This series of posts is a slightly
extended version of an article that appeared in the July 2011 issue of Managing
Partner magazine. To download a PDF of the published version of my article,
In one sense, any lawyer who has ever planned a budget or managed an associate
has acted as a project manager. But a new movement is underway to improve legal
project management by
applying formal methods that have been used for decades in engineering,
construction, information technology and other businesses.
The modern discipline of project
management is such a rich and deep body of knowledge that universities offer
advanced degrees in the field. Its origins can be traced back to the Nautilus
nuclear submarine program after World War II and beyond, all the way back to
civil engineers in ancient Rome constructing a 53,000-mile network of roads,
many of which are still in use today.
In 1969, five professionals formed
an organization called the Project Management Institute (PMI) to facilitate
communication in this discipline. PMI now has more than half a million members
in 185 countries, organized into dozens of chapters and "communities of
practice." It is interesting to note that the PMI sub-group which focuses on
legal project management started less than a year ago. As a recent article in Canadian Lawyer
put it, "Project management is so new to the legal profession that everyone is
still trying to figure out what it can do and how to make it work." 
Despite this uncertainty, many law
firms are beginning to implement a variety of types of legal project management
programs. When The American Lawyer published the results of its annual "Law Firm Leaders Survey"
last December, 55% of AmLaw 200 firms reported that they offer project
management training to partners, and 34% said they offer it to associates.
Why is LPM spreading so quickly?
According a National Law Review article by Squire Sanders' partners Stacy
Ballin and Mitch Thompson:
The world has changed, and clients
need more than ever from their law firms. They want their lawyers to partner
with them to achieve their business goals and deliver value, not to merely send
them a monthly bill showing how many hours have been spent. Like every other
kind of business worldwide, law firms are becoming more cost-effective and
efficient in providing their services.
The growth of non-hourly alternative
fee arrangements (AFAs) has also played a role. When a law firm agrees to
handle a certain matter for a flat rate, it must find a way to meet legal needs
within a limited budget. The less the firm spends, the more money it will make.
But, as a senior partner at a
500-lawyer firm put it in an interview for The LegalBizDev Survey of Alternative Fees:
For alternative billing to be
successful for both the client and law firm, the partners have to re-think
their approach and try to decide the most efficient way to approach matters.
For example, instead of sending an associate off to research 50 issues that
could come up in a litigation case, you might focus strictly on the small number
of issues that are likely to be most important.
Project management skills can also
help lawyers protect the profitability of hourly work in a number of ways,
including reduced write-offs. There are many reasons write-offs occur, but poor
communication is frequently the key. Consider this scenario from a senior
partner at an 800-lawyer firm (and a participant in the LegalBizDev survey):
[The client asks] "What's it going
to cost?" and [the lawyer] says, "Oh, I can't tell you, we don't have enough
facts. But normally a deal of this size would run $120K-$150K." The client
hears, "You've promised me $120K." And then that's it. That's your fixed fee.
And you don't know that, of course, because you thought what you did was say,
"This is what it costs on average." And at the end the client would say, "Gee,
this cost $200K, how is that possible?" And you think, "Well, you know, your
CEO got fired in the middle of the deal. The deal dragged on for three years.
It turned out you got sued. Yeah, it cost $200K." 
This series continues next week.
Read more on the Legal Business
For more information about LexisNexis products and solutions connect with
us through our corporate
 Kevin Marron, "Buzzword 2010: project
management," Canadian Lawyer, April 2010.
 Stacy D. Ballin and Mitchell S. Thompson,
"Why We Decided to Become Certified Legal Project Managers," National Law
Review, 4 Feb. 2011.
Jim Hassett, The LegalBizDev Survey of
Alternative Fees, (Boston: 2009) 114.
 ibid, 30.