August 2011 | Managing Client Expectations
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Walz Group


Legal Project Management from the Inside: 10 Things Law Firm Leaders Need to Know about Implementing Legal Project Management

By Sheri Palomaki and Felice Wagner

With the 2008 economic downturn and the push to move away from the billable hour, clients have made clear they want legal services delivered better, faster and cheaper. Law firms, in response, are eager to provide expert advice to their clients efficiently and effectively. In an effort to strike the right balance between the two, legal project management has emerged as the newest trend in legal service delivery—promising effectiveness, efficiency and lower cost. Consequently, law firm leaders everywhere are assessing whether implementing project management in their firm will result in a competitive advantage…or just another headache.

Legal project management (PM) can be an effective tool for improving efficiency in the delivery of legal services. PM techniques can help identify best practices for scoping a matter, effectively communicating across the team, managing a budget, and monitoring progress. But, to truly reap the benefits of PM, lawyers have to buy-in to the idea that it will help them, they have to participate in training, and they have to be willing to implement some changes to their behavior. Once the reality of implementation sets in, most law firms walk away—talking about PM is one thing; actually doing it is a whole different ballgame.

What's the secret to getting your lawyers to buy-in more quickly? Below are ten things we found to be instrumental to successful implementation of legal project management inside a law firm:

  1. Embrace it, lawyers know everything. Many lawyers will rightfully rebel against the notion that PM training is teaching them something new. PM includes skills and techniques that most lawyers currently know and use. Acknowledging that the attorneys already possess the basic skills and that PM techniques merely provide more structure around what they are already doing, is key to gaining attorneys' buy-in. And, if you talk to the lawyers about a time they have exceeded budget and had to explain it to a client, that can be a good starting point for helping them identify what they can do better to avoid that conversation in the future.

  2. Consider a bottom-up approach. Many of the firms who are on the path to PM have taken a top-down approach. It is no surprise that the "Do it because I said so" method is ineffective. Rather than dictating a one-size-fits-all tactic, consider starting with individual client or project teams. In order to help improve efficiencies, first identify what the inefficiencies are. All lawyers are not inefficient in the same way, and neither is the solution to help them. Training on a team level and helping individual teams analyze the way they work will be more effective and more successful—one team at a time.

  3. KISS (Keep it simple, stupid.) Lawyers hate non-legal training, and if you make them attend training that is longer than 90 minutes, they get really cranky. Instead of trying to cram all that could be taught into 90 minutes or forcing our lawyers to submit to day long sessions, we found it more effective to develop training programs that are unique and specific to the individual teams on just those areas in which that team wants help. By approaching the training this way, our lawyers really hone in on the areas where they want to focus. They don't learn everything, but they learn what they want to know, they use it and they get results. Then, they come back for more.

  4. Encourage debate. We hired an outside consultant to jump-start Sutherland's PM initiative. Throughout the training course, the consultant both anticipated and enjoyed the debates that occurred during the session and was able to use those discussions to emphasize key points on many concepts. We learned that our lawyers got the most out of PM training when we opened up the discussion and encouraged them to debate the concepts and best practices. Our lawyers fiercely debated the appropriate time to talk to clients about a change in scope, how much to involve associates in the overall project plan, what the best practices are for team meetings and communication, and how to share a post-project review with the team. And, as is usually the case in the law, there is no right answer. The 'right' answer is team, practice and client specific. What works for one team may not work for the other. The most critical piece is that the team and the client are on the same page. Listen to the debate, and you will be better positioned to help your lawyers where they need it most.

  5. Do ONE thing better. Every lawyer, every practice, every client and every team has different strengths and weaknesses. Still, there is always one thing the team can do better. Sutherland's PM training helps teams identify areas for improvement first—then the individuals on the teams focus on just one area where they can increase efficiency. This is an essential element of our success. By encouraging everyone to be involved in identifying inefficiencies, our team members have ownership in the solution, and everyone works together to improve the process.

  6. Talk about Task Codes. Task codes can be a sticking point for project management efforts in law firms. The codes are intended to systematically categorize legal work by grouping relevant tasks for a matter. Executed correctly, the codes can provide a platform for tracking the scope and budget of a matter based on task (e.g., case assessment, pre-trial pleadings, discovery, trial preparation). Task codes can also provide historical data that allows for better budget forecasting. There can be a few challenges with using task codes, however. Using codes requires the lawyers to know and understand how to segment their time without overlap and all team members must use the codes consistently. Without consistent standards and definitions, the data that results is 'garbage in, garbage out.' Our approach is to let the client's objectives dictate how task codes will be used and then to implement them for the specific team.

  7. Follow up and reward success. Once a team has identified an inefficiency, how will you know if they have improved? Following up with them at regular intervals—a couple of weeks, 30 days, etc.—will ensure everyone stays motivated. Ask them how they are progressing. Did the solution work the way they thought it would? Has improving one area created a more inefficient process somewhere else? Have they developed a best practice that can be shared with another team doing similar work? In addition to following up, recognizing success is essential. Make sure firm management is aware of the progress the team is making. Helping the lawyers along the way and promoting them internally when they succeed helps everyone achieve their client goals.

  8. Be resourceful. An area for improvement we identified at Sutherland was better sharing of resources. In conjunction with our knowledge management (KM) initiative, we are working with teams and individual lawyers to pool the resources they use repeatedly, making them easily accessible to anyone who may need them. We are identifying various templates and tools considered to be 'best practices' and making them available in our KM system. Sharing across the firm helps everyone do a better job for their clients.

  9. Use Technology. When we began the PM initiative, none of the available software products had been fully tested. Since we had the capabilities internally to create our own tool, we took the "build it yourself" approach. We knew we wanted a platform that would help our lawyers better track the progress on matter scope and budgets, ensuring there were no surprises for the client at the end of the month. We also knew we wanted the flexibility to customize the platform for each client or individual matter. Recently, we were able to tailor our PM platform to solve a client problem, which may not have been as easy with an off-the-shelf product. As a result, the client will have access to a real-time tracking feature that allows them to respond to internal questions about the status of projects underway at Sutherland.

  10. Include Your Clients!—Sutherland has been conducting client feedback interviews for more than two years with a high level of participation across the firm. These interviews are by far the most effective tool we have to hear what clients really think about our firm and its services. Recently, we conducted an interview where the client was resoundingly positive about how much they know, like and respect our lawyers. As the interview came to a close, the client said, "well, there was this one time when we were not on the same page with who was doing what, and the scope and budget got a little out of control. I wish we had done a better job of managing that aspect of the project with you." The client took responsibility for the inefficiency! In response to the client's comment, we immediately offered to conduct a joint training for the client with our lawyers to talk through project management skills and identify best practices for that client with the team that supports them. They accepted on the spot. Clients want the best service possible, and they want to help their favorite outside counsel be the best they can be.

We believe that PM is here to stay and that firms that are successful in implementing it will have a competitive advantage in the future. But, like every 'new' initiative in a law firm, starting small has its benefits, and for Sutherland, starting small has been the key to PM's success.

About the Author

Sheri Palomaki is the Director of Practice Management at Sutherland and leads the firm's project management initiative. Sheri has more than 15 years in the legal industry advising lawyers on marketing, business development and practice management strategies.

Felice Wagner is the Chief Client Service Officer at Sutherland and advises law firm leadership on strategic business development and client service initiatives. Prior to joining Sutherland, Felice was the President and Founder of Sugarcrest Development Group, and spent more than a decade advising law firms on building client loyalty solutions and business development strategies

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