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7 Things Lawyers Should Know About Project Management

About 25 years ago I was having drinks with the GC of a F10 company whose business would later send my daughters through school. Over a second drink, as we peered out at the skyscrapers soaring above us—we were on the 42nd floor—he said, “So Mark, do you really think that litigation can be done on a fixed-price basis?” “Bill”, I replied, “you see those buildings out there? They were all built on a fixed price in the middle of Chicago, so don’t you think a litigation matter—or portfolio—can be billed that way?”

It has taken nearly a quarter century, but the urban myth that litigation is “too unpredictable” to budget meaningfully and deliver on a fixed price is now being debunked. We know the “why”: because clients are demanding more efficiency, transparency, and accountability from their law firms. Also, the “commoditization” of high-volume/low-value legal tasks such as document review and legal research is precedent establishing that at least some work lawyers do can be fix-priced. Now, the more “bespoke” (another urban myth for all but a handful of matters) aspects of legal work are fair game for this process.

Here are 7 things lawyers—and law schools—should know about project management. 


1. Project Management: A Very Brief Introduction

Project management, long a mainstay of contractors as well as other professional service providers, is becoming an integral part of the legal landscape. Project managers are now commonplace among legal service providers (as opposed to law firms who retain risk for the legal work performed) and are increasingly a component of “progressive” law firms as well as so-called “alternative providers,” law firms and/or legal service providers with new economic models.


2. What Is Project Management?

Project Management is the application of knowledge, skills and techniques to execute projects effectively and efficiently. It is considered a strategic competency for organizations, enabling them to tie project results to business goals — and thus, better compete in their markets. In its simplest form, Project Management defines the desired result, methodically structures the work into manageable pieces, and provides a framework of business and technology processes to achieve the result efficiently and economically.


3. Project Management is Distinguishable from Delivering a Matter for a Set Price

Law firms have dealt with fixed price fees in a number of ways. The most common has been to “back into” the price by staffing the matter once the price has been agreed to. This does not rise to the level of bait and switch, but it is not transparent, either. In contrast, project managers—like general contractors—advise the client in advance of starting work these key components: (1) what will be done; (2) who will do it; (3) when it will be done/what the deliverables are; (4) what the cost is. Project managers ensure the trains run on time and according to the proscribed route. The inevitable “unexpected turns” a matter can take—many of which are predictable—can, if they truly are “unforeseeable”, be subject to a change order written into the Statement of Work/Engagement Letter.


4. Why Are Project Managers New to the Legal Vertical?

Project managers are trained professionals whose skill sets, as noted, have long been an integral part of project delivery in other verticals. Why not law? Until recently, lawyers have remained an island where billing practices and the scope of work have gone unquestioned. But that is changing as clients demand greater “value” for their work. This is not just a mandate to “do it for less” but it is also an admonishment to “do it more efficiently; do it more transparently; and do it with the right resources for the right tasks.” Project managers are trained to do this; lawyers are not.


5. Why Are Process Managers Important?

As legal services are increasingly unbundled—and more providers are involved in the handling of a matter, especially larger ones—someone must integrate the work and ensure that workflow and budgets are monitored. I wrote about this in “Who Will Be The Straw Who Stirs the Drink?” Project managers are trained for this; lawyers are not. That is why they are playing an increasingly important role in the current legal landscape and will continue to do so moving forward.


6. What Do Legal Process Managers Do?

Project managers ensure that what is promised is delivered—on time, on budget, with transparency, and with predictability and accountability. This is much more than traffic-cop stuff; it involves oversight of personnel, technology, budgets, and increasingly, integration of the supply chain. The later function occurs when, as is becoming commonplace, multiple providers participate in handling a matter. An example would be when a client retains a law firm who works with an e-Discovery vendor and a staffing company in a litigation matter.


7. Why Law Schools Should Teach Process Management

Project management skills are becoming increasingly important for lawyers to possess or to at least have a rudimentary knowledge of.  This is because as clients are demanding greater value, efficiency, transparency, and, most of all, cost reduction, project management has become an integral part of the delivery of legal services.  While it started with legal service providers (as opposed to law firms) with “commoditized” high volume/low value work such as document review and privilege logs, it has now found its way into higher-end work performed and/or managed by law firms.

So whether law students go on to law firms or legal service providers, project management is an important element of their legal education. A course that will familiarize students with the basics of project management, enable students to define their value as lawyers in business terms, and establish appropriate metrics and measurements to evidence successes would be an important addition to a law school’s curriculum.


Final Thoughts

Project management is already playing a critical role in the delivery of legal services. Its ascendency is especially noteworthy in legal environments—such as the U.K.—where regulations are more permissive than in the U.S. and lawyers can partner with non-lawyers and receive investment capital. But even in the U.S. project managers are emerging as key players in the delivery of legal services. Lawyers should familiarize themselves with project management skills because, without them, they may ultimately find non-lawyers taking charge of integrating and delivery their services, thereby reducing lawyers to a more marginal role in the overall process.



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