This series was adapted from my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which was published at the beginning of this month.
Given all the options and competing claims about LPM, what should a firm do to get started? Our answer is explained below at the end of this book: embrace experimentation and, as one of our clients put it, “just do something.” Start small, and find out what works for your firm.
Once you have grassroots support from influential internal champions, then you will be in a position to decide whether you might benefit from professional project management staff, depending on the unique needs of your practice area and your clients.
Remember that in this study’s ranking of LPM issues in Chapter 4, the two most critical were defining scope and communicating with clients. Neither can be delegated to project managers. Lawyers must first be committed to changing their approach before it makes sense to hire others to help them.
The big picture recommendations in the next section about starting “one practice group or lawyer at a time” include evidence that the development of internal champions and quick wins has proven its value in changing behavior in a wide variety of professions. So it is not surprising that a number of participants in this research cited the same approach:
I try to find an internal champion to move things forward. I worked with a partner in one department that bought into LPM and we gave a joint presentation on it. Word got out and another department asked to provide the same presentation to them. Many times once attorneys get a taste of LPM they get interested and want more. – Senior executive
We’ll have to have to have some guinea pig partners who are willing to try it and then be willing to testify as to how it has helped their numbers and their client relationships. – Senior partner
Because we’ve had some demonstrable LPM successes, enthusiasm for it is growing. – Senior executive
However, even with the support of champions, LPM is not quick or easy to implement. As one senior partner emphasized, there are no magic solutions:
Top management has to make it a priority and communicate it all the time, make it part of the culture. It will have to be ingrained in people, and it’s slow. When people use the tools and the resources, and they are successful, they will communicate their success to their partners. Others will want to use it, and LPM will work its way around. But that will take some time. We don’t know exactly how long it will take.
Some firms will find it valuable to hire professional project managers to support lawyers’ efforts, as in this quote from one chair:
We’re going to start hiring different people to manage the non-legal aspects of the practice, not the relationships. That’s what has to be done. Lawyers are notoriously bad managers. You could be a fabulous trial lawyer but not be able to get your hours in on time or bill on time. You might not be able to collect on the bill. With all these different components, it’s better to look to a project manager on accounts receivable, on AFAs, on collections, rather than the lawyer.
Another firm chair that has gone down this path has been very satisfied with the results:
I think that project management skills are absolutely critical to achieving value and managing well, which is why we have people who actually make this their life’s calling. People who are certified project managers, who are trained in it, who actually know what it means when you talk about Agile Scrum, as opposed to somebody thinking it’s a flexible rugby player. Project management is a profession, and the people in the profession need to understand how the legal business works, how lawyers think. How you would manage a project at IBM is not the same way you would manage a project in a large law firm. But when we have good project managers working as part of the client service delivery team with the clients, clients love it. They just love it. It adds so much value, it’s unbelievable.
(Agile Scrum is an approach to project management that starts from the assumption that customers often change their minds about what they want and need as a project proceeds. It therefore replaces extended upfront planning with rapid development of partial solutions which can be tried out on clients and adapted until they meet true needs. Many professionals believe that this will become an increasingly common approach to LPM as it evolves.)
There can be little doubt that the trend of using LPM professionals will continue to grow, especially in large firms. It is also safe to predict that the level of LPM sophistication needed to compete effectively will continue to increase.
In the next few years, the most interesting developments in LPM are likely to involve moving away from traditional project management models to cutting edge alternatives. For example, in one of the most widely quoted texts on LPM, Robert Wysocki talks at length about how traditional project management solutions apply only when the client’s goal is clear and the steps required for a solution are clear. In many legal matters, neither precise client goals nor complete solutions are known at the start. These complex and ambiguous situations will therefore require the more modern LPM approaches explained in Wysocki’s text, notably Agile project management that is derived from the “Agile Manifesto” signed in 2001 by 17 influential software developers and says in part:
We are uncovering better ways of developing [products] by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiations
- Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
Agile project management is an iterative trial and error process that focuses on continuous improvement and responding rapidly to situations when they change in order to minimize the total work required.
But before firms can get to that level of sophistication, they need to start with the basics. And as one chairman in our research summed it up:
Most of our clients are no better at understanding or applying legal project management than we are. But in the future, the fact that you can actually do something on time and within budget is going to become an important indicator of whether or not you really are a good lawyer.
A pdf of this entire series can be downloaded from Altman Weil Direct, where it originally appeared.