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Practice Innovations - Managing in a changing legal environment
Gray Rule
January 2012 | VOLUME 13, NUMBER 1
Gray Rule
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Pamela H. Wioldow, Douglas B. Richardson
Legal Project Management Enters Adolescence
Legal project management (LPM) is growing up   and growing out. ....

Welcome to the New Normal
Why is LPM hot and continuing to get hotter? Client pressure continues to escalate and law firms that want to retain client loyalty, build business, and remain profitable have to make some tall promises to their clients: leaner budgets, more efficiency, more predictability, better communication, greater value achieved.

Merely promising is not enough. Firms have to deliver on those promises, a difficult challenge for many firms that have never measured the costs of providing service and therefore lack internal metrics on which to build budgets and plan profitability. So the time is ripe for improving the management and control of all kinds of legal projects and engagements. As LPM expands and evolves, it is not just for the big kids. It promises to become the norm for how law is practiced throughout the legal profession.

An LPM Primer
Fortunately, lawyers have largely overcome the misperception that LPM is the mindless application of software-driven decisions and methods, a set of lockstep, follow-the-dots marching orders that ignores lawyers' legal experience and judgment. On the contrary, LPM should be thought of as a logical, flexible framework for integrating better planning, management, and communication into the myriad ways lawyers employ their knowledge and experience and work with their clients. LPM is not one-size-fits-all; above all, it is both scalable and adaptable. Depending on its application or context, it can be elegantly simple or extraordinarily complex.

Regardless of where and how applied, however, LPM includes five cascading steps:

  1. Collaborating with the client to set project Objectives and Scope
  2. Building the Project Plan, which includes identifying phases and tasks, naming the project team and stakeholders, building the project budget, creating a communications plan, and analyzing risks
  3. Executing the Plan as a framework for legal work
  4. Monitoring progress
  5. Post Project Review with both the project team and client.

Yes, But Can We Make It Work?
The concepts may seem elementary, but making LPM work – really work – is no easy task. The first adopter firms that undertook LPM implementation soon realized that the task would involve three very distinct phases:

  • Introduction, building buzz and rollout
  • Initial implementation, which includes lawyer training, developing work process breakdowns for all legal tasks, and developing support tools, templates, and software
  • Long-term institutionalization and continuous improvement

Those firms furthest along in LPM implementation now find themselves somewhere between steps 2 and 3, that is, in a third wave of LPM activity. They are working to translate their initial efforts, successes, and pratfalls into mature, firm-wide LPM platforms.

"The good news is that we have strong lawyer buy-in at all levels," says Colleen Nihill, who holds the newly created position of director of legal project management at Dechert. "Since our LPM rollout, our culture has shifted from understanding LPM principles to active use by an increasing number of our lawyers. We are building out our infrastructure now to permit greater access to LPM-related information by our lawyers and practice groups."

Pioneering LPM Efforts
Early law firm LPM pioneers quickly learned that industrial project- and process-management techniques translated poorly into managing legal work. So they went back to square one to focus their LPM methods more on how lawyers actually practice in diverse disciplines. This has involved either home-growing their own LPM approaches and tools or seeking consulting support for LPM planning and rollout.

Meanwhile, Back at the Recession
The Great Recession drove dramatic cost squeezes that triggered a powerful wave of large-firm efforts to adopt LPM. In highly publicized initiatives, a few first-adopter firms embarked on ambitious broad-scale, full-immersion training programs for large numbers of same-level lawyers. This approach was often carried out in an intensive flurry of introductory partner-level workshops that often combined participants from different practice areas. These introductory "horizontal" workshops emphasized LPM's business development value and were designed to introduce LPM principles more than teach hands-on project management skills.

In addition to revealing considerable resistance to LPM, particularly among senior lawyers comfortable with the status quo, these early horizontal initiatives demonstrated how hard it would be to overcome organizational inertia – decades of entrenched structures, processes, and procedures woven deeply into the fabric of firm operation, management, and culture. For large firms, in particular, the challenge of getting everyone on board and then rapidly turning the ocean liner unquestionably looms large. Some skeptics still express doubt about whether law firm LPM programs can ever be installed and institutionalized fully and effectively.

While some practice groups and client teams immediately recognized LPM's potential value to their clients, others claimed it was neither relevant nor useful for their practice and their clients. This variability has made for testy debates in some firms about whether the gains – in business development, client relations, efficiency and profitability – are worth the time and expense long-term LPM institutionalization requires.

