Today legal consumers are calling the shots, demanding more choice, transparency, competition, price predictability, and direct access to providers. As things drastically change for law firms, Legal Project Management rises to meet the demands of modern legal practices.
Welcome to the second decade of Legal Project Management (LPM), a revolution to modern practices that is changing how we practice law forever. The International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM) defines LPM as “the application of project management principles and practices to enhance the delivery of legal services.”
Change has been slow in the legal profession that saw the billable hour dominating since the beginning of law itself. As the wheelchair athlete Art E. Berg used to say, “the impossible just takes a little longer,” and the impossible is now taking place with lawyers. They have been pushed out of their comfort zones to become incredibly creative, problem-solving, and interactive players in the field.
It has taken ten years to introduce lawyers to concepts like management, productivity, fixed fee models, transparency, and effective communication, and it’s likely to take a decade more to get most of them to properly implement these techniques in the quickly changing legal landscape. During these years, legal project management has been left nearly undiscovered, with few law firms pioneering the new approach and early adopter practitioners evolving to build the LPM discipline, which was born into the field of law practice, quite spontaneously, as an unconscious need of the market. A decade of experimentation has finally led to the rise of a more mature, tested, and effective Legal Project Management discipline.
One of the greatest changes to traditional legal practice is the introduction of “alternative fee arrangements” which addresses clients’ concerns about the certainty and transparency of legal fees.
The Inadequateness of the Traditional Approach
Law firms are becoming more technologically advanced with a greater focus placed on enhancing productivity, developing soft skills, integrating technology, and expanding on pricing models. The shift towards a more effective communication and interpersonal interactions, as well as a greater client experience, is helping legal teams gain a competitive advantage.
Historically, the legal profession has been the sole source for legal advice. University libraries were flooded with students reliant on law books, but nowadays we see how technology has fundamentally changed the legal landscape forever. Law libraries have been replaced with online legal databases and other digital resources, and clients now have legal information readily available directly on the internet, including artificial-intelligence-based technologies that are forming a legal opinion and providing legal guidance.
One of the greatest changes to traditional legal practice is the introduction of “alternative fee arrangements” which addresses clients’ concerns about the certainty and transparency of legal fees. The shift from the classic “billable hour” model to pricing models, such as fixed price legal services, require a remodeling of internal processes and the way lawyers and legal practices operate.
Minimal planning was needed for the billable hour. The lawyer simply defined the initial work to be done, got started on the tasks, and expanded the scope until the legal outcome was achieved, retrospectively charging for their time. This meant that the client was unable to accurately predict their legal expenses and make a more informed decision.
On the other hand, a fixed price model requires the lawyer to better define the scope, determining the tasks, schedule, and all the human and other resources required upfront. Since the fees are fixed, the risk lies with the law firm’s performance. The greater the productivity, the higher the profit, which is arguably the opposite for the billable hour, where profit comes from the time the work takes, which can lead to inefficiency. With a fixed price model, firms are encouraged to strive for smarter work practices, efficient processes, and better use of technology.
A Legal Market Focused on Planning and Delivery
This was a pivotal realization that highlighted how better planning and the need for controlled delivery was better aligned with traditional project management practices. This key driving force for addressing work planning and productivity led to the recognition of the LPM approach almost ten years ago.
The Institute undertook research, collecting data from legal practitioners across nine countries, and found that the current LPM practices incorporated not only project management methods, but also technological integration, process improvement, and a focus on leadership and interpersonal skills. This means that the LPM approach not only covers practice management functions, it also extends to the integration of new disruptors such as artificial intelligence.
The fundamental principles of a project approach is clear from the four-stage model, comprising of the “define,” “plan,” “deliver,” and “close” phases of legal matters, with an emphasis on the planning needed to accurately predict the costs involved. From this, one is then able to manage the risks, issues, and variations during delivery, subsequently monitoring and controlling the work being done. This greater demand for more accurate estimates, better cost management, and improved communication are all aligned with traditional project management.
What legal project management recognizes is that while legal substantive content changes between legal matters, the actual workflow and process is largely the same. The hesitance to provide detailed planning is overcome when you realize you can reuse some of the work done in the past, as well as apply lessons you’ve learned along the way.
As Altman Weil (2016) noted, “Despite the fact that 93 percent of law firm leaders think a focus on improved practice efficiency is a permanent trend in the legal market, fewer than half of all law firms (44%) have significantly changed their strategic approach to efficiency – seemingly a large strategic disconnect.”
