Project Management as a Key Litigator Competency

Lawyers will always be free to decide how they chose to practice law; the market will, however, decide who the winners and the losers are. Winning in e-discovery increasingly means adopting lean, efficient business practices. These practices include (but are not limited to) using project management and appropriate measures of quality to reduce cost and to mitigate risk.

This powerful statement is from the Sedona Conference’s Commentary on Achieving Quality in the E-Discovery Process. The drafters of the Commentary argue for the application of formal project management methodologies by lawyers. This is a short endorsement of this argument, with links to other sources of authority.

Wikipedia defines project management as “the discipline of planning, organizing, and managing resources to bring about the successful completion of specific project goals and objectives.” “Projects” are distinct from “processes” because they have a beginning and an end and particular goals and objectives. Project management is also a professional discipline, with concepts that enable better control over projects and that are embodied in a leading model – the Project Management Institutes’ “PMBOK.”

This is about all that I am qualified to tell you about project management because I am only a lawyer who carries litigation files. I do accept, however, that I owe it to myself, my firm and its clients to develop project management competencies. My own perspective may not count for much, but does highlight the true significance of the Sedona Conference position on project management; to at least some degree, the Commentary is a message from practising litigators to practising litigators about the need to bring formal project management methodologies to bear on litigation files.

There are other sources of authority for the pro-project management argument, starting with the CBA Code of Professional Conduct mandate to serve clients in an “efficient manner” through the application of “adequate knowledge of the practice and procedures by which [legal] principles can be effectively applied.” And, like the Sedona Conference, Slawyers Debbie Westwood and Jordan Furlong have stressed that lawyers should develop project management skill for competitive (and not merely professional) reasons. Westwood says, “The smart litigator will get a handle on project management now; not just because the client expects it, but because the smart litigator knows this is the