The Vertical Approach
As LPM has become steadily better understood and accepted, full-immersion programs have become less common. Even in firms that started with horizontal LPM rollout, there now is a call to "dive deeper" and for "more granularity." Today, there is less interest in broad theory and general awareness programs and more call for hands-on practice with case studies, tools, and techniques that relate directly to real-life experience.

To address this changing priority, as well as to limit the costs and complexity of large-scale initiatives, many second-wave "first followers" are turning away from broad-scale training initiatives, opting instead for a series of vertical pilot workshops attended by all members of particular practice groups or client teams. The pilot project approach allows a firm to ramp up its LPM efforts gradually, to build buzz and buy-in incrementally, to better manage budget burn, and to reality test the firm's willingness and ability to undertake major long-term change.

It was a pleasant surprise when vertical practice group-oriented pilot workshops demonstrated greater utility and buy-in than full-immersion programs. Training worked better still when it was targeted to specific client teams. Client team workshops are designed now to include performers at all levels, operating in their real-life roles, relationships and responsibilities.

Broadening the Team
We also have been urging law firms to include client representatives in LPM training workshops. In our experience, workshops with the client in the room are real game-changers: Client priorities and viewpoints are heard firsthand by all players, project scoping is highly interactive, and the process of law firm-client collaboration to identify and anticipate potential problems commences early on, before they can ripen into scope creep or crises requiring costly damage control. Sheri Palomaki, director of practice management at Sutherland, reports that, "We moved to include clients in our pilot programs as an experiment. The benefits so exceeded our expectations that the firm will be adding new client programs every quarter. Clearly, this is the way to go."

Strategy and Infrastructure Challenges
However well they work to teach hands-on skills and provide near-term utility, vertical training programs do present the firm with long-term strategic and infrastructure challenges. Large firms can have scores of practice groups and client teams, thus creating the need for a lot of workshops before full firm-wide institutionalization is achieved. Even smaller firms must consider how to maintain LPM momentum while phasing it in over months or years.

Strategic LPM implementation planning therefore must focus on how to achieve the most effective staging of LPM introduction and training. As LPM enters adolescence, we have been encouraging firms of all sizes to change from, "Everyone must learn LPM" to an approach where access to LPM training is offered only to those who demonstrate that they really want and need it. This approach minimizes resistance by limiting training to enthusiastic participants. People who refuse to get on board will learn that by opting out they are only damaging their own prospects.

"This approach is working well for us," says Lisa Gianakos, director of knowledge management at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. "We invite everyone, but we don't require anyone to attend; they can self-select. We find that the people who do attend support the program afterward. The result is that we now have a strong cadre of champions who back LPM and put our best foot forward."

It Takes a Village
Strategic LPM planning also must deal with the question of who will "own" LPM within the firm. While pilot initiatives may be budgeted out of special accounts and driven by ad hoc committees, in the long term firms must consider what form of LPM infrastructure will work best, where to assign LPM costs, and to whom to assign responsibility for LPM management and continuing development.

Several large firms with substantial LPM budgets have created dedicated LPM departments and/or created an LPM czar (usually a non-lawyer) charged with integrating the demands of practicing lawyers with the invaluable contributions of professional development, IT, practice management, marketing, financial management/analysis, and knowledge management staff. (See Toby Brown's article, The Role of the Alternative Fee Manager, in the October 2011 issue of Practice Innovations.)

Other firms have worked to create their own unique LPM brand, emphasizing how LPM creates a common platform and vocabulary for lawyers in all disciplines. Nixon Peabody's website, for example, describes how NPPM (Nixon Peabody Project Management) unifies its lawyers' service delivery: "Our NPPM-trained attorneys operate from a 'one firm' physical and virtual platform for sharing with each other and with our clients best practices in legal project management."

The Trickle-Down Effect
As LPM trickles down to middle-of-the-pack followers, midsize and smaller firms face the challenge of developing their own cost-effective set of LPM best practices. This may be hard where budgets are tight. In many midsize firms we still see primary LPM responsibilities being added to the responsibilities either of the HR function, professional development experts, the finance department or, increasingly rarely, to the IT staff. Imposing double duty, however, risks nonlawyer staff burnout and uneven quality of LPM implementation.

