Legal Project Management and Generational Shift

In a recent post (LPM and the Kiss Principle) I expressed the view that the more complicated an LPM solution is, the less likely it is to be adopted by lawyers. For most legal work, the basic project management skills that a lawyer needs are to be able to prepare and present a credible Project Execution Plan, execute it and report against it.

Given that clients are demanding this type of transparency and accountability, and given the marketing advantage that firms who adopt these principles before their peers can achieve, why has there generally been a slow uptake of LPM, both in Australia and overseas?

The answer to this question turns on the fact that LPM is not just about project management; it is just as much about change management. A change in the way a firm does business at a meta-level requires a significant change in culture. This change then feeds down into daily work practices.

Generally lawyers do not spend much time on process issues; they are trained to drive towards a result without sitting back to ruminate on the mechanics of the process along the way. Add to this that law firms are conservative organisations, like corporate concrete, and it can be seen that making changes to the way any firm works is extremely difficult. A few firms have adopted a “crash or crash through” approach, where LPM reforms are mandated firm-wide. This can result in tantrums, tears, and partners leaving, but if a firm has the resolve to make this happen, then good luck to them. For the majority of firms who do not want a world of grief, it is very much about “baby steps”, or what Bob Hawke would call “the inevitability of gradualness”.

The classic pyramid structure of large law firms usually means that the people who are most resistant to change are the power-brokers who control the purse strings. Implementing LPM requires some radical changes to entrenched work practices, which can be traumatic for those who have been charging for their time on an hourly basis for many years.

My experience with firms has been that those who are the most enthusiastic about embracing LPM principles are usually under 40 years of age. These people are the potential “champions” who can drive an LPM program from a pilot program to firm-wide adoption. An LPM roll-out, like any major change management program, might be a five year exercise to move from awareness to understanding, then to acceptance, then commitment.

To be able to embark on this course, the champions will have to convince those at the top of the pyramid that it is a journey worth taking. To expect individuals in the twilight of their careers to agree to retool, acquire new skills (project management), and lose a chunk of their earnings on the cost of training and software, is a very hard sell. An understandable response is that the next generation can implement LPM.

My advice to younger practitioners facing this dilemma is to quote to management the words of ice hockey star Wayne Gretsky – “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been”.

Written by Peter Dighton

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