It’s a trendy term among top law firms. But what really is Legal Project Management (LPM)? And do you have to be an Am Law 100 firm to do it?
The Allure of LPM
In 1928, six construction companies agreed to go into the middle of the desert, far from any infrastructure, and use unproven techniques to build a concrete monstrosity that came to be known as The Hoover Dam.
No internet. No cell phones. No computers. Before starting in on the dam, the workers had to first build a town they could live in. But the Hoover Dam was eventually completed — under budget and ahead of schedule, to boot.
Some historians point to the dam as the birth of modern project management. A crowd of construction companies, designers, funders, government agencies, and thousands of workers all had to work together to make it happen. Without high-level project management, Hoover Dam could only ever be a pipe dream.
What do your legal matters have to do with a hunk of concrete in the middle of the Mojave desert? They all require complex coordination, clear communication, and attention to processes. The same planning tools that made Hoover Dam possible can also build a solid and lasting legal firm.
The demand for Legal Project Management continues to grow. While historically this has come from client demands, more firms are now proactive in adopting LPM techniques. That’s because of these documented benefits:
- Higher profits, as firms waste less time and increase efficiency. As one attorney found, bringing in LPM “is the most meaningful, measurable way to drive profit without sacrificing high-quality customer service.”
- Better client relationships, growing out of better communication, better management of client expectations, and a reduction of surprises. In one study, attorneys using LPM recorded improved client relations on 62% of all matters.
- Increased ability to collaborate with other firms, outside attorneys, or other professionals. Like the six construction companies building Hoover Dam, when you have strong LPM in place, you can wrangle disparate parties into one powerful case-moving engine.
- Reduced liability risks. Malpractice insurers now recognized LPM as a tool that reduces misunderstandings and miscommunication, and their attendant risks.
- Implementation of fixed rates. Good LPM allows attorneys to better understand the work that will go into a matter. They can give their clients the fixed rates they crave and still remain profitable.
This type of management already has a strong foothold in the country’s largest firms. Many of those firms hire on a special project manager. Other attorneys take on the project management tasks themselves.
For large firms, it’s about keeping up with the competition. For small firms, it’s about getting ahead. Since there are still far fewer small and solo firms that are serious about LPM, attorneys in those areas can outshine the competition by adopting these techniques sooner rather than later.
Even for attorneys who work alongside an official legal project manager, it’s essential to understand the foundation of LPM. You are the one interfacing with your client. You are creating expectations and building a shared vision. That work must be done within a project management framework, or you’ll undo any good your manager achieves.
Though the specific techniques of LPM will grow and change, at its heart it remains a core set of principles. While good attorneys have long been following these principles informally, new techniques and technologies can create a structure to make your use of LPM accessible and thorough.
Here are 8 ways to introduce LPM into your own daily practice:
1. Establish a Shared Vision
The first step in LPM is getting every team member on the same page. A firm needs to understand internally what their goal is with a new matter. That same discernment process needs to happen with the client.
This includes the standard questions: how much is the client willing to pay for this matter, or what kind of settlement are they hoping to recover? How much time do they expect it to take? How often do they want to hear from you?
This is the crucial time to manage a client’s expectations, making sure they’re coming into the process without illusions. Remember that when you give clients a range of cost and time required for a matter, clients tend to optimistically adhere to the lower limit of estimates. A final result that goes over that gives them sticker shock.
You can also look for deeper answers during the on-boarding process. Your client can share desired and acceptable results — but what are the desires and needs that underlie what they’re saying? What is the more fundamental benefit or remedy your client seeks?
Good LPM requires an investment of time and energy in this initiation process. This follows the ‘measure twice, cut once’ principle. Come to an agreement about scope and expectations, and you can smoothly guide your team through the project’s completion.
As you improve your practice, make sure that your case management system is highly customizable. Currently, some firms can still profit off of a cookie-cutter, assembly-line practice. But the successful firms of the future will be highly responsive to the particularities of each client, and their case management solutions will reflect that.
2. Make a Game Plan
One key benefit of LPM is that it broadens your focus. It’s no longer just about results, but also the processes that produce them.
Once you have a shared vision, you can begin drawing the blueprint for your project. For many legal matters, this includes a number of standard phases. Inside some of those phases, you can set out a series of taskflows for team members. Case management software can dramatically simplify this process through automating and customizing taskflows.
In your plan, don’t forget to include goals to measure the matter’s success along the way. Also establish checkpoints to return and reevaluate needs and expectations with the client.
As you focus on your process, evaluate your workflow. Where are your constraints and bottlenecks? Who on your team is really moving matters along?
