Legal Project Management – Control Costs, Meet Schedules, Manage Risks and Maintain Sanity

Legal Project Management – Control Costs, Meet Schedules, Manage Risks and Maintain Sanity
by Steven Levy
published by Daypack Books, Seattle WA, 2009
price: US$29.95
ISBN: 1449928641

Steven Levy’s book marries project management with legal practice. This is a useful practical guide on how lawyers can get started.

The nature of legal services is changing. Indeed barely a week passes without another article in the legal press about Alternative Fee Arrangements and the death of the billable hour. Consequently the need for better Project Management has become a hot topic within law firm practice management circles. It is perceived by many as part of the solution in driving greater efficiencies in the face of shrinking legal budgets and ever louder calls for cost controls from General Counsel and CEO’s. On the face of it, project management seems to be a great fit with its promise of on-time and on-budget delivery. But can it work in law firms and in-house legal departments? This book is the first to tackle that question thus the timing of this book could not be better.

By way of full disclosure, this reviewer is already an active evangelist in the cause of bringing project management into legal practice. But there will be plenty of skeptics who will argue that project management and legal practice are yet another example of “two solitudes” and they are just too different for one to assist the other. They will point to typical project scenarios as found in the construction and information technology industries that are “benign” – where multiple parties can gather together to agree upon a common goal and construct a detailed plan of attack on how to deliver against the agreed goal. By contrast lawyers can rarely get all of the parties to agree on anything! Furthermore lawyers are problem solvers – their starting position is a business problem not a blank sheet of paper and there may be multiple solutions to any given problem. The skeptics will also point out that legal work varies dramatically from practice to practice. While some legal work such as large corporate deals and electronic discovery initiatives can be characterized as projects, most litigation is driven by a combination of strategy and constant tactical adjustments and defies a task-by-task breakdown based on a schedule. How then can project management possibly “cross the chasm” into legal practice when there are so many variables and so many “moving parts”?

On the face of it, it seems like a tough sell. But many of these criticisms above are based on a misapprehension as to what is project management. Project Management is both art and science. What is clear from Levy’s book is that law firms and legal departments should not attempt a wholesale grafting of traditional project management techniques as defined by the Project Management Institute (PMI) onto billable legal matters. Readers thankfully will also find little of the jargon that tends to dominate most project management literature.

Instead Levy begins in the first substantive chapter (or brief) by explaining why, what he calls Legal Project Management (or LPM), is important. He argues that the practice of law is itself changing The old mindset used to be: do whatever it takes for the client, do whatever the client asks, partner profits are a function of one variable – billable hours and lawyers solve legal problems not business problems. Now, he argues, lawyers should be carefully analyzing business goals, that goals should be clearly defined, that clients demand efficiency, that project management supplements what lawyers already know and that (almost) all legal problems need to be positioned as business problems. A quote from the General Counsel at Microsoft summarises the new mantra nicely: “Don’t tell clients they can do something, tell them how to do it legally” (p.33).

Levy then draws some distinctions between LPM and traditional PM – he starts with what can only be described as an admirable understatement – “one big difference in Legal Project Management is that the resources aren’t always amenable to being planned, organized or managed. Attorneys tend towards an independence of thought and action” (p.44). He also writes that traditional project management “pays but lip service” to business goals. This is true. The PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) says nothing of the need to construct a business case, which is where all projects should start. (Some of his criticism of traditional PM is unfounded however. He asks “where is communication in the…PMI definition of Project Management?” (p.45) It is true that communication is not included in the PMI definition of project management, there is an entire chapter devoted to the topic of communication in the PMBOK.)

The next chapter looks at who should be on the LPM team. Here he identifies some useful characteristics of a potential project manager e.g. hard to flap, focused on value, not excessively risk averse, not full of themselves and having a sense of humour. (Speaking from experience, this last item is critical!) Nonetheless one crucial aspect that is not addressed at least in this chapter is how the power dynamic might be affected within the law firm, as between the newly-minted project manager and the matter-responsible partner. Should they be one and the same or not? If different then what are the respective roles? Is the project manager really managing or merely co-ordinating? Levy assumes the persona of someone attempting to bring project management into the law firm context and asks the question “when do I see value?” from Legal Project Management. While a focus on metrics is important and worthy of its own chapter, after nearly 100 pages this reviewer was beginning to wonder when the author would focus on true substance of project management – namely balancing scope, time, cost, risk and quality.

Fortunately the substance arrives in Brief #7 – from p.118 onwards, when Levy dives into some of the core principles of project management and continues through subsequent chapters each covering the four stages of project management – initiation, planning, execution and closing. For the uninitiated this may seem a little daunting but there is no getting away from it – once project management discussions focus on the “harder edge” areas such as scope, resource planning, budgets and scheduling etc it does become a more technical topic. But Levy keeps things moving and injects plenty of the “art” side of project management by looking at the psychological make-up of team members, dividing them into supporters, snipers, saboteurs, and the “wait and see” brigade. Levy doesn’t dodge the need for documentation – instead he recommends the creation of a project charter on every project which should include a clear one-sentence vision that describes what the project team will be working towards. In the heat of battle such vision statements can be very helpful and prevent projects from spiraling out of control. Levy brings all of this back to the business imperative by re-focusing on fixed price billing and a useful chapter addressing training and coaching, the adoption curve (denial, anger, bargaining leading eventually to acceptance) and the importance of mentoring and coaching. Levy also devotes a chapter to Lean Six Sigma – a process methodology that has gained some traction recently in the legal sector most notably through the work done by Seyfarth Shaw, a large US-based firm. The distinction of project versus process is a critical one in legal services – the two frequently overlap. Unfortunately we are at the earliest stages of application of Lean Six Sigma in the legal services context and there are few war stories to be shared.

At 300+ pages, this book is substantial without being overwhelming. Each chapter ends with a helpful checklist of action items – surely the project manager’s favourite tool. A few thoughts on improvements for the second edition (for there will surely be one); a chapter tackling quality would be highly beneficial. Quality in professional services is very difficult to measure but it must be mastered and understood by both purchaser and provider as part of the overall project management trade-off. In the world of professional services dominated by the billable hour, so-called “gold-plating” can become rampant. But if clients are asking for a 90% solution, how does this impact the professional liability risk profile and the added reputational risk factor for law firms? These are serious questions that must be addressed within law firm senior management in order for any project management initiative to succeed. Project Management also brings an administrative overhead so how much project management is “enough”? How can PM work for smaller files or smaller working groups? Is there such a thing as LPM “Lite” and if so what does it look like? Like Richard Susskind, Levy is approaching this area primarily from a buyer’s (i.e. in-house counsel) perspective. Some attention to addressing the legitimate concerns from the seller’s perspective will greatly assist in law firm adoption of this methodology. One other minor aspect that could be improved is the quality of the graphics which detract from the higher quality of the text.

This is a very useful practice guide on how law firms and legal departments can approach project management without being submerged in jargon. The author manages to keep things simple. It is also an important book in that it is the first attempt to graft together project management and legal practice and cross the cultural chasm. For in-house legal departments and law firms looking to make a start on this important area and address some of the current and future economic challenges in the delivery of legal services, it is essential reading.

· Buy Recommendation:
· Who should buy? Lawyers in private practice and in-house, CLE Directors, KM Directors,
· Better Buys: None
· Websites: Publisher’s book page
· New Media Rating: Clips of Steven are available on YouTube.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for both the kind words and the suggestions for improvement. Most of all, I hope that by the time there is a second edition and I can incorporate your suggestions, the industry will have gained enough experience with both Legal Project Management and Lean Six Sigma for there to be a good selection of “war stories” to pick from!