While US studies are now suggesting over 40 percent of larger US law firms are engaging in LPM trainings, only 33 percent of law firms are actively using LPM to support legal work (24 percent for in-house legal teams). This is likely due to the need to revamp technology use, processes, and the human factors that bring successful change.
When examining the changing legal market, Georgetown Law (2015) noted, “…it is increasingly clear that the buying habits of business clients have shifted in a couple of significant ways that have adversely impacted the demand for law firm services” and concluded that “we now live in a buyers’ market in which all of the key decisions about how legal services are delivered and priced are being made or strongly influenced by clients”.
In the book Project Management for Lawyers (Boake and Kathuria, 2011) the six most compelling reasons stated for legal project management were: addressing disparity (between how law firms and clients work); making the link (client transparency of the costs); staying competitive; responding to the fragmented market; responding to pricing pressures; and the opportunity for market differentiation.
Upskilling Lawyers in Project Management Practices
Governments and organizations are catching on to this shift, and there is a growing competency requirement for lawyers to upskill in project management. For example, the UK’s Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) requires solicitors to demonstrate competence in project management skills as part of their overall legal skill-set. Section D of the SRA’s Solicitors Competence Statement states that solicitors must be able to: “Initiate, plan, prioritize, and manage work activities and projects to ensure that they are completed efficiently, on time, and to an appropriate standard.” This highlights the growing recognition of project management skills as a crucial trait for legal professionals
IE Law School has been an early adopter and leader in LPM education, and has begun better preparing students for the workplace by incorporating global certification from the International Institute of Legal Project Management into their programs. Other universities have also followed this trend, such as Swansea University in the UK and the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso in Chile.
The fact that universities, legal profession boards, technology vendors, and law firms are all introducing LPM practices is evidence that LPM is quickly becoming the standard approach to legal matters. As US law professor Mark Cohen states in his reflection of the trending project management approach, “Law schools should mandate that all students take at least an entry-level course in project management.”
LPM aims to broaden lawyers’ competencies so they become more effective leaders and communicators. With the growing number of legal guidance options, lawyers need to up the ante, and that means attending networking events, positioning themselves on social media platforms, and building richer profiles.
As legal software moves to more project-based workflow designs, and technology continues to influence workplace behaviors, the future of LPM is likely to incorporate more human-centred design thinking to help resolve complex legal problems. This demonstrates that, even as the world places a larger focus on technology, projects remain primarily people-focused.
Career Opportunities and New Legal Roles
Law firms and legal departments are more and more open to incorporating new roles, such as legal project managers, heads of legal operations, pricing analysts, LPM office directors, legal designers, legal operations managers, and heads of innovation (ACC Legal Operation). A LinkedIn job search of “legal project manager” presents hundreds of opportunities offered by firms such as Hogan Lovells, Baker & McKenzie, Clifford Chance, DLA Piper, Elevate, Google, Pinsent Masons, Linklaters, and the list goes on.
Efficiency, transparency, client engagement, innovation, problem-solving, result-driven, and profitability are the most frequently used words to describe the benefits of LPM.
The common trend is to recruit a project manager who will train lawyers in project management and contribute to the development of best practices, tools, and techniques, as well as provide user training on legal project management software. The legal project managers are asked to work closely with partners and legal teams to encourage efficient management of client relationships by scoping, planning, managing, and monitoring from start to finish.
What we can extrapolate from these changes is that modern law firms have established two key goals: to hire non-lawyer project managers to drive and implement change, and/or to train internal lawyers according to the new set of LPM processes, competencies, and skill-sets. By designing an LPM system, legal practices are set to evolve to meet the demands of modern legal practices.
Todd Hutchison is the Chairman of the International Institute of Legal Project Management, a former global Board Director of the Project Management Institute, and an awarded and practising international project manager. Todd is progressing a Ph.D. in behavioural sciences, with an interest in high performing cultures. He is an international bestselling business author, a certified professional speaker, has been recognised in the Top 101 Industry Experts specialising in project management, and is listed in the prestigious Who’s Who of Business in Australia.
Anna Marra is a PM trainer and consultant for private and public organizations. Anna was a pioneer in proposing the discipline of Legal Project Management to improve performances in law firms and in-house legal departments. In 2017 she became Councillor of the LPM Global Advisory Council of the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM). Presently she is IILPM Accredited Training Provider (ATP). Anna is author of various publications on legal project management, corporate social responsibility, and strategy for law firms.
Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution.