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Past Lessons on Legal Project Management?

Legal Project Management (LPM) has received a major boost downunder with the leading Australian/Asian firm King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) launching a program with the assistance of Edge International. Tony O’Malley, Managing Partner Australia, King & Wood Mallesons and Pam Woldow, Edge International give a convincing 5 minute audio explanation of why it is such a good idea.

If it is true as Shaun Plant says in The New Holy Grail of Legal Practice that “much of the practice of law is not about technical legal detail, but managing projects”, and, as Tony O’Malley has said that “Clients have been telling us this for a while”, why has it taken the legal profession so long to embrace LPM?

It is not as though LPM is a recent invention. As an editor of a newsletter on IT in Law which saw me produce 30+ abstracts each month for over a decade from 1985 on, I can tap into a bit of LPM history. I’ll simply reproduce some of this material. When reflecting on the observations, note the year they were made:

New project management system for lawyers

Project management, when taking on a court case for example, requires lawyers to write down all relevant factors such as meetings, research, availability of key figures and how long each of the stages will take. With a new project management system for lawyers called ‘In Control!’ they then input these activities onto the microcomputer and play with the information to find the best possible schedule. During the preparation of the case they can input new data as circumstances change so that they always know the completion date. The UK software package costs £49.50.

(COMPUTER LAW & PRACTICE; Nov/Dec 1987; p76)

 

Computer assisted litigation for bigger, faster mind games

The use of project management software, programs which help plan and manages large projects, should be explored by the profession. At present, it is not common for lawyers to plan in an orderly fashion the conduct of litigation from the commencement of pleadings to judgement. While there are many contingencies which might disrupt such planning, there seems to be no inherent reason why comprehensive planning ought not be undertaken at the start of the litigation and reviewed from time to time as circumstances change. If properly harnessed, this type of software would enable the party using it to control and to some extent direct the course of litigation.

When the profession realises that it is more productive to invest in its lawyers than its administrators, the old attitudes such as a reluctance to use keyboards, will begin to change. This reluctance may arise, in part, from the fact that lawyers are not used to doing things with their hands; the business world distinguishes between manual workers and thinkers.

(Timothy Hancock; LAW SOCIETY JOURNAL [NSW]; September 1988; pp30-36)

 

Lawyers keep time with KeyPlan

Litigation like other projects needs to be managed from the beginning. Traditionally, lawyers have devised manual systems to assist. In order to properly advise their clients, they have prepared time charts and cost estimates, but as so often occurs in complex litigation, these original predictions are lost in a mass of information and it is then impossible to keep the client informed. Project management software can reduce this problem.

Project management software will allow a lawyer to manage the litigation more effectively and expediently by spotting potential bottle-necks, rescheduling scarce resources, alerting the lawyer to the need for additional resources and to expiring time deadlines, and by providing cost estimates. It is also useful to have some kind of “intelligent” check-list.

To begin, the lawyer lists the tasks to be performed in any order. Each task is assigned an optimum time limit for performance, and the resources necessary to complete the task. Each resource is assigned an hourly rate. Fixed costs and overheads are also entered. For example, assume we have just received instructions to act for the plaintiff in an action against a valuation company who allegedly provided our client with a negligent valuation. We list the activities to be performed following the receipt of instructions from our client. These activities may include sending a brief to counsel to advise generally, drafting a letter of advice to the client, a company search of the defendant, drafting a letter of demand, obtaining an expert valuation etc. Each task is assigned a time frame for performance; for example, the letter of advice to the client may take 1hr 30 mins. A solicitor is needed to draft the letter of advice, and that solicitor is entered as a resource at an hourly rate of say $150.00.

It is then possible to instantly prepare a time chart for the entire litigation or any section of it. For example, the partner in charge may wish to ascertain the tasks being performed by a certain solicitor and their degree of completion. The time chart can be instantly regenerated if the draft pleadings are not received from counsel when expected but several weeks later. You can estimate the costs to date but more importantly you can give your client an estimate of the future costs on a daily or even an hourly basis. In settlement negotiations, you can immediately advise your client on the relative costs position if the case is settled immediately, next week or if it proceeds to a full hearing.

Elizabeth Broderick, COMPULAW DIGEST; Feb. 1989

 

The above bits of history indicate that Project Management was not unknown in decades past; however, there were greater challenges at the time including just getting lawyers to have a computer on their desk, or use a keyboard.

Interestingly, those firms that did get IT, prospered. A world-leader in this regard was the then Blake Dawson Waldron (now Ashurst), where Elizabeth Broderick became a partner — one of the first in a major firm to achieve partnership based on her contribution via legal IT, rather than client billings.

While visionary lawyers can try to lead their firms into the future, a nudge from a client is guaranteed to get attention. In mid-1990’s we were assisting a law firm with the presentation of an extremely large case. I recall the client of that firm being somewhat dismayed that the firm did not use Project Management tools to keep things on track for the case. The firm did get the hint and embarked on a major effort to educate staff in Project Management efforts. Like too many innovations in law, it takes client-pressure to action improvements taken for granted outside the legal profession.

The message that was continually received by Corrs Pavy Whiting & Byrne from its larger clients was to computerise or they would take their business elsewhere. These clients had learned from their own systems about productivity increases that were possible. They wanted Corrs to hook up with their computers as they required faster turnaround time of documents.
(S. Beer; Pacific Computer Weekly; 11 September 1987; p14)

One of the differences between now and then, is that clients didn’t have alternatives to the traditional firm, “elsewhere”, nor were they confident enough to explore options. The risk with waiting for clients to drive innovation is that the new service benchmarks might have been set by another law firm, but that rarely happened. In the past, law firms only had to compete with like minded colleagues who played by “the rules”.

Not so now, as there has been a sudden influx of “elsewhere’s” in the form of what Paul Lippe calls the Non-Firm Firm. One of their main characteristics is that they are process-focused, and so understand LPM. They also are purpose-built, use metrics, have capital and so have a big start when it comes to LPM. So while KWM leads the way among traditional firms with LPM, I suspect others who take a “wait and see” approach don’t have the luxury of even months to respond.

For those wanting to explore this area, at least now, there is a wealth of choice in LPM tools, with the easiest for testing purposes a free trial away on the web. They even run on the new “microcomputer”, the smartphone.

Comments

  1. Steven B. Levy, author of Legal Project Management

    I think this article makes some good points. However, I caution firms not to conflate Legal Project Management, IT, and tools. All three are distinct.

    IT has a specific role to play in a legal environment, providing enabling technology and supporting it. While IT may have strong project managers, and may even have some that understand the peculiarities of legal projects, there is no assurance, and in many firms little likelihood, that IT project managers are best suited to manage legal projects.

    Tools and technology can at times provide useful adjuncts to LPM, but they cannot substitute for it. LPM without tools beyond Word and Outlook can be highly successful. Project management tools without project management knowledge, however, are likely to raise more problems than they solve.

    Legal Project Management is a specific discipline unique to professionals (specifically, legal professionals). It is related to but not a subset or derivative of IT or engineering project management.