Legal Project Management (or LPM) is becoming essential for law firms. For good reason. Firms often run countless numbers of complex matters at once. Keeping track of all this; the wins, the losses, whether something is over or under budget; is impossible without good project management. However, LPM’s are often held back by an inability to scale what they do. Without scale, firms can never truly benefit from the oversight and control project management can bring to their firm.
So, how can the legal industry tackle this problem? In this three part series, we’ll be looking at the state of LPM right now. Next, we’ll examine where LPM could go in the future and how to maximise its potential. In part three we’ll share practical tips from project managers for those working in the industry.
Nobody excels when using Excel
So how does project management operate in modern firms? Due to the lack of data on, and oversight of, matters in most firms, many LPM’s are assigned to only a small portion of a firm’s most high value or complex matters. Keeping track of these matters isn’t easy. Complex cases often span multiple practice groups and can stretch out over months or years. Making sense of the thousands or even million time cards to be logged on one or two complex matters, is easily a full time job
The most common tool used by project managers to keep track of their matters is Excel. As anyone who has had to use Excel will tell you, this isn’t the most user-friendly solution. Most LPM’s will put together their own spreadsheet to keep track of the relevant information for each matter they manage. This could be budget used, hours logged per practice group or activities completed. The list goes on. Inevitably this is also a time consuming solution. Each project manager must still log the information manually into the spreadsheet. Which means they have to track down these streams of information separately. Additionally, each spreadsheet will be unique to each manager. Making them incomprehensible (and therefore all of that lovely data useless) to anyone but the person who made them.
You can’t scale the bespoke
The second key problem currently barring LPM’s from scaling, is the nature of the work they manage. Law firms still treat the vast majority of matters as bespoke. They approach each matter in a different way, with little standardisation of the matter management process. This case-by-case approach sits entirely at odds with the way most project management functions. To explain this, we need to use an example from the world of technology.
Most development work done in tech firms is unique. Each week teams will be working on a new feature, or updating a new piece of code. However, fundamentally most tech teams are project managed in the same way. Despite the output being different, the process is the same. They use sprint work. It breaks down work into set time frames, say two weeks, in which developers scope and size what needs to happen. They then manage that work in bite-size chunks and keep the project manager updated on progress through a ticket system.
It is for this reason that tech companies find it so easy to scale up. Development work is done is a standardised way, with easy oversight. Teams cannot release anything without it having been developed and tested in line with the company’s principles. This means that tech companies keep costs low, but out-put high, in a controlled way.
Because firms do not standardise the way matters are handled, an LPM must tailor their methods to each matter. This is time consuming and can lead to confusion, or information falling through the cracks. It also prevents matters being compared like-for-like. Firms accordingly lose much of the data insights that good project management can bring. Legal project management data can track the success of time saving or cost saving measures firms introduce. But if each project is managed differently, then a fair comparison and assessment is impossible.
Firms lose where LPM isn’t fully supported
So why does it matter that LPM is often held back by poor data, or confined to a few select and bespoke matters? Arguably, because it defeats the purpose of introducing project management to firms at all.
Project management is the practice of initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing the work of a team to achieve specific goals and meet specific success criteria at the specified time.
For many firms, the specific goals are more than just creating a desired outcome for the client. It is also about staying on budget, or reducing the cost of matters. Many firms look to LPM to improve transparency for clients, to ensure out of scope work doesn’t get out of hand and to reduce write-offs. So, when firms only project manage large matters, the impact is never going to be sufficient to justify the effort. Looking to the future, firms must find a way of standardising project management. This will allow them to address write offs and streamline processes in a way that manifestly improves the firm’s returns. If they fail to do this, project management in firms will be too small scale to hope to have the impact a firm wants it to.
We are aware that this is not an overly rosy picture. However, there are a number of pioneers and law firms out there making meaningful strides into scaling legal project management. In the next article we will look at the specific strategies and tools firms can use to take LPM firm wide with minimal impact.