A few weeks ago, Three Geeks and a Law Blog ran
a post entitled "Is it 'legal' project management or just project management?,"
which included very interesting comments by a who's who of thought leaders in
the field, including Pam Woldow, Tim Corcoran,
Steven Levy, Toby
Brown and Eric Elfman. I missed my chance to comment in the
initial exchange because I was on the road and it was one of those weeks, but I
think this is an important discussion and I plan to weigh in now.
The issue had initially been raised
by Jeff Brandt in his own blog. In his comments on the Three Geeks post Brandt argued that you don't "make a legal call on
your legal telephone" or "check your legal email on your legal mobile device...
[and] there is absolutely no such thing as 'legal project management.'"
Since I recently published a book
entitled the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, you
will not be surprised to hear that I disagree.
When consultants start working with
lawyers, many assume that the differences in the legal profession will be
slight. Project managers who have been working inside law firms for years
typically have a different view. Legal project management poses many
special challenges, including deadlines and court calendars that are outside a
lawyer's control and opposing counsel whose scorched earth tactics may
purposely create roadblocks to efficiency. As skeptical litigators like
to say, engineering project management techniques may be very effective when
you are building a bridge, but engineers don't have somebody else trying to
tear it down.
These are important differences, but
in my opinion the most critical difference in legal project management comes
from the fundamental fact that project managers must learn how to work
effectively with lawyers.
A few years ago, David Maister
published a classic article entitled "Are
Law Firms Manageable?" in the American Lawyer. Maister's
article opened with these words: "After spending 25 years saying that all
professions are similar and can learn from each other, I'm now ready to make a
concession: Law firms are different." He went on to describe four major
differences at length: "problems with trust; difficulties with ideology, values,
and principles; professional detachment; and unusual approaches to decision
Near the end of the article, Maister
If lawyers deal with each other so
poorly, why do they do so well financially? My answer is only partly humorous:
The greatest advantage lawyers have is that they compete only with other
lawyers. If everyone else does things equally poorly, and clients and recruits
find little variation between firms, even the most egregious behavior will not
lead to a competitive disadvantage.
When the article was published five
years ago, large firms were experiencing their best years in history, and few
saw a reason to change. But that was before clients began expecting more
from their law firms (notably in the ACC
Value Challenge) and before a declining economy and declining corporate
legal budgets made the law firm environment much more competitive.
In the last few years, the drive for
efficiency has led to a sudden demand for legal project management training. In
the Law Firm Leaders survey conducted last September, 55%
of AmLaw 200 firms reported that they offered project management training to
partners. This is an amazing statistic, considering that the data was
collected only six months after AmericanLawyer.com published its first article on project management, and five months
after Dechert announced the
first major project management training program at an AmLaw 200
Based on my personal observations,
most of the 55% who say they are training partners have started with modest
educational programs, but getting lawyers to actually change their behavior has
barely begun. I've written a series of posts in this blog about the
difficulty of overcoming lawyers' resistance to change, and about the
importance of short-term wins.
The differences between legal
project management and other types of project management have many implications.
Perhaps the biggest is that training lawyers in project management poses special challenges.
In the most common type of
traditional training, an instructor stands in the front of a room, conveys
information, and conducts a few breakout groups for participants to discuss key
concepts. This educational approach may lead to behavior change in some professions,
but it does not seem to be working in law firms. Senior lawyers are not
employees who must follow rules set by the CEO, they are partners and co-owners
of the business, with strong opinions of their own. They also have a long
history of financial success based on habits that have everything to do with
delivering the highest quality legal services, and little to do with
The central problem in implementing
legal project management is behavior change. 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 last month (May 2011, page 130)
summarizing this meeting, Susan
Hackett and her co-authors argued that progress in this field will not
be based on improved understanding or increased knowledge. Instead, "The
challenge is change/behavior management."
In legal project management,
figuring out what lawyers should change is easy. The hard part is getting
them to do it.
Note: Portions of this
material originally appeared in a post I wrote for the private members section
of the Project Management
Institute web page.
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