Midsize and smaller firms cannot simply ignore LPM; more and more of their clients are demanding it or at least the benefits well-managed legal work provides. And many of their competitors are proclaiming their commitment to LPM. Accordingly, in the next several years we can expect to see a cottage industry spring up to help middle-market firms ramp up streamlined LPM efforts that produce at least some increase in efficiency and predictability, while maintaining profitability, of course.

Crossing the Pond
The LPM trend is by no means confined to the United States. All around the world, both global and national firms are coming quickly up to speed, and many of their LPM programs now rival those of the most advanced US firms. Eversheds in the UK, for example, now is recognized as a thought leader committed to implementing LPM best practices firm-wide, and Mallesons Stephen Jaques, a premier firm in Australia and Asia, is well along in its LPM implementation. "I believe we qualify as the region's LPM first adopters," says Michelle Mahoney, Mallesons' director of applied legal technology. "We have observed LPM development in other markets closely, and we are now well along in all aspects of LPM implementation here: training, technology and support resources. We are taking a holistic approach that both trains those who will be at the heart of legal service delivery and includes our clients in LPM implementation."

What About Tools?
Technical support for LPM is an area that has seen terrific progress in the last two years. Although LPM must not be fundamentally IT-driven, its successful implementation does depend on tools, templates, and dashboards that aggregate, organize, and permit open access to all relevant forms of project information: project scope, team selection, phases and tasks, metrics, and communication.

Initial efforts at developing software support for LPM often were delegated to internal or external IT experts. This produced some remarkably sophisticated prototypes that lawyers found too complex to learn and use easily. Current templates, budgeting templates, and project dashboards, whether homegrown or offered by external vendors, have improved enormously. They are user-friendly, they integrate current information from all planning/budgeting stages, they provide open communications access to all stakeholders, and they can be tied seamlessly into a firm's existing systems.

Clearly the challenge in coming years will be to align the enormous capabilities of emerging information management technologies with the decidedly more limited IT capabilities of lawyers. Watch for greater user-friendliness and for the availability of real-time dashboards accessible 24/7 by all team members, whether in the firm or at client locations.

Watch, too, for tighter links between the post-project review stage of LPM and knowledge management, now commonly nicknamed "KM." KM is becoming an increasingly crucial discipline in which law firms and legal departments decide what they need to know, map what they already know, integrate continuous learning, and make all of it accessible and useful to all who need it.

"Post-project review is a crucial part of LPM," Lisa Gianakos says, "but it isn't just a stand-alone report card. It is a vitally important information entry point, but that information isn't automatically self-propagating. KM is the firm's vehicle for pulling together, storing, and retrieving all the information derived from the practical experience of the firm's performers. KM is where firms can make huge strides in enhancing their abilities to tap their accumulated wisdom."

What the Future Holds
It is ironic that, despite all the remarkable developments LPM is going through as it careens into adolescence, before long it will cease to be remarkable. It will become an accepted part of the legal landscape, a kind of operational wallpaper. In as soon as 18 months, LPM will stabilize, settle on best practices, and become lean, elegant, user-friendly, and transparent. Already, LPM courses are being added to many law school curricula, a solid signal of what the future holds. At this point, first-adopters will be history, first-followers will have caught up with best practices, and middle-of-the-pack followers will have adapted and scaled LPM to their clients and their work.

Unfortunately, some firms' LPM initiatives have lost momentum, strayed down ineffective paths or succumbed to resistance or firm politics. In some cases this is because they tried to do too much too fast. "You shouldn't try to build a perfect system off the bat," says Ben Barnett, head of Dechert's products liability practice and an instrumental player in LPM implementation at the firm. "You can't do everything and anticipate everything at the outset. Don't bite off more than the firm – and its lawyers – can chew. Build a program that works now, recognizing that you probably will be changing and redesigning almost everything as your LPM function matures."

Overall, however, the jury is in: When pursued persistently and provided adequate PTM resources (people, time, and money), LPM can be brought successfully online in all its dimensions: buy-in, implementation, infrastructure, tools and support software, methods, metrics, continuous improvement and demonstrable added value.

Those firms whose LPM efforts are moving through adolescence to maturity report that, although initial implementation was noisy and painful, their efforts are clearly gaining momentum, internally and with clients. LPM has become accepted as part of who they are and how they operate. As pioneers, their experience will make it easier for others to follow – to move from introduction to initial implementation to long-term institutionalization.

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