Legal Project Management – Are You Up For It?

When I am discussing a proposed LPM program with a law firm, my first question is, “Are you up for this?” LPM is not just about project management, it is a form of change management, and it brings with it all the grief, friction and expense that change management usually involves. Law firms are conservative organisations, like corporate concrete, and therefore making major changes to the way any firm works on a day-to-day basis is extremely difficult.

There are two main ways for a firm to implement an LPM program:

  • The “crash or crash through” approach, where LPM is mandated across the firm in a totalitarian way. This requires people who have practised law in a certain way for years to change overnight, acquire new skills, and give greater emphasis to process. It also requires a firm to make a massive commitment to training and systems, and given that the people who have to the most voting power in respect of these changes are the same people who are likely to be the most resistant to change, it is a path that not many firms take. Those who do proceed this way often experience enormous ructions, including long-term partners leaving.
  • A creeping or nuanced approach, which is often described as “baby steps” or as Bob Hawke might describe it, the “inevitability of gradualness.” What is required is a change of culture, which may take 3-5 years to move from awareness, to understanding, then to acceptance, then commitment. This approach needs “champions” who can drive an LPM program from a pilot program to firm-wide adoption. Along the way they are going to have to hang tough to win over the resisters and the neutrals. For a pilot programme the salami may be cut different ways – it may initially apply to certain types of work, or more generally to work above a certain value. 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 partners in the twilight of their careers to agree to retool, acquire new skills (project management), and lose a chunk of their earnings due to the cost of training and software, is a very hard sell. An understandable response is that the next generation can implement LPM.

A third approach, used less often, is voluntary usage of discrete internal project management capability, the theory being that the lawyers will be so impressed that they will want to engage the PM team more.

If any LPM rollout is likely to involve considerable grief, why do it at all? The answer is because the market wants it and, in time, will demand it. Clients want certainty and transparency – the aim of LPM is to introduce basic project management principles to deliver that. 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 professional service organisations in other disciplines operate.

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 investigate every minor issue, and charge for the time, without any opportunity for the client to undertake a cost/benefit analysis.

Sooner or later, all firms will have to embrace and adopt LPM principles. For most firms it will be later, probably when there is a changing of the generational guard. But the early adopters will gain a considerable marketing advantage, and it may be a good way for mid-size firms to capture work from larger entrenched rivals. Preparing a detailed Project Execution Plan is also an excellent way to win tenders, by being able to show mastery of the subject matter, and, finally, preparation of a PEP is an excellent way of training junior lawyers.

There is a lot of scope to use LPM as a sword, not just as a shield. Wayne Gretzsky said, “Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.” Lawyers love precedents, and therefore looking backwards, so it is difficult for many to heed this advice.

Peter Dighton is the principal of Law Strategies Pty Ltd., which is a legal and commercial project management consultancy with over 30 years’ experience on international resources projects ( Law Strategies also provides Legal Project Management training to law firms.

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