Legal Project Management and the KISS Principle

How sophisticated do a lawyer’s project management skills need to be? In my opinion, the answer for most practitioners is – not very.

William of Ockham’s principle (Ockham’s razor) may be summarised as stating that the more complicated an explanation is, the more likely it is to be false. Adapting this to Legal Project Management, my contention is that, the more complicated an LPM solution is, the less likely it is to be adopted by lawyers. Most lawyers only need basic, fit-for-purpose tools to execute the work they do day-to-day.

The goal of LPM is to introduce basic project management principles into legal work to enable lawyers to meet the demands of clients for certainty and transparency. In particular, clients want to understand what work will be done, when, by whom, and what it will cost. Once a work plan has been agreed, the law firm can execute the plan, report against it to the client, and identify variations; this is how other professional service organisations operate.

The ultimate aim is to avoid surprises, because clients hate surprises. Corporate clients have endured many years of budget over-runs arising from untrammelled time costing. Part of the problem is that, in pursuit of perfection, lawyers often pursue every minor issue, and charge for the time, without any opportunity for the client to undertake a cost/benefit analysis.  

Returning to the initial question, the current generation of partners and associates were not taught basic project management skills at law school. However, project management is largely based on common sense and good communication. Therefore, it is likely that any practitioner who has to co-ordinate the work of subordinates will already possess a modicum of project management skills that they have learned on the job.

To go to the next level requires being able to prepare and present a credible Project Execution Plan, execute it, and report against it. A detailed plan is likely to be required when a client requires a fixed price for a fixed scope, or tenders out a job. Preparing such a plan requires basic planning skills to define the scope with a degree of precision, including identifying resources, assumptions, risks and contingencies.

Having the skills to be able to prepare a basic work plan will, in my opinion, suffice for 99% of files most lawyers will ever open. It is reasonably rare for a project or litigation to be so complicated that it requires the efficient co-ordination of a large team. To give an example of a task which I think is unduly onerous, a non-lawyer LPM trainer may instruct lawyers that they should prepare some form of responsibility assignment matrix for their files, such as a RACI chart (setting out who is responsible, accountable, consulted and informed for deliverables). Do we seriously think lawyers are going to sit down and prepare a chart like this on every file, or that clients will pay for the effort? In the small number of cases where this is desirable or necessary, the solution may be to appoint a non-lawyer to act as project manager; that person can provide the type of sophisticated project management that the file deserves.

When training lawyers in LPM principles, my view is that if the tools and techniques are too complicated, they will not be used. Sometimes less is more.

Peter Dighton. 2017.

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