Legal Project Management

Defining Legal Project Management

A tremendous amount of traction in the legal community has begun to center around becoming more efficient via legal project defining management. This month, our roundtable panelists are defining legal project management and giving their opinions on whether it’s a fad or here to stay.

Our Panelists

Dennis Kennedy (DK), Micah Ascano (MS), and co-authors of The Power of Legal Project Management, a Practical Handbook, Susan Lambreth and David Rueff (SL/DR).

How do you define legal project management (LPM) and how does it differ from general project management?

DK: When someone asks me for a definition these days, I point them to Wikipedia. That would be my starting point. The second part of the question is quite interesting. Lawyers tend to think that everything they do is unique and special. Other than existing in the legal context, I don’t see legal project management as being anything different than general project management.

MA: Legal project management is still new enough that I think the definition will be different based on who you ask at each firm which is doing something with that label. For me, I consider LPM to be matter, matter budget, and matter task management. Process improvement is something that is often lumped in with LPM, though I consider it something related but distinct.

The way I believe LPM is different than project management in the generic sense is that  there are fewer knowns and a higher likelihood of changing scope of work than in other industries. As such, LPM is inherently implemented with the idea it has to be flexible, rather than rigid like what you get in other industries which use project management.

SL/DR: In our book, The Power of Legal Project Management, a Practical Handbook, published by the ABA in 2014, we define legal project management as a proactive, disciplined approach to managing legal work that involves defining, planning, budgeting, executing, and evaluating a legal matter. Simply put, it is a step by step approach to help lawyers clarify the scope and potential cost of services they are providing for a client, proactively managing the services consistent with the client’s expectations, and using each engagement as an opportunity for learning and improvement.  Some of the key distinctions between LPM and traditional project management (PM) are: LPM provides a more simplified language to make it easier for legal professionals to understand; PM includes 47 processes divided into five phases while LPM is streamlined for professional services and typically includes approximately 12 to 15 processes in total; PM does not anticipate dramatic changes or deviations in the original product specifications, while the scope of services in a legal engagement rarely remains constant.

Is LPM for a practicing attorney to do and/or learn, or a type of role that one should hire for?

DK: Every lawyer I’ve known has managed projects on a regular basis. Sometimes they have been successful and sometimes they haven’t. Because most lawyers don’t learn project management techniques, the results can be hit or miss. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses. I’d want to hire a project manager. You might want to take on that role yourself. You need to take a hard and realistic look at yourself.

MA: It depends, which is every lawyer’s favorite answer. From a traditional project management standpoint, the PM is the one calling the shots, whereas in legal it is the partner who directs work on a matter and that is how it should be. That said, project management is rarely a skill or a task a partner has time, or inclination, to learn, much less implement on top of doing billable work. So I think it’s important that partners conceptually understand project management concepts, but hire for an LPM role that supplements their decision making on a matter with structure and process.

SL/DR: Since attorneys are typically on the front lines with clients, it is critical for them to have a basic understanding of how to implement LPM at all stages of an engagement. LPM is a new technique and requires education and practice, so it is also critical to have subject matter experts who are available to help legal teams develop project plans, design budgets and pricing, and implement both process and technology solutions to manage the engagement proactively. In our experience, the best recipe for a legal project manager includes both hard skills such as knowledge of legal process, project management, and technology, and soft skills such as attention to detail and excellent written and verbal communication.

Is this a fad, or something that will really stick around in the practice of law?

DK: I don’t see professionalized project management as a fad at all. I see it as a very important trend to watch. Certain clients will start to insist on lawyers using project management and other standard business workflow and process tools.

MA: LPM is clearly a fad right now and is continuing to grow. While I personally am unsure about the longevity of LPM in its current, ambiguously-defined state, I think focus on combining efficiency with effectiveness in practice of law and having professional staff to assist with that is here to stay.

SL/DR: LPM is definitely not a phase or a short-term marketing gimmick. Many of the components of LPM such as scope development, communication, budget design, and scope change management are not new to the practice of law. They have always been part of a lawyer’s ethical obligations contained in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. LPM provides all legal professionals with a step by step approach to ensure that these requirements are satisfied in every engagement. LPM is also now being recognized by malpractice insurers as a technique to avoid mistakes and miscommunication with clients.

Do you recommend getting a certification?

DK: This field seems in an early enough stage that you can probably get started without a certificate and get an employee to pay for education and certification. I don’t see certification as a magic ticket, even though it obviously could be helpful. A portfolio of success projects will be more important than a paper certificate. If the job ads you are seeing state that a certificate is essential, then you would want to look into certification.

MA: No. Training is good, but there are certificate mills out there where the training doesn’t mean much despite getting a piece of paper. Focus on learning the skill and less on getting a credential that isn’t approved by any notable certifying body.

SL/DR: The Project Management Institute (PMI) offers a project management professional (PMP) certification in traditional project management. We have found that members of a legal project management office or pricing team can benefit from PMP training and certification. Other legal professionals, such as attorneys and paralegals, can also benefit from legal project management training offered by the American Bar Association and by certifications offered by legal consultants such as the LawVision Group/LPM Institute. They offer the LPM LaunchPad Certificate in the Fundamentals of Legal Project Management (similar to a “yellow belt”) and other advanced certifications.

What can be done to learn more?

DK: There are so many resources out there. The Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) seems to have created a lot of buzz and excitement. Getting a solid background in standard project management approaches is essential. Talk to people who work in this field and learn about the paths that they took and their advice. Read the popular books and check out some project management podcasts.

MA: There are a growing number of conferences focused on LPM as well as CLE’s offered through the Law Practice Division on legal project management.

SL/DR: LPM has gained popularity in the past 10 years, and several industry trade organizations have created committees or focus groups specializing in this area that require separate membership fees or invitations. Some of these groups include the ABA’s Law Practice Division Legal Project Management Interest Group, the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium, the Association of Corporate Counsel Legal Operations, Legal Marketing Association’s P3 Conference, the True Value Partner Institute, and the LawVision Group LPM Roundtable.

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