Revisiting the Case for Project Management in Legal Practice

I hesitate to write further about project management in legal practice because there has been so much said about it, but I just finished my exam to be a “Project Management Professional” (PMP), and I want to share some thoughts on why it’s a good fit for legal practice and how it fits into legal information work.

There are many “projects” in law offices or libraries—offices get moved, IT systems get upgraded, and new systems generally get rolled out periodically, but those kinds of projects are not the reason I think it’s worth talking about project management in legal practice now.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.” This is a good way to describe a large part of what many lawyers do for clients. PMI differentiates project management from operations management conceptually, with projects, like IT equipment upgrades or new office construction, moving organizations in strategic directions and balancing out the operations work that is the core function of the organization. In some organizations like consulting firms, however, projects comprise the business’s core operations, and law firms can fit in this category.

What this means is that lawyers who resist process improvements because they see each matter as different and think that things like process improvement initiatives and firm price estimating are not appropriate for complex legal matters have a point. As an example, Six Sigma was developed in a manufacturing context with the goal of limiting variability in processes to the point where the likelihood of defects in production is so small as to be negligible[1]. This approach is not generally appropriate for legal matters. There are too many variables in work this complex, and there are too few iterations of each kind of work to make the investment in reducing variability to that confidence level relevant. (I don’t intend to say here that Six Sigma techniques have no relevance in legal practice, just that achieving statistical validity isn’t a useful goal.)

That doesn’t mean project management doesn’t have techniques for how to handle practice improvements. There are many ways to estimate how much things will cost and how much time they will take, for example, you can see here to learn more about different estimating techniques PMI recommends. There are also many techniques to encourage the reuse of documentation, and recording and sharing of lessons learned that start to look remarkably like what firm libraries and knowledge management departments do.

Project managers work between the practical aspects of projects such as estimating and the documents from previous projects that illuminate current work. They can report within different departments, but project management principles, or the “project management body of knowledge” or PMBoK as the PMI calls it, advocates having a “project management office”, the function of which is in many ways indistinguishable from a knowledge management department. It can have different levels of authority, but it seems to operate most commonly as a record repository of previously used plans, best practices, and lessons learned. These are then strategically distributed as needed.

While there are project management offices and managers in some firms already, in others project management is already being done: it just tends to be done by the lead lawyer on a file. This is not an impossible situation, but it isn’t the most effective use of lawyers’ time and expertise to be doing things like scheduling meetings and monitoring limitation deadlines. In contrast, a project manager can take care of coordinating the people, work, and requirements for a matter in the most effective way. Project management can then be handled by a central group of experts who can be pulled onto complex projects as needed and provide general support for managing process when they aren’t.

This model would solve one of the biggest problems knowledge management initiatives face: how to get the information about the work being done collected into the centralized system and once there how to make sure it’s reused. If it is the responsibility of lead lawyers, articling students, or legal assistants, it may not get done, because their incentives and core responsibilities lie elsewhere. Navigating the connection between the project records and practice is at the core of what a project manager does.

Project management may give lawyers tools to improve the efficiency of their work while recognizing the individuality of each matter without attempting to achieve a uniformity that isn’t necessary or appropriate. Furthermore, knowledge managers and libraries should welcome this development as a way to better integrate information with the core work of firms and achieve greater value for the investment firms make in their resources.

What I would propose is to have a lead project manager linked with the knowledge management department and have the firm provide training and advancement opportunities for paralegals and legal assistants to work as project managers within practice groups. This would facilitate the development of expertise and best practices around how to manage projects and provide room to grow for ambitious employees who may not have room to advance in firms as they are set up now.

[1] Results will be within specified parameters at a range of 6 standard deviations from the mean, or 99.99966% of the time. For more specific information see the Wikipedia article.


  1. Some of us work for organizations where an internal PMO office exists with full-time PM consultants plus a body of corporate project management standards and guidelines.

    For knowledge /enterprise-wide information management, it can help that such standards and guidelines have senior management endorsement. Plus tools to build in project management reporting which holds PM managers accountable to large dollar projects.

    It is easy to become overwhelmed with corporate documentation requirements.

    For smaller scale projects a form that defines Scope, Signing Authorization of the project via client/lead dept. head/lawyer, out of scope parameters plus project deliverables, funding source with key performance indicators, is a good start. Then a mutually acceptable project meeting schedule with written basic points of role expectations for different team members and client/stakeholders.

    All of the above can be in 2-5 pg. core document as a start. Make it simple.

  2. Thank you Jean, that sounds like great advice.

  3. It will be interesting to see reuse of PM methodologies in legal practises in future. Recently, I came also across FMEA which is use project methodology in ER. Lots of industries are realising the benefits of PM and merging the same in their business functions.

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