Legal project management (LPM) is a hot topic in the legal profession. In a competitive and complex global environment, legal firms are under pressure to deliver more for less. Visibility, value and service are at the top of the agenda, as clients demand accountable results for their legal spend.

The past five years have seen many legal firms adopt an element of methodology into their matter management, but often this becomes window dressing on a proposal, rather than lasting cultural change that embraces best practice.

What is Legal Project Management?

Project management has come a long way from its early days as a “Cinderella” function, buried in the back rooms of the IT department. Today, the discipline has well and truly penetrated mainstream business. Indeed, Wellingtone’s State of Project Management 2020 Report shows us that 89% of organisations now have one or more dedicated Project Management Offices (PMOs).

Some might argue that the legal profession is late to the party. Traditionally, matter management has tended to be an organic, personality-led affair, with stakeholders adopting their own preferred approach to get the job done. Especially for large, multi-national legal firms, though, that mindset is no longer sufficient. Value, visibility, and efficiency are crucial not just to meet client demand, but also to support profitability.

A robust Legal Project Management methodology takes the best practice elements of project management and applies them to the delivery of legal matters, with these principles in mind:

  • A project (or matter) is a defined, temporary piece of work, designed to deliver planned objectives and benefits.
  • Project management applies processes, methods, tools, knowledge, skills, and experience to achieve those objectives.
  • Projects typically make up the business’s portfolio, demanding cross-visibility across multiple projects for maximum efficiency.
  • All projects carry elements of certainty, uncertainty and risk that need to be anticipated and managed for the best outcome.
  • Legal Project Management adopts a hybrid approach, designed to help legal firms identify what is certain and what is not, and deploy resources and skills accordingly.
  • Anyone can learn and apply the principles of Legal Project Management, from senior fee earners to junior paralegals.

Done right, Legal Project Management embeds value, visibility, efficiency, and transparency – not just internally, but across the supply chain.

What does Legal Project Management Look Like?

The Legal Project Management Lifecycle

No matter how small, large, simple or complex a legal project might be, it typically follows a lifecycle that begins with scoping and planning, carries through delivery and controls, and ends with reviewing successes, challenges and lessons learnt.

Crucially, this lifecycle generates benefits beyond efficient and profitable delivery. It also facilitates continuous improvement, as lessons learnt from one project feed into the next. So, legal firms that adopt sound Legal Project Management are better equipped to constantly evolve their offering and build their competitive edge.

The Essential Elements of Legal Project Management

Of course, projects rarely operate in isolation. Even within smaller project portfolios, the resources and investment deployed into one project will inevitably affect the delivery of other projects. For larger firms where multi-million-pound global portfolios come into play, this significantly increases complexity and renders the discipline of Legal Project Management even more important.

Regardless of size and complexity, though, any well-run legal project takes account of these essential elements:

  • Scoping and Planning: defining and controlling the scope, objectives and delivery of the project.
  • Monitoring and Control: establishing visibility and clarity on progress made, versus the project plan.
  • Leadership and Governance: defining, implementing and monitoring the project’s structure, roles, and responsibilities.
  • Communications: ensuring everyone is on the same page, understands the project plan, and works together to deliver the mapped objectives.
  • Financial Management: controlling profitability and minimising loss of value.
  • Review: reflecting on lessons learnt and applying them to the next project.

A Hybrid Approach to Handling Uncertainty

All matter management carries elements that are certain, elements that are uncertain, and elements that are quite simply beyond our control. The natural temptation is to focus on those elements of a project that we can predict and influence.

In fact, though, it is the ability to effectively react to, and deal with, uncertain elements that adds real value to a project’s outcomes. A robust Legal Project Management methodology enables this with a hybrid approach, tailored to meet the unique challenges of the legal profession, and based on two of the most widely adopted project management methodologies: Waterfall and Agile.

Waterfall: Key Characteristics

Waterfall is a longstanding project management methodology.

  • Ideal for projects with certainty.
  • Clarity of scope is critical.
  • The project follows a detailed task plan.
  • The project manager assigns tasks to team members.
  • Progress on tasks is the key measurable.
  • Changes to scope are managed through formal change requests.
  • Time, cost and quality flex to deliver agreed scope.

Agile: Key Characteristics

Agile was originally designed to underpin fast-paced software development projects. It focuses on achieving the vision and objectives via iterative, locally delivered “sprints”.

  • Ideal for projects with high uncertainty.
  • Clarity of vision is essential.
  • The project defines tasks in small increments, or “sprints”.
  • The project manager is a facilitator, not the “boss”.
  • Progress is reviewed daily each morning in “scrums”.
  • Responsibility is devolved to localised teams.
  • Small teams are empowered to take responsibility.

A legal matter, therefore, has some elements that are predictable & therefore benefit from waterfall, with other unpredictable elements that are best managed using more iterative agile approaches.  Combining the best of both worlds creates a hybrid approach, itself now seeing traction across other industries too.

Not only does this hybrid approach equip the firm to flex to the specific project conditions, but it also drives efficiency. Certainty can be effectively handled by competent junior resources, whereas managing a high degree of uncertainty demands significant senior expertise. Distinguishing between the two enables firms to allocate certain and uncertain elements to the right people and skills sets, avoiding wasted resources, increasing profitability for the firm, and ensuring efficiency for the client.

The Benefits of Legal Project Management

Done right, Legal Project Management…

  • Aligns strategy with the process.
  • Embeds a culture of consistency, visibility and transparency.
  • Empowers people to think and act intelligently and independently.
  • Increases accountability and learning for continuous improvement.
  • Equips fee earners to delegate more effectively.
  • Cascades new skills and techniques to junior resources.
  • Facilitates clear client communication/reporting.
  • Enables effective stakeholder management.
  • Enables different service lines to adapt their approach to individual client cultures.
  • Mitigates risk and scope creep.

All law firms should be embracing best practice legal project management.  Indeed, early adopters have, and will continue to gain competitive advantage.  It is important that all firms reflect on where they are in terms of LPM maturity and recognise it should be at the heart of their approach to matter management.

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