as if hiring an LPM director and/or a pricing director will solve all their problems. This is clearly part of the solution for many firms, but it only works if partners are committed to changing their approach.  (For more information, see our white paper The evolving role of LPM Directors.)

March 09, 2016

Legal project management: What works best? (Part 1 of 3)

An edited version of this series appeared in the February 2016 issue of Managing Partner magazine with the title  “LPM: An evolving process” and can be downloaded from our web page.

If you believed what you read on the internet, you’d think that legal project management (LPM) has swept the legal profession and that a large number of firms have developed a solid track record of success. However, it is an open secret among people in the field that there is a huge gap between the success that many firms claim on their web pages and the slow pace of LPM adoption within even the most vocal firms.

In one sense, LPM has been around since the first time a lawyer planned a budget or managed an associate. But in the last few years, clients have substantially increased the pressure to provide greater value and manage legal matters more efficiently. This has led many firms to apply management techniques from other businesses to improve budgeting, communication, knowledge management, time management, and much more.

While many law firms have publicized their LPM success, clients have been less impressed. In its 2015 Chief Legal Officers Survey, Altman Weil asked respondents to rate how serious law firms are “about changing their legal service delivery model to provide greater value to clients” on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 10 (doing everything they can). The median rating was just 3.

And even the firms that have been most serious about making this change have found that progress is slow. One of the best-known names in LPM, Seyfarth Shaw, began working with Six Sigma and SeyfarthLean® several years before the Association of Corporate Counsel announced its influential “Value Challenge” program in 2008.

Although Seyfarth is at the top of many LPM lists, in 2012 the firm’s Chair and Managing Partner Steven Poor wrote in the New York Times Dealbook blog that one should “Never underestimate lawyers’ resistance to change.” That’s the bad news. The good news was summarized by Lisa Damon, the partner who leads the SeyfarthLean Six Sigma program, who has said  that “If you get a group of lawyers and staff into a room to discuss how to make things more efficient, it’s very easy to find savings.”

When you put these two facts together – it’s easy to figure out how to be efficient, but hard to get lawyers to act on it – you begin to see why there is so much confusion about what works best for LPM and about which firms have made the most progress. Add in the vested interest that firms have in publicizing any success they do achieve, the fact that there are wide individual differences between lawyers within a single firm, and secrecy within firms, and it becomes clear that it is almost impossible for outsiders to compare firms on their progress.

Nevertheless, a consensus is starting to emerge about what works best in implementing LPM, starting with the five points listed below.

1. Focus on behavior change, not education

LPM requires partners to change the way they have practiced law for several decades. And as the managing partner of one AmLaw 200 firm put it in our confidential survey Client Value and Law Firm Profitability (p. 191):

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.

When the LPM movement was just getting started, the Association of Corporate Counsel and the ABA published an account of a meeting “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.” After the meeting, the authors of a follow-up report (published in ACC Docket, May 2011) emphasized that future 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 helping lawyers to do it.

Nevertheless, at about the same time, many firms started implementing LPM by launching large-scale education programs. Lawyers love precedent, so when Dechert announced in 2010 that it had trained all 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 had proved that firms were committed to LPM, but precious little in the way of behavior change. As the chair of one AmLaw 200 firm that invested heavily in LPM training put it in our Client Value survey several years later (p. 193):

Every shareholder and top level associate [in our firm] has had a full day of project management training. I’d like to tell you that they use it, but they don’t.

Training programs enabled firms to “check the LPM box,” write RFP responses explaining about what they’ve done in LPM, and put out press releases. What they did not do was get many lawyers to change the way they practice law.

It is not exactly news that education does not necessarily lead to behavior change. Taking a course or reading a book about how to lead a healthier life by quitting smoking, eating more vegetables, and exercising regularly does not mean that you will actually do any of these things. Changing behavior requires a different approach.

March 02, 2016

Tip of the month:  Manage team members to stay within scope

Ensure that every member of your team is familiar with how project scope is defined in the engagement letter or in a written matter objective.  Use memos and emails to regularly remind team members of what work is within scope, and what isn’t.  When there is a legitimate reason to do work that is beyond scope, make sure team members check with you first.

The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip like this to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. For more about this tip, see our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.