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December 26, 2018

LPM success at Baker McKenzie (Part 1 of 2)

By Tim Batdorf and Jim Hassett


Baker McKenzie is one of the largest law firms in the world, with 78 offices in 46 countries.  This interview with Kevin O’Sullivan, Baker McKenzie’s Head of Legal Project Management in London, was conducted by LegalBizDev CEO Tim Batdorf. 

LegalBizDev:  Could you briefly summarize the approach Baker McKenzie has taken to legal project management (LPM)?

O’Sullivan:  Our approach is evolving all the time.  We have global coverage, with members of our LPM team who are able to cover all of our offices.  Much of our work has evolved from our experiences in the London office, where I work and where we have hired a team of project managers to work directly with our lawyers in client-facing roles. Our success has been underpinned by our ability to be flexible in our deployment.  Tasks range from process improvement, to coaching our legal colleagues, providing “light touch” support to matters to a fully integrated role leading the process within a core matter team.

LegalBizDev:  What results have you seen to date?

O’Sullivan:  We have been able to measure dramatic impacts of LPM on improving the client experience, on efficiency, and on profitability.  The precise figures are proprietary, but I can describe the process and results in a general way.

LegalBizDev:  Great.  Let’s start with an example.

O’Sullivan:   One example of LPM success that has now become almost business-as-usual has been that project managers are now involved from day one in many M&A transactions.  The project manager focuses first on the due diligence aspects of each matter, ensuring that firstly the data is being controlled, whether we’re on the buy or the sell side.  Then we track progress on the matter to help ensure that work is being delegated down to the right level.  The project manager also monitors issues raised in client reviews.  Increasingly, we share through collaborative working platforms the emerging risks and issues identified through the due diligence process. These are highlighted through dashboards giving the client visibility in real time rather than at the end of the due diligence when a lot more documents have been reviewed and a lot more money has been spent.

In essence, the project managers control the process to enable useful information flow through, not just for the internal team, but often for client teams. 

LegalBizDev:  Is LPM used in a variety of practice groups?

O’Sullivan:  Yes, it is.  For example, in litigation a project manager’s impact could be as dramatic as saying ‘OK, we’re going to do a large document review.  Let’s consider using an AI (artificial intelligence) tool to do the first pass on this.  Then let’s engage the team in looking at results of the first pass from the AI tool.’  We’ve used this sort of AI preview on some very large projects and that’s quite a significant disruption to what would be a typical process. 

Many of the changes introduced by project managers are less dramatic, such as when information is being gathered for weekly progress reports to a client.  Traditionally, the approach might be that the lead person has a quick meeting or a call with each knowledgeable person within the team covering different regions.  Then they would pull something together.  Without this proactive approach, this could turn into a significant time-consuming task to get to the point that they were able to report back to the client. 

If a project manager is involved, they may disrupt that process and provide an alternative way of working.  The project manager could work with the client to agree on a template for the information that needs to be reported regularly, then put a process in place to gather and report the key information in a client-facing report.  The project manager would do some of the chasing which is required to make sure that people are aware of deadlines.  The task of actually updating the information, to indicate where they are against their designated task, would fall to the legal teams including lawyers and/or paralegals. 

So, the project manager plays a key role in creating and managing a centralized list of tasks, progress achieved each week, and any issues that may need to be resolved.  At that point you’ve got seamless sharing of task lists, progress, and risks.

LegalBizDev:  It sounds like one key LPM benefit is increased transparency.

O’Sullivan:  Exactly. The result is that at different stages of the matter, clients don’t have the feeling that lawyers are working on something and that they won’t know much until they’re finished.  There’s much more of a collaborative sense, that we’re one team, working on behalf of one another.

LegalBizDev:  How much influence do project managers have over budgets and costs?

O’Sullivan:  Of course, budgeting is key.  Typically, the project manager is involved from the start in creating a budget so there’s a mutual understanding of how much the matter is expected to cost, along with a resourcing plan to meet that budget.  So, once you’ve created that type of plan, you got something to track against.  You’ve got an aspirational plan and you’ve got the actual experience.  If you run one up against the other, you can see where they’re not aligned.  If you do that on a regular basis, rather than on a reactive basis, then you start to see trends.  At times, you might say, ‘OK, we need to address this in a different way.’  That may mean a conversation with the client to discuss the methodology or on issues with different pieces of work.  This may lead to some decisions to go to a different approach and avoid any surprises to the client.

LegalBizDev:  One obvious concern some firms have about hiring project managers is the potential expense.  Are these individuals billable or are they an overhead cost? 

O’Sullivan:  It depends.  Given that our legal project managers are performing key client-facing roles and providing added value to our clients, they are often fee earners whose time is charged to clients, although at a lower hourly rate than lawyers. We are positioning them to be the leaders on processes, controls, and communication, and many clients are willing to pay because they recognize them as crucial participants who can control the total cost of the matter.

That said, of course our teams are sensitive to client concerns about cost.  In cases where clients object, or we determine that management tasks do not have visible value to our clients (for example in standard financial reporting) time is recorded as non-billable, though the benefit to the matter is usually still significant.

LegalBizDev:  Do project managers talk directly to the client?

O’Sullivan:  Yes, we increasingly see clients who want a direct communication link so there can be instant communication on the financials or any process risks.  And the reason that works is because often on the client side there’s also a project manager so there’s a natural peer-to-peer conversation. In other cases, that isn’t the best arrangement for the client.  Then the project managers would provide the information to the partner or senior associate who leads the team. 


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