Legal project management comes full circle
by Nathan Bowie, Thomson Reuters Engage
The first version of Microsoft ProjectTM for WindowsTM was released in 1990. Between then and now, many law firm CIOs have variously cajoled, begged and even threatened attorneys to apply even the meanest vestiges of project management tools and methodologies to their practices. Until very recently, these attempts have met with unmitigated failure, especially when it came to adopting new software and business processes.
The reason for this failure is essentially that lawyers want to practice law – period – full stop – end of discussion. Where the CIO could see the value of applying project management principles and processes, attorneys could only see interference with, and interruption of their practices. Besides, as long as clients were willing to pay the going rate, why bother to mess with the status quo?
In my mind, this has always been somewhat of a puzzle. Why? Well, as I see it, the best and most prolific rainmakers – that is, the ones that bring in sizeable, repeat business year after year – already possess and utilize the skills and qualities of excellent project managers.
To restate: consistently successful and profitable lawyers instinctively use the basics of sound project management.
To understand what I am talking about, let’s look at the definition of Legal Project Management as offered by Susan Raridon Lambreth of the LawVision Group (http://lawvisiongroup.com/Susan_Raridon_Lambreth.html). According to Ms. Lambreth, Legal Project Management is:
- A process for defining, planning, executing and evaluating matters/projects
- A more proactive, disciplined approach to the management of legal matters which includes application of specific knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to achieve project objectives
- Underlying principle: effective communication and setting and meeting of expectations
If we distill Ms. Lambreth’s definition to its basic elements, we come up with the essentials of, Define, Plan, Execute and Evaluate with an emphasis on Communication. Not coincidentally, these attributes are reflected by Phillip Austin, Chief Sales Officer of Nixon Peabody, who defines Legal Project Management similarly in four steps: Define, Plan, Execute/Monitor, and Debrief http://www.nixonpeabody.com/project_management.asp.
The challenge for firms today is that somebody has most definitely been messing with the status quo, and that somebody is personified in the financial crisis of 2008, and the subsequent economic turmoil we continue to suffer. Clients are definitely NOT willing to “pay the going rate,” at least not without a full understanding of everything that is involved and a realistic expectation of the value they will receive. Matter budgets are expected up front, and be they based on hourly billing, fixed or alternative fee arrangements, law firms are being held accountable for meeting expectations and sticking to those budgets. And, while some attorneys do this instinctively, it is of utmost importance to take these concepts, and to create tools and processes that can be applied somewhat uniformly across all of a firm’s practices.
What this all boils down to is that in order to win work, lawyers are increasingly put in the position of having to define the parameters of a particular matter, plan them out in increasingly minute detail, and create accurate budgets. Once the work is sold, lawyers have to execute according to the plan, achieve desired results within the budget, and communicate status regularly to the client as the matter progresses.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, I’d point out that key words in the preceding paragraph are define, plan, execute and communicate. In other words, good lawyering equals good legal project management.
It’s no wonder then that today we are seeing attorneys coming to the CIO with requests for tools and training in project management that is specific to the unique needs of the attorney and the law firm. At last, project management for the legal profession has come full circle.