Law Practice Today | February 2013 | Technology/ABA TECHSHOW
February 2013 | Technology/ABA TECHSHOW 2013
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The Role of Technology in Supporting Legal Project Management

By Ann Morrell and Linda Novosel

Few in the legal industry would deny that major changes in the marketplace have required law firms to re-think the pricing and delivery of legal services to remain competitive.  Many would argue that the downturn in the economy turned the tables in the favor of buyers, and began placing unprecedented pressure on outside counsel to be more efficient, predictable and cost-effective.  Clients are demanding more “value” from law firms, causing many firms to respond with fee proposals that deviate from the traditional hourly rate model, sometimes to the detriment of the law firm. Corporate procurement departments still are scrutinizing their legal spend like never before, resulting in more work being performed by in-house attorneys, and more pressure on outside law firms to deliver services on the clients’ terms.  As clients have utilized Legal Project Management (LPM) to improve efficiency in their own legal departments, they are expecting the same of their outside counsel.  Consequently, many firms, large and small, have turned to LPM to help their lawyers manage matters as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.  Implementation, however, is challenging; it requires a seismic cultural shift that some say is reminiscent of the introduction of computers in law firms.

So what is LPM?  Legal Project Management is the planning, organizing and managing of resources to achieve the client’s goals and objectives during a finite period of time.  LPM is nothing more than the application of traditional project management principles to a legal matter.  Like traditional project management, LPM has four phases:

  • Defining – collaborating with the client on their desired legal outcomes;
  • Planning – identifying deliverables, milestones, resources and developing a work plan and budget;
  • Executing – performing the legal work, monitoring and reporting to the client regarding performance against budget, and continually communicating with team and client; and
  • Closing – documenting lessons learned with client and team.

Doing a good job for the client is no longer sufficient.  Lawyers and law firms must also work as efficiently as possible.  Rather than simply charging ahead and reacting to events that could have been controlled through careful planning, LPM requires a more proactive approach that sets out best case and worst case scenarios, and ultimately avoids surprises for the client.

Prerequisite for Implementation: Changing Mindsets
Despite what many lawyers believe, the implementation of LPM is not simply about the use of a software program that will magically generate work plans, budgets and financial reports.  Those who start with the selection of a project management tool will fail.  In fact, the most important step to establishing an effective LPM program is to focus on changing how a lawyer approaches a matter.  While traditionally lawyers began work as soon as the requisite conflicts search was complete and engagement letter signed, LPM requires up-front collaboration with the client, clearly defining the client’s goals and expectations, and proactively planning each and every stage of the matter.  Sometimes the “defining” and “planning” phases are done during the proposal process; other times, they are initiated concurrently with the execution of the work.  The “execution” phase is distinct from the traditional handling of legal matters in that careful monitoring is required to ensure that the lawyer is delivering services on time and under budget, continually communicating with the client at every stage to keep the client apprised of progress and changes in scope that may impact timing and budget.  These behaviors do not come naturally for many lawyers because their focus has been on performing the work.   LPM requires so much more than the traditional focus, however - it requires a partnership with the client to ensure that the client’s objectives are always at the forefront of the lawyer’s mind.

The Use of Technology to Support Legal Project Management
Changing lawyer behavior is the key to successful implementation of LPM, but technology can and should play a prominent role in the implementation as well.  At each phase of the LPM life cycle, technology is essential to maximize efficiency.  Two kinds of technology are necessary to support LPM: “LPM infrastructure” to plan, budget, track and report; and “workflow” technology to streamline processes in the everyday handling of matters. 

Firms have approached the need for LPM infrastructure in several ways.  Depending on the size and culture of the firm, and the stage of its LPM implementation, each approach can be equally effective, yet each presents inherent challenges.  Some firms have purchased an off-the-shelf application that houses canned work plan templates for different types of matters.  The obvious benefit of this type of application is the templates; the less obvious one is that most integrate with law firm accounting systems to simplify the monitoring and reporting process.  Other firms have developed proprietary LPM infrastructure designed around the culture and work flow processes of the firm that allows teams to routinely communicate amongst themselves and to share information in a way that was not previously done.  The development and deployment of such a sophisticated tool can take months, if not years, and at significant investment of resources and cost.   Those firms still new to LPM are using tools as basic as Microsoft Excel, building work plans and budget templates in spreadsheets, and re-purposing and modifying them to address the specific needs of a case.  As the LPM program grows, however, this can be an unwieldy approach.

While there is no one-size fits all solution for LPM infrastructure, some type of infrastructure is necessary.  Even before the introduction of LPM, lawyers frequently provided fee estimates to clients.  For many lawyers, it is a relatively painless exercise to outline the various phases of an engagement, and identify tasks associated with each.  Developing a budget that accurately estimates the hours and fees for each timekeeper to complete a task, however, is not so simple.  What has differentiated those firms that have mastered LPM is the regular reporting to clients on its performance against matter budgets.  Without technology, this can be a tedious and inefficient process.  Anyone who has spent hours analyzing a 50-page invoice to categorize time entries to monitor performance against a budget will attest to the need for a systematic way to track performance against budget. 

One method to assist with the development and monitoring of budgets is the use of phase and/or task codes.  Although abhorred by many lawyers, done correctly, coding empowers lawyers with data that can be used as a starting point for the development of budgets in the future, and makes the reporting process easier and significantly faster.  In addition, a natural byproduct of the use of codes is the ability to craft profitable alternative fee agreements by phase, by task or by matter that are built on objective data instead of a finger-in-the-wind methodology.

Given the drivers of LPM, it follows that workflow technology is also crucial to maximize efficiency at all phases of a matter.  To identify the types of workflow technology needed to improve efficiency, technology professionals must understand the workflow of each and every task performed by lawyers and non-lawyers alike.  Workflow technology can range from document management systems used in most firms, to tools that are still quite new to law firms, such as document automation for the creation of routinely used documents, knowledge management systems for the easy retrieval and re-purposing of work product, and predictive coding for the targeted identification of potentially relevant documents to be reviewed. 

Like all change, implementing LPM presents challenges for law firms.  Some firms have been successful in taking an across-the-board approach to training its lawyers, developing processes and adopting technology to support LPM.  Others have focused on rolling out LPM in smaller groups, such as a practice group, or for a particular client.  How quickly and broadly a firm approaches implementation really depends on the culture of the firm.  The implementation issues discussed here have focused on people, process and technology as the backbone of LPM.  But without changing how lawyers approach a legal matter at the outset, any new processes or technology will not be sufficient to support a major cultural shift such as that required by LPM.

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About the Author

Ann Morrell (202.508.8983) is director of project management and process improvement for Crowell & Moring LLP.

Linda Novosel (202.496.7191) is practice group director for McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP.

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