How legal project management can help in-house and private practice lawyers: the law firm perspective
By Antony Smith, Legal Project Management Limited, and Sarah Barrett-Vane, Legal Operations Consultant.
This article looks at how legal project management works in practice and outlines some of the skills and techniques deployed by legal project managers when working for law firms.
Some in-house legal departments now employ legal project managers as part of their legal operations teams and insist their external legal advisors also appoint legal project managers. Yet many lawyers, in both law firms and inhouse, are still unclear about what legal project management looks like in practice and are unsure about the skills and techniques deployed by legal project managers.
Defining legal project management
Legal project management is still a relatively new discipline and consequently there is no universally accepted definition of it. In 2009, Steven Levy wrote the first book on legal project management and defined legal project management as “the application of the concepts of project management to the control and management of legal cases or matters.” Levy’s definition was expanded on by Jim Hassett in Legal Project Management, Pricing and Alternative Fee Arrangements – what law firms are doing (2013):
“Legal project management adapts proven management techniques to the legal profession to help lawyers achieve their business goals, including increasing client value and protecting profitability.”
This wider definition recognises that lawyers, both in-house and in private practice, have (or should have) wider business goals that go beyond the management of current matters. The Solicitor’s Regulation Authority (SRA) Competence Statement for Solicitors lists several project management competencies expected of solicitors. Section D of the statement says that solicitors are expected to:
“Initiate, plan, prioritise and manage work activities and projects to ensure that they are completed efficiently, on time and to an appropriate standard, both in relation to their own work and work that they lead or supervise, including:
- Clarifying instructions so as to agree the scope and objectives of the work
- Taking into account the availability of resources in initiating work activities
- Meeting timescales, resource requirements and budgets
- Monitoring, and keeping other people informed of, progress
- Dealing effectively with unforeseen circumstances
- Paying appropriate attention to detail.”
This task-based approach has parallels in the world of professional project management. Bodies such as the Association for Project Management, the Project Management Institute and the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM) list competencies expected of project managers generally and, in the case of the IILPM, legal project managers specifically. So far as the IILPM is concerned, the competencies are mapped directly against tasks that legal service professionals fulfil during their daily work. The high-level, task-based approach used by the SRA is a good starting point for anyone acting as a legal project manager, whether they are a practising solicitor or not.
Who is best placed to act as legal project manager?
Legal project managers come from a variety of backgrounds, including:
- Former practising solicitors and barristers.
- Cost lawyers.
- Professional support lawyers.
- Business development professionals.
- Professional project managers who have transitioned into law.
There is an ongoing debate about whether project managers require some domain knowledge (in this case an understanding about how legal services are delivered) or if true generalists, who can bring wider experience to bear, are preferable. In our view, legal project managers who focus solely on the operational management of legal matters will be more effective if they have quite deep domain knowledge. However, project management generalists will be better suited to help drive change in legal service organisations as this type of role requires wider commercial, rather than domain-specific, experience.
Legal project management in practice
Looking at legal project management from a law firm perspective, we will assume a mid-size law firm has just appointed its first legal project manager – Clive. For the purposes of this illustration, we will assume that Clive does not have any previous domain (legal industry) experience as this will help us focus on the way project management principles and techniques can be applied to legal matters. Clive’s first case as a legal project manager is to help manage a complex civil litigation matter.
As he is the first legal project manager to be appointed by his firm, Clive appreciates he needs to spend significant time educating his new colleagues about project management and his understanding of the role that a legal project manager performs. Working alongside a legal project manager will be a new experience for the litigation team and therefore Clive decides to steer clear of any technical project management jargon. He also decides to take a light-touch approach to project methodology and supporting project documentation during his first few matters. Clive expects to be able to introduce more formal methods and processes once his new colleagues have become used to working with him. However, for now, he is content to focus on some core fundamentals of good project management, such as:
- Scoping the project properly.
- Scheduling the project realistically.
- Estimating project cost with confidence in its accuracy.
- Managing the cost, schedule and (changing) scope in a “light touch” way.
- Monitoring the quality of output.
Ensuring project progress is communicated to all stakeholders clearly, concisely and regularly.
Scoping the work
The first thing Clive does when he is asked to scope a project is to break it down into smaller components as it is easier to scope and estimate smaller components of a project than trying to scope and estimate the entire project. He will do this by liaising closely with the lead lawyers working on the matter in his firm. They will themselves be liaising with the client to ensure that they understand the client’s requirements and have shared expectations about what “success” in this matter looks like.