3. Budget Your Resources
Sophisticated clients demand budgets. They also are more likely to demand fixed-rate billing, which puts an even greater budgeting pressure on attorneys (whatever they fail to account for they’ll have to eat).
But whether they know to ask for them or not, all clients deserve an attorney who budgets. Even if you’re operating on contingency fees, you should have a clear idea of the appropriate number of hours to put into your work. Then you can diagnose practices that put you under or over your budget.
Having a built-in yield calculator also helps you and your client keep track of growing expenses and different settlement possibilities.
4. Clarify Responsibilities
Who is ultimately accountable for each project? Who is accountable for each step of that project?
Without clear accountability, tasks slip through the cracks and projects are derailed. But LPM techniques force you to be intentional about each person’s responsibility and the consequences for failure. This is the backbone of group collaboration.
Make sure your case management system allows you to document and track these responsibilities easily and accurately.
5. Cultivate Collaboration
Your team has finally reached a shared vision. You’ve determined everyone’s scope of responsibility. But the real teamwork is only just beginning.
LPM includes a number of techniques to radically improve your team’s collaborative abilities. The first step is to analyze your team and determine if their abilities adequately match the needs of the project. Do you need to loop in someone else? Or are there already too many cooks in the kitchen?
Another overlooked aspect of collaboration is the need to mentor and train. You want to give your team members new opportunities to grow and develop. This will make them more useful collaborators in the future. But that requires time and attention.
One benefit to modern attorneys is there are now many new tools that can help. The cloud has revolutionized collaboration. Cloud-based case management and document storage allow teams to cohere across any geographical distance.
Having smart tasklists, case notes, and edit-in-place capabilities not only keep you on track. They also allow you to communicate with each other without interrupting workflows.
6. Supervise Consistently
Don’t leave evaluation for the post-mortem. Monitor your progress throughout the lifetime of the matter. By regularly checking in, you’ll catch problems and bottlenecks early on. You can also ensure against ‘scope creep’ by returning to your shared vision and plan.
Using reports and data analysis, you can also come to understand if a team has sufficient time and resources budgeted for their tasks, and if you have the right people in the right roles.
Another part of regular monitoring is steady communication with clients. They are also members of the team, after all, with their own set of responsibilities and tasks. Regular check-ins with your client also mean you can learn early when their needs or plans have changed.
Consider incorporating a tool that allows your clients to text directly into their case files. This can ease the communication process, allowing clients to communicate in their preferred method, while allowing you to keep your personal phone number private.
7. Stay Flexible
All of this management talk can come to sound heavy-handed (or even micromanagerial). But LPM can look to other forms of project management to find ways to remain lean and flexible.
When software companies took up project management in the 80s, some started to feel too regimented. In a landscape subject to rapid change, they quickly saw they needed to create their own style. The result was ‘agile project management.’
Of course, attorneys don’t have the same wild freedom of these maverick hackers. But they can adapt some of their insights to enhance their own agility.
One principle of agile project management is prioritizing your relationship with the client — even if that means changing plans late in the game. Flexible firms interact early and often with their clients, and see success as a satisfied person, not a specific abstract or financial outcome.
Software companies also invented the project management tool of the ‘scrum.’ In this framework, team members perform their work in daily sprints, and check in with each other to keep a short feedback loop. Attorneys facing unpredictable challenges may wish to steal some of this flexible, adaptive strategy.
Most importantly, most attorneys should keep an adaptive rather than a predictive plan. Too often attorneys fail to adequately plan because they know they can’t control the outcome. They shrug off planning in the face of high uncertainty. But an adaptive plan accounts for that uncertainty, and keeps your team on their feet.
8. Close and Evaluate
When a matter ends, LPM demands a thorough evaluation. In addition to a hard look at financial results, evaluate your progress in other ways. How did this matter contribute to your firm’s broader objectives? Did team members learn something new? How does that client feel about you? What changes might you want to try next time?
Make sure you make this a double evaluation: look at results from the perspective of your firm and from the perspective of your client.
Conclusion: LPM For All
Legal project management will never be a one-size-fits-all affair. Just as the process encourages you to understand the particular needs of each client, firms must customize what LPM offers to fit their own practices.
But whatever happens, it’s clear LPM has come of age. Any firm can incorporate some aspect of the field, even when they can’t afford to hire on dedicated specialists. That’s in part because new technologies are equalizing access to LPM tools across the board.
Modern software moves beyond mere case management. It has become an active ally in bringing legal project management to firms of any size and any practice area.