This series of posts is a slightly
extended version of an article that appeared in the July 2011 issue of Managing Partner magazine.
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
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
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.
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