This post was written by Rob Thomas, vice president of marketing for the Corporate segment of Thomson Reuters

On the first day of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) Annual Meeting, one of the better attended early sessions was Exposing Legal Project Management Myths: The Truth Behind What Works and What Doesn’t. Some of the key insights from this session included:

  • A majority of the in-house counsel in the audience said that they spend a significant amount of their time (15-30 percent) on project management.
  • Much of that time is trying to control costs, including getting work done at the right level.
  • According to the Harvard Business Review, the average cost overrun on all projects (not just legal) is 27 percent and less than one-third of projects finish on-time and within budget.
  • A central goal of project management is to model the potential project risks at the beginning, along with plans to minimize or address them.
  • The role of a project manager is not primarily to do project plans, but to communicate with stakeholders through meetings, minutes and action items, to make sure that a project stays on track.

An outside counsel speaker on the panel admitted that while lawyers tend to be very good at meeting deadlines, they often are not very good at communicating progress or challenges, or managing costs. He claimed that they are saving 20-30 percent on projects by taking an hour upfront to plan the who/what/how of legal projects.

Although most in-house counsel doesn’t ask if a law firm has trained project managers, they might be pleasantly surprised by the expertise of the firm if they would ask.

Rob Thomas, vice president of marketing for the Corporate segment of Thomson Reuters

Rob Thomas, vice president of marketing for the Corporate segment of Thomson Reuters

A lawyer from BT described how they reduced overall legal spend by 11 percent and the size of the legal team by 40 percent by analyzing the work being done and creating better ways to handle that work. For example, when they took a look at contract drafting, they found that only 3 percent of the activities were standardized, and 40 percent of the work was done in London where office space and personnel are most expensive. They found ways to outsource work that could be handled at a lower cost, and kept the higher value work in-house, which is also generally what their lawyers enjoyed doing most.

Although there was a brief discussion of the importance of measuring success by setting baselines, collecting data and analyzing what is working, few specific examples were provided.

It was also surprising that there was no discussion of the ways that systems like Serengeti can streamline the project management process for in-house/outside counsel teams by: requiring project and case plans including budgets, capturing spend data from bills and automatically comparing with budgets, and increasing regular communication by requiring regular status updates (enforced by not paying bills if not done). In addition, Serengeti has built-in workflows that match other important processes recommended by this panel, such as periodic evaluations of outside counsel and capturing lessons learned and work product for use in future projects.

Our experience is that busy in-house counsel are much more likely to apply project management principles that create predictability and savings if they have a system that connects both in-house and outside counsel in a system that makes project management happen as they work together.