Your guide to legal project management

May 2014 First Focus

Susan Lambreth

Susan Lambreth

In “The Power of Legal Project Management,” renowned legal project management experts Susan Raridon Lambreth and David A. Rueff Jr. provide the fundamental principles and framework that will allow lawyers in any practice setting to integrate project management into their own practice. The book contains a comprehensive review of legal project management and discussion of the business reasons supporting legal project management, the important relationship between budgeting and pricing, as well as the ethical considerations and constraints in lawyers’ implementation of project management.

YourABA spoke with Lambreth about legal project management and the book.

In brief, how would you define legal project management? 

Legal project management is approaching legal matters with a more proactive approach than has traditionally been used. It involves more thoroughly defining the engagement at the outset, planning it, executing/actively managing it and evaluating/closing the matter at the end. It is not “rocket science” but does involve the application of specific methodologies, tools and approaches that have not historically been used by lawyers.    

How is legal project management relevant to both small firms/solos and large firms?

LPM applies to all types of legal matters — large and small, with large firms and small firms or solos. In today’s legal market, small matters, whether handled by a small or large firm, must be handled very efficiently. That is difficult to do if the lawyers and their clients are not on the same page about expectations and objectives, the scope of the work and the plan to complete the work. For a small matter, these simple steps can be done in a relatively small amount of time, but if they are not done, lawyers typically find they have write-offs — and therefore significantly reduced matter profitability — or they have less-than-satisfied clients if the legal bills don’t meet expectations. For a larger matter, where there is a larger team of legal professionals working on it or a larger fee or greater risk to the client, LPM can also ensure that the matter is handled to the client’s satisfaction and that the law firm does not have significant write-offs. In many large law firms today, write-offs that are attributable to a lack of project management are typically costing in excess of $10 million per year.

What advice would you offer firms on implementing legal project management?

There are many ways to implement LPM, as the authors’ examples and the case studies from 17 law firms and legal departments in the book illustrate. One of the most common has been to find a group of legal professionals (two or more) who are interested in applying LPM to their matters and doing a pilot project. This might involve learning LPM skills through live or online training, books or coaching and applying it to an actual matter. As they do that, they can build template documents, checklists or other work product that can be applied to similar matters in the future. Also, they typically see the successes in their client relationships as they do this and have success stories to tell others in their firm to help build buy-in to apply more LPM.

Why is there a need for enhanced communication with legal project management?

It is not exactly that there is a need for enhanced communication with LPM. It is that many clients have an expectation of enhanced communication today, and law firms need to communicate with clients better to ensure that they and their client contacts are on the same page and have clarified expectations. When lawyers billed by the hour and clients paid the full bill regardless of whether they were satisfied with their lawyers or their work product, this was less of an issue. The firm might get little or no work in the future, but it got paid. Today, if a law firm provides a client a fee quote, estimate or budget and then exceeds that, it is unlikely the law firm will get paid above that estimate unless it has clearly scoped the work and clarified client expectations and objectives upfront and therefore can show how the changes were outside of its control and the scope of work for which the estimate was provided. So LPM does involve enhanced communication, but the need is there in the legal market today, regardless of whether firms address it through LPM.

How can legal project management be used for competitive advantage? 

LPM can be used for competitive advantage in several ways. First, until every firm is implementing LPM in a sophisticated fashion and it becomes the “standard of care” for private-practice lawyers, those firms that do this better can use (and are using) it in their business development activities to differentiate their firm from others. Many requests for proposals from clients today ask law firms to explain how they are implementing LPM and related approaches and how it will benefit the company soliciting the responses. Law firms that have begun implementing LPM with pilot groups or across their firm are winning new business over law firms that have not.

Second, the profit margins in law firms have shrunk in the past five years, and law firms are struggling to increase profits per partner year after year. If they can increase their profits by reducing write-offs, they will have a competitive advantage over other firms.

Third, LPM properly implemented helps the firm in terms of better training and development of their lawyers, more engagement of the legal professionals and, as a result, better morale. These can provide a competitive advantage to a firm as well.

What are the various roles that are helpful in implementing LPM in a legal organization? Please explain. 

LPM roles include the partner in charge of a matter or client, who must see himself as not just being a client-relationship partner or practicing lawyer doing the legal work but also managing the matter like a project. LPM roles also include those who are leading these initiatives, internal trainers and LPM coaches, legal project managers (which can mean different things in different firms — coaches, internal consultants, matter teams or individual lawyers, etc.), pricing directors and more. There is a chapter in the book describing not only the possible roles but the characteristics and skill sets needed for some of the roles.