Legal Business

Legal project management: Fundamental shift or flavor of the month?

Last month, the Canadian magazine Lexpert ran an article about legal project management that began by describing two partners at Stewart McKelvey who participated in our Certified Legal Project ManagerTM program

The article went on to discuss other project management initiatives at such firms as McCarthy Tetrault, Ogilvy Renault (now part of the Norton Rose Group) and Osler and said that legal project management has "the potential to cause a fundamental shift of the tectonic plates of the traditional law firm business model."

However, perhaps in the interests of journalistic balance, the article also interviewed skeptics.  Keith Mitchell, chair of Farris, Vaughan, Wills & Murphy, was quoted as saying that:

project management is just another 'flavour of the month' idea being pushed on law firms by consultants" and that "prudent clients have always done this on large matters.  It's just this week it's suddenly being called project management.

I would certainly agree that clients and their law firms have always used some elements of project management informally.  However, I would strongly disagree with the implication that there is little room for improvement, or that the movement is just a fleeting fad.

This is not a change being pushed by consultants or law firms; it is one that is being demanded by clients. The Association of Corporate Counsel, which describes itself as "the world's largest community of in-house counsel, with more than 26,000 members in over 75 countries," has been instrumental in promoting legal project management, and even offers a course entitled Project Management for the In-House Law Department.

The legal project management movement aims to improve legal procedures by adapting tactics that have been refined over several decades by professionals in engineering, manufacturing, information technology and other professions. 

I first became aware of its importance several years ago, when I interviewed AmLaw 100 chairmen and senior partners for the LegalBizDev Survey of Alternative Fees.  As the chairman of an 800 lawyer firm put it: 

In the world of construction, architects engineers and contractors have been working on a fixed price basis for a long time.  There is a body of learning about how to estimate, contract, define scope, manage changes, allocate risk, and how to manage fee disputes, delays and changes in scope that could be adapted to the legal profession.

That adaptation is precisely what lawyers do in our Certified Legal Project ManagerTM program.  They review the body of learning from other fields by completing selected readings from seven key project management textbooks (including my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide), and answering questions about how to adapt these principles to the legal profession. 

The precise way they apply the principles, and the value they derive, depends on each person's practice. When I wrote about the results from the first lawyers to complete this program, I highlighted the work of Fraser MacFadyen, one of the Stewart McKelvey lawyers who was also mentioned in the Lexpert article.  Fraser has developed a number of templates to improve practice-wide procedures for handling certain types of secured financings, including budget spreadsheets, working agendas and more.  His certification program has been completed, but he is continuing to work on sustainable tactics to use these templates to maximize benefits to clients, and to implement them throughout the firm. 

I have also written about the results for other lawyers, but not for Daniela Bassan, the lawyer whose interview started the Lexpert article.  The reason for that information gap, in both my blog post and in the Lexpert article, is that Daniela's certification has not yet been completed, and we are both reluctant to say too much before it is.  I can tell you that Daniela is working on an internal training program for Stewart McKelvey lawyers on how to apply project management principles to e-discovery.  But if you want more details than that, you will just have to keep reading this blog until she completes certification.

Does this program produce value?  As you can see from the quotes on our web page, the participants certainly think so.  As Stacy Ballin, the Litigation Group Business Partner at Squire Sanders put it:

These days, clients want to make sure their firms deliver quality management of cases that drives a better value for them, and firms want to improve the bottom line.  This program will help lawyers accomplish both.

Some lawyers are sure to remain skeptical.  That's what lawyers do.

In the Lexpert article, Mr. Mitchell was also quoted as saying:  "Certified project managers may look very good on marketing brochures, but our clients haven't been asking us about accreditations, they've been asking us for value."

I would certainly agree with the first part of this statement.  Certification DOES "look very good on marketing brochures."

However, since I started the program, the biggest surprise to me is the fact that nearly half of the lawyers who have signed up for certification insist on remaining anonymous.  They believe the program will help them personally deliver greater value, but want to do this in their own quiet way.  The client is always right, so we will never mention their names in print or in conversation. 

But I must go on the record as disagreeing with this philosophy of anonymity.  Clients care about improving project management, and some are starting to specifically ask about it in their RFPs.  It is always a good business practice to find out what clients want, give it to them, and make sure everybody knows that you are giving it to them.  Publicizing certification is one way of doing that.

Mind you, certification is not the only way to produce more value.  For most lawyers, it's not even the best way.  The program requires a substantial time commitment, and is designed for lawyers who want to take a leadership role on these important issues, help change policy inside their firms, define new processes, and train others. 

We also offer a number of other training and coaching programs that are designed to produce immediate and practical results for time-pressed lawyers, including several types of "just-in-time training," and an Introduction to Legal Project Management course.  In our opinion, those less demanding programs are more than enough to meet the needs of most lawyers. 

If I were a client hiring a large law firm to advise on a multi-million dollar matter, I would not care HOW they had learned to be efficient and provide maximum value.  But I would be extremely interested in knowing that they were open to the idea that project management is a "fundamental shift," as described in the Lexpert article, and that they did not dismiss it out of hand as just another "flavor of the month."

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