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Legal Business

An introduction to legal project management (Part 3 of 3)


This series of posts is a slightly extended version of an article that appeared in the July 2011 issue of Managing Partner magazineTo download a PDF of the published version of my article, click here.

Firms that are looking for more affordable solutions sometimes start by focusing on the role of non-lawyer project managers. Many law firms already have project managers in-house in IT and other departments and their roles are expanding to include planning legal work.  Others are hiring new project managers specifically for that purpose.  We predict that some of these experiments will succeed and others will fail, depending on the culture of each firm and how well each project manager can learn to function within complex power structures.  Some law firms will waste a lot of money on having project managers devise plans that influential partners will ignore.

Many of the non-lawyer project managers who now work for law firms have been certified by the Project Management Institute.  A more recent trend involves going around law firm politics by certifying the lawyers themselves on legal project management.  Last December, my company introduced the first knowledge-based certification program in legal project management. Lawyers work with a coach for up to six months, studying leading textbooks and discussing how to best apply the principles to their own practice.  Hildebrandt offers a certificate of attendance to lawyers who participate in a two-day workshop.  Other certification programs of both types are sure to follow, designed to create a core group of lawyers who become experts in managing projects.

A few firms are training all of their lawyers in project management principles.  This approach got a big boost in April 2010 when Dechert announced that it had just completed training all its partners.

Professionals in the training business often talk about the importance of distinguishing between two types of goals: education and behavior change.  Of course, almost every training program aims at both.  But clients get the greatest return on their training investment when they think carefully about the tradeoffs between the two and about which is more important to their firm.

Educating is relatively easy, but changing behavior is very hard.  It is also the central problem in legal project management.  The Association of Corporate Counsel and the ABA recently conducted 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."  In an ACC Docket article summarizing the event, the authors noted that 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 getting lawyers to do it.

One approach to changing behavior for a low cost includes "just-in-time training," an approach that enables lawyers to save time by finding exactly the information they need, just when they need it, and then following up with them to insure it is applied to their work with immediate and practical effect.  Camden R. Webb, a partner at Williams Mullen who participated in one such program conducted by my company, described the action-oriented philosophy this way:

Don't hold a series of committee meetings for a year and then do a top-down analysis.  Just do something.  This will spread project management, because when lawyers succeed, others in the firm will imitate their success.

Which of these many approaches is best?  There is no one right answer. The best solution for a given firm or practice group will depend on its culture and needs.  Large firms may find that they need several different types of solutions for different practice groups or offices.  Some may be paralyzed by the risk of doing the wrong thing.  But there is so much room for improvement that many different approaches will have positive effects.  And the greater risk is to do nothing, while competitors take away your clients. 

This uncertainty makes it easy for some partners to be skeptical about the value of legal project management.  They believe, and indeed hope, that project management is just another fad that will fade away over time.  But when Altman Weil surveyed managing partners and chairpersons in its 2010 Law Firms in Transition Survey, 77% said that the emphasis on increasing efficiency through legal project management is a permanent change in the way lawyers must do business.  (Note:  After this article want to press, the 2011 Law Firm in Transitions Survey came out and reported that 94% now believe there is a permanent change to "Focus on improved practice efficiency.")

As the CFO of a 1,000-lawyer firm in our LegalBizDev Alternative Fees Survey explained:

A large number of lawyers do not know how to manage.  [In the past], the more hours that got charged, the more money [they] made, and so they've never really had to manage...If we teach our people to manage, we can make more money.

 Read more on the Legal Business Development blog

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