For project managers, this process will lead to the creation of a list of activities called a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). Each activity listed is a discrete task that one or more members of the project team can perform. The activities are further divided into sub-activities and so the WBS is often represented as an indented list of grouped activities. Once tasks have been categorised according to the WBS, the amount of time, effort and cost required to complete the overall task can be estimated with increased confidence. Clive likes to create a WBS table that lists tasks along the left column and then further columns are added to the right. These further columns will contain cells that Clive populates with information such as:
- Task duration.
- Task owners.
- Estimated cost for each task.
It is important to note that Clive will not provide the estimates concerning task cost and duration; these estimates will come from the legal team doing the work. However, Clive will call a meeting (which he will facilitate) to discuss realistic estimates and ask questions about the relevance and accuracy of the estimates provided.
Scheduling the work
When most people think of project management, they think of Gantt charts: tasks plotted against timelines, which provide a graphic representation of the project schedule. A Gantt chart enables tasks to be linked, milestones highlighted and work progress tracked. After looking at a first high-level draft Gantt chart that Clive has produced, the litigation team notice that they do not have as much time or resources as they had anticipated. This generated constructive discussion about how some activities may be expedited, and even whether certain aspects of the scope could be reduced, given the time and resources available. Again, discussions will be ongoing between the lead lawyers at the firm and the client during this phase. The lawyers will be acutely aware that clients don’t like nasty surprises.
Project costs are made up of two elements: labour costs and materials. Clive soon realises that what the lawyers refer to as disbursements” (payments made to third parties to progress matters) equate to “materials’. He is delighted to find that at the outset the legal team has a pretty good idea about the cost of the potential disbursements (and any expenses) and that they keep a precise record of all disbursements paid and expenses incurred during a matter. This will really help him when monitoring cost of “materials”.
However, he was somewhat disappointed to find that not one member of the legal team understood how much their true labour costs were. Everyone kept referring to their chargeable hourly rates but Clive realised that the chargeable hour includes an element of profit as well. Nevertheless, he has decided to use the hourly rates as a proxy for labour costs. Clive is pleased to see that lawyers are good at recording their working time and the type of work being done. This will help him with his project monitoring and control.
Estimated cost at completion
After scoping the matter, and setting it against a reasonably accurate timeline, Clive can provide an initial estimated Budget at Completion (BAC) for the matter. This figure was arrived at by adding together all the cost estimates for each work package identified in the project so far.
Monitoring cost, schedule and scope
Throughout the life of the matter, Clive will monitor the amount of work that has been completed and the cost of doing the work. Each week he will check with the team how both elements are progressing and then compare the weekly snapshot with the original project plan. If there is any difference in either the amount of work completed or the accrued costs to date when compared to the plan, Clive will take steps to bring the project back under control. These steps may include re-assigning some legal work to fee earners with a lower charge out rate or, in exceptional circumstances, outsourcing the work to third party contractors.
By this stage Clive is becoming more proactive and taking decisions to keep the project flowing and ensuring the right people are doing the right work at the right time. Although the litigation team did not initially welcome this approach, as they have begun to see the benefits of applying legal project management techniques and the value Clive was bringing to the team, they have gradually allowed him greater operational control over their working practices.
Monitoring output quality
As part of his project plan, Clive introduced a regular series of internal quality audits, which in practice are no more than informal internal team reviews. The review sessions do not last long (30 minutes at the most each month) and the emphasis is on identifying areas of best practice, rather than finding fault with individuals’ output.
Clive sends all key stakeholders (the project team, the client and third parties, such as counsel) a project status report every two weeks. The status report summarises progress to date concerning tasks completed, costs incurred and the results of any quality reviews. The report also lists any operational issues and risks that stakeholders need to be aware of. The snapshot report is just one A4 page long and contains some graphics illustrating the progress of work and costs incurred when compared against the original project plan.
Antony Smith is the founder of Legal Project Management Limited, which provides project management training and consultancy services to law firms. He is a solicitor by training with post-graduate level qualifications in law, computing and project management. Antony is a Fellow of the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM) and is also a member of the Association for Project Management (APM) and the Project Management Institute (PMI).
Sarah Barrett-Vane is a freelance/interim Legal Operations Consultant. A former practising lawyer, Sarah has 15 years’ experience in legal procurement and legal operations, her most recent position being Director of Legal Operations at Royal Mail plc 2012-17. Sarah is an IILPM certified Legal Project Practitioner. She provides consultancy services for in-house legal teams, including legal operations, legal procurement/panel reviews and legal technology implementation and process improvements at SBV Consulting.
How Legal Project Management can help In-House and Private Practice Lawyers: the Law Firm Perspective.