Legal Project Management: Lessons Learned

The last three days, we’ve looked at the legal project management “boomlet.” First was a general overview, then a look at LPM from the in-house and law firm perspectives.

Today, a summing up.

The fact that project management is getting more attention in the delivery of corporate legal services is a good sign. Any sort of planning helps. If there are no internal resources, some form of training is needed. Most larger companies can manage projects by definition (how else did they get large?). If law firms don’t have internal experts, then they have to go outside. A certification is fine, but real-world experience over time is what makes the difference.

If some technology or application can jump-start better practices, then by all means try it. This can especially be the case for a company that has decent internal project management expertise, but has to work with law firms and other outside service providers. The right technology can provide the glue that holds things together and gives a framework to the extended project group. It doesn’t have to be purpose-built for legal, but it certainly can be and may be the right answer for a lot of law departments and their key law firms.

In short, read the book; watch the movie (or this one); take the course (or this one).

As the legal project management train roars out of the station, here’s a few lessons learned in the form of questions to ask along the way:

1. Am I really saving time and money? If LPM becomes just another “to do” on an endless list, take a step back. When alleged black-belt LPM’ers start to demand adherence to theoretical best practices, make sure you see some real benefit. If you see project bloat, or if team sizes begin to swell to the point of inefficiency, call a time-out. Remember there is really no such thing as “legal project management.” For the in-house bar, they are just projects with some business purpose.

2. Is a given implementation just masking a deeper problem? Does the project really need different lawyers, a different firm, or perhaps no lawyers at all? The New York Times on Saturday gave front-page treatment to a story entitled “Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software.” Focused on the e-discovery space, this mainstream article went into great detail about how the advanced use of technology made lawyers irrelevant to certain discovery tasks. Can law firms be counted on to do this? On larger projects, is a project manager employed by the primary law firm in an inherent conflict position?

3. Is the real issue control or culture? This is really a deeper look at #2. If some law firms can’t historically manage a certain legal project efficiently, will a dose of command and control do the trick? Or are the compensation and incentive structures at many firms the real culprits? I draw the analogy from project management to compliance programs. Many companies with copious compliance programs but a poor compliance culture still run afoul of the rules.

4. Am I too focused on the process, and not on the people? Experts in project management across many disciplines would take five great team members over 50 seat-fillers. It is the worst thing, for the project manager and the people on the team, to have a mismatch. Who among us hasn’t been in hour two of a weekly project update meeting that drones on and on, while we think of what else we could be doing? The best LPM technology can avoid some of this, but many companies and managers don’t trust it. They create the worst of all worlds: whiz-bang technology bolted on to old-world management-by-meeting.

As more legal work allegedly moves away from hourly billing to alternative fee arrangements, things should get simpler and less time-consuming. Or that was the promise.

When I have the chance, I ask general counsel what they think about law firms falling in line behind the project management crusade. Some think it’s about time. Others wonder how their key partners have been managing their legal matters for the last 20 years.

Onward and upward!

Next stop, LPM City!