As law firms continue to wrestle with the need to improve matter efficiency, drive profitability, and deliver a better overall client experience, legal project management is top of the agenda.

In our first article of this three part series on legal project management, I’m going to give a very brief overview to the rise of legal project management. This will help set the scene for our following articles on how you can implement good legal project management principles within your own firm.

History of Legal Project Management

At a more general level, project management has been around in its current guise at least since the mid-1950s in a wide variety of industries and professions. In 1969, the Project Management Institute was established, with its prime objectives to increase greater communication and share best practices in the field. Indeed, project management as a discipline is used as standard by other professional services organizations such as consultants, accountants, and architects but only more recently explicitly adopted within law firms. Even in the legal world, it could also be seen as not that unusual, with Bruce McEwen (a noted legal commentator and president of Adam Smith, Esq.) observing that “every time you run a matter for your firm you are engaging in project management.” After all, lawyers do plan matters, they do (hopefully) delegate appropriate responsibilities, and they seek to deliver their matters to the appropriate level of quality, don’t they?

Why Legal Project Management?

A number of key drivers also sit behind the increased visibility and need for legal project management, and which may be grouped into three overall themes:

  • those that are client centric, with increasing level of client demand for effective matter management and expectations around cost and efficiency (including the adoption of non-hourly methods of billing, such as fixed or contingent fees)
  • those which are market driven, given the increasing competition for legal work and more cost effective approaches to not only managing the matter but the means by which a law firm delivers the matter
  • those which are internal to law firms themselves, with law firms looking for initiatives that will help drive – or at least sustain – acceptable levels of profitability given the reduced ability to have significant annual rate increases

These themes have been around for a decade or more, but each is even more important when viewed in today’s current environment.

The benefits of Legal Project Management

But how does legal project management (LPM) actually help?  Well, the beauty of LPM is that when done well this benefits both the law firm and the client. When participants of early LPM surveys were questioned as to which benefits their firm had realized from their LPM efforts at that time (around 2013), nearly two-thirds identified having a “more productive relationship with clients” as being the main benefit realized.  Repeating the survey today, and the same still holds true (followed by greater predictability of cost).

However, LPM has a much wider range of potential benefits, as outlined in the table below.

Client BenefitsLaw Firm Benefits
Greater predictability of cost, both by phase and for the total matterGreater client satisfaction
Enhanced communication and better management of expectations (the concept of “no surprises”)Improved profitability (and realization), through minimizing write-downs/write-offs
Better predictability of (and improvement to) the eventual outcome (especially true for litigation-related matters)Better risk management
Work delivered “on time, and on budget”Differentiation from competitors (although, arguably, this is now beginning to decline as more firms begin their own LPM efforts)
Greater efficiencies (for example, the reduced need for “reinventing the wheel” on client matters)Better consistency across the firm’s offices and practice areas
Better quality and greater consistency of work productBetter teamwork/effectiveness among matter team members
Better morale/improved retention (due to the associated investment in training and personal development)
Protection of business with current clients
Delivers better know-how, precedents, and training

In an effort to remain competitive, to be able to meet client requests, and fundamentally seek to reconnect the cost and value of legal services, LPM clearly has a critical role to play for today’s law firm.

Now is the right time to take out the mystery and put back the pragmatism as to what LPM is. What do I mean by this? Although LPM brings into play more formal processes, tools, techniques, and technologies, at its most fundamental level, it is about managing your matter well. Others have defined this as a process to help you define, plan, execute, and evaluate the matter that you are working on, strongly underpinned with effective communication and the setting and meeting of client expectations.

To me, it is about focusing on client outcomes, client value, and client business objectives, whilst also enabling you to protect your firm’s profitability. It is about doing what you as a lawyer or as a member of your firm’s professional staff already do but more deliberately and proactively, using existing management approaches and doing so using the language of business. Perhaps more simplistically, it is doing what’s right for the matter in the most effective manner.

6 Key Elements of a LPM

So what are the key themes or elements of LPM we should consider? I would suggest the following six:

  1. Having a more upfront discussion of your client’s objectives and the expectations at the outset of the matter
  2. Having a more detailed definition of scope to be addressed (and how to address any subsequent changes or variations in matter scope)
  3. Encouraging better and ongoing communication with the key stakeholders (or influencers) within your client’s team (within your own team)
  4. Being more structured in how you budget your matters
  5. Having better and ongoing management of the matter throughout (including progress of budget cost to the actual cost for key phases or sections of the work)
  6. Capturing feedback on the matter at its conclusion to identify potential lessons learned and improvement opportunities (a theme often forgotten by law firms when implementing LPM)

We will explore each of these in a bit more detail in the two remaining articles in this series.

For law firms that have already embraced LPM (and there are now many who have), having both an organizational awareness and adoption of good LPM principles may act as a market differentiator in the immediate term and stand them in good stead for the times ahead. However, LPM is now rightly becoming viewed more as a “hygiene factor” by clients when seeking to select their external law firms and is now something which may dictate whether a law firm becomes appointed or not.

Now is not, therefore, the time to rein back on any LPM efforts, or be complacent if you have had an initiative in place for a number of years, but to move full steam ahead.

And with this in mind, our next article in this short series looks at how you can get started with your LPM initiative or revitalize your existing one.

Read our case study on how Positive Pricing helped this global law firm, based in the US, to develop & successfully implement its Legal Project Management strategy.

Some of the themes within this article have previously appeared in the author’s book ’Smarter Pricing, Smarter Profit’, published by the American Bar Association in 2014 and 2019.  Where appropriate, any attributions to third party sources and materials have been in the original source materials.

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