Legal Project Management has certainly become flavour of the month. I will be co-chairing a full one-day conference on the topic (on November 1st, 2010 in Toronto). This is the first Canadian event of its kind and the fact that the conference is organized by the Canadian Bar Association and has both law firm and in-house counsel speakers suggests that the idea of applying project management principles to legal services has broad support and interest across the profession.
But while the topic resonates for many lawyers (with its prospect for increased budgetary certainty and potentially better outcomes), my experience is that the majority of lawyers who gravitate towards the topic tend to be corporate lawyers rather than litigators. Litigators are generally a little more skeptical, citing a number of potentially very valid concerns. For a start, litigation has a strategic aspect that the project management literature does not speak to. At any given point in time a litigator must re-assess their options based on new information. They cannot simply start with pleadings as task #1 and map out the entire schedule to trial (“So based on the schedule, we go to trial on January 15th 2015…”). It’s just not do-able. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Litigators do have a need for project management – the aspect that is different for litigators is the planning horizon. Instead of planning the project from beginning to end as one would do with a construction project, a software implementation project or a corporate deal, litigators can plan to the next milestone whether it is submission of pleadings, motions, discovery or trial. In addition the planning of tasks must be combined with a strategic decision about what steps to take next, given the information presently available.
Litigators are not unique here. Traditional project management (“plan once, and manage to the plan”) has emerged out of the construction and engineering industries and has been adopted in the past 20 years by the IT industry. But certain elements within IT, in particular software developers, like litigators, have recognized the potential flaws in traditional project management planning. Their argument goes like this – as IT developers we have been tasked with the development of a new IT application. We know from experience that our end-users are incapable of fully describing the required functionality of this IT application, therefore gathering business requirements and summarizing them in a Business Requirements Document in the hope that they are comprehensive, is a pointless exercise and will lead to a failed project – we will end up with a deliverable, an IT application that is either wholly or partially inadequate. Instead some software developer take a different approach – they often gather a minimal amount of business requirements and start building the raw structure of the application. After a 30-day effort or “sprint” they seek feedback from end-users. They then use that feedback to amend the IT application still further and present it back to potential end-users after a further 30 days. This cycle will continue until the end-users are satisfied with the outcome. This methodology is known as agile development or sometimes referred to as “scrum”, after the rugby term for a group of individuals who can, amidst apparent chaos, move the ball down the field fairly effectively.
There seem to be some parallels between those IT developers using a “scrum” approach to project management and how litigators operate. Admittedly litigators don’t have the benefit of choosing the timeline of 30 days for the execution phase – they work to the next key milestone in the litigation. But when they reach the next milestone, they re-assess their options at a strategic level, based on new information, provided either by their client or by opposing counsel.
If this analogy is correct, what are the implications for the implementation of Legal Project Management in law firms? Well firstly when addressing project management in a legal context we can conclude that one size does not fit all. But that does not mean that litigators have a completely different project management methodology – just a variation. The litigation project still needs to be assessed in terms of scope, time, cost, risk, quality and communication. But the constraints on planning are much greater due to the planning horizon being much closer and strategy continues to play a significant role through-out the project lifecycle. But on the face of it, this “scrum” analogy makes good sense and removes at least some of the litigators’ initial objections to Legal Project Management.