No matter who you entrust with legal project management (LPM) in your firm, one fact remains: you work with lawyers. There really is no need to repeat the herding cat metaphor here. You already understand what you are facing. Lawyers are not going to do textbook project management. For one thing, it’s far too complex a process for most lawyers to contemplate. The eyes will glaze over, the jaws will harden, there may even be grinding of the teeth. “We don’t need that project management stuff,” they’ll proclaim.
And you know what? They’re right.
Lawyers, however, need a better way to do the job. But this is not project management in the strict sense. It’s not just a matter of semantics. If you want to succeed legal project management effort, the differences are key to understanding how the effort will be best positioned and supported.
Here’s where they differ:
LPM applies project management techniques to the handling of legal matters. It provides structure insofar as structure can be provided. An IT, engineering or manufacturing project is fundamentally different. Engineering, for example, whether you’re designing a mousetrap or a mass transit system, is a relatively linear process that involves collaborative efforts. The goal of project management is to reduce variation. This works quite well in many industries where the process is linear and fixed, as are many of the costs.
The law is different. This does not mean that each case is tailor-made. It’s not. But there may be an opposing attorney who is paid to destroy whatever your team seeks to prove, and paid by the hour to do so. Even for transactional work, you can’t ignore that there are people on the other side of the table looking for an edge. In IT, there’s no big team on the other side trying to undo what the IT team is trying to do.
Lawyers are different. We have discussed lawyer personalities endlessly. But many lawyers are not naturally collaborative and they are skeptical by training and nature. So getting them to do the things that make traditional project management work well is a big push. In most law firms, the compensation structure emphasizes these Lone Ranger traits. Garden variety project management doesn’t work, at least not in the way it’s envisioned.
Moreover, law firms are hierarchical structures led by partners. Nothing works in law firms unless the partners are committed. If partners feel threatened or challenged, or even just plain uninterested, LPM falls flat. It is much easier to effect change within the company if the change is aligned with the values and beliefs inherent in the associates. Conversely, the ownership structure of most companies is different. Project Managers are accountable to the highly sanctioned Project Management Office to follow the prescribed methodology. Project managers in other fields tell people what to do in ways that would be obnoxious in law firms, especially with partners.
On the other hand, legal project managers have responsibilities but generally do not have enough authority. They must navigate a structure that is distinctly different from traditional project managers. They can develop the plan, communicate the plan, and hold everyone accountable.
Management of legal projects for law firms
That doesn’t mean LPM based on project management principles isn’t viable in a law firm, though. Law firms should, however, be realistic and take the necessary steps to ensure that LPM is welcome. LPM should be designed for law firms – and individual law firm cultures – and placed in the context of legal work. It’s the only way for lawyers to accept it. Additionally, there are several ways to ensure the success of an LPM initiative:
- Start with the company framework. Educate everyone involved in LPM on the company’s underlying business model. The math is easy for most lawyers. But they need to understand how the business makes and loses money and the importance of predictability for customers.
- Support legal project managers. When legal project managers are not strong partners, they lack the legitimate authority to move the project forward effectively. This means the firm may need to put systems in place to ensure legal project managers build trust, influence and referral power. This could include, for example, advocacy by business leaders and additional training.
- Provide training just in time and just enough. Lawyers don’t need a week of intensive training, thousands of hours of project management experience, and extra weeks of study to complete a PMP certification course. Training should be easily accessible, perhaps even online, and require minimal time. The documents must be relevant to the practice of law.
- Emphasize that uncomfortable budget discussions can be a thing of the past. Business scoping is critically important and should bring immediate relief to partners, allowing them to budget with greater accuracy and providing a tool to manage work with fewer surprises.
- Prove the business case with solid savings. Legal project management does not require software, an extensive support structure or, as mentioned, a lot of training. You can launch a pilot immediately and start realizing cost savings that will increase demand for LPM across the enterprise.
Legal project management is different. Although it presents challenges, it has distinct advantages over traditional project management. If you hire your lawyers, the benefits in terms of profitability are substantial. All it takes is a little effort and a pilot group to get started. LPM is your best opportunity to ensure lawyers are doing the work they love, bringing even greater client value and increasing profits overall.