An introduction to legal project management (Part 2 of 3)

An introduction to legal project management (Part 2 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.

Problems like the ones described last week could be reduced or eliminated by focusing on the eight key issues in legal project management described in my book, The Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide:

  1. Set objectives and define scope - In order to complete a legal matter efficiently, you must know exactly what is included, and what is not. 
  2. Identify and schedule activities - After scope is clearly defined, the next step  is to break down a complex matter into smaller tasks and to schedule them.
  3. Assign tasks and manage the team - To maximize efficiency, the right people must be assigned to the right tasks, and performance must be monitored.
  4. Plan and manage the budget - Estimating and controlling costs are a challenge in every profession, and this is the most critical area for many lawyers.
  5. Assess risks to the budget and schedule - What can you do at the beginning of a matter to increase the chances that work will be completed on time, within budget?  
  6. Manage quality - Traditionally, lawyers have been very successful in delivering high quality legal work.  However, when schedules change and budgets get reduced, delivering quality requires more attention.  And lawyers must be careful to avoid delivering higher quality than the client wants or has budgeted for.
  7. Manage client communication and expectations - Along with budgets, communication is the area that matters most to clients, and it is an area where many lawyers have room to improve. 
  8. Negotiate change orders - No matter how well lawyers manage legal matters, sometimes things change.  The issue here is deciding exactly when and how to negotiate with clients.

It all starts with clearly defining the scope of the work at the outset - what is included in the budget and what is not.  Planning and managing the budget is important as the project proceeds, as is negotiating a change of scope when issues first become apparent, rather than waiting until the end of a matter and just sending a bill.

However, legal project management requires fundamental changes in the ways lawyers do business.  Change is difficult for anyone, and it is especially challenging for lawyers who have developed strong habits over several decades.  As Richard Susskind noted in his widely quoted book The End of Lawyers?, "It is not easy to convince a group of millionaires...that their business model is wrong." [1]  But the environment is changing and lawyers must adapt.

Firms are now experimenting with a variety of techniques to introduce project management.  The key word in that sentence is "experimenting."  Lawyers would prefer to act based on solid precedents, models that have been proven their worth over decades.  But legal project management is a brand new field, and those who wait decades to apply it do so at their own risk.

When lawyers begin considering what to do, they often start the discussion with the approaches that have been most widely publicized, such as Seyfarth Shaw's use of Six Sigma and Lean.  According to Seyfarth's web page: "With more than 100 projects executed [we have] applied SeyfarthLean in every practice throughout the firm to deliver quality and efficiency that also delivered client cost savings ranging from 15-50%."  

While the results have been impressive, Lean is not the best place for most firms to start because it is such an expensive way to go.  According to an April 2010 American Lawyer article, "Seyfarth has spent over $3 million to date administering and training workers...and budgets $200,000 - $500,000 annually for such costs." [2]  Similarly, Eversheds has been widely recognized for the success it has achieved through massive project management training programs and software systems.  But they have spent even more: over £10 million, according to Eversheds' web page.

This series will conclude next week.

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[1] Susskind, Richard, The End of Lawyers?, (Oxford University Press, 2009), 280.

[2] Levine, D.M., "Leap of Faith." American Lawyer, 1 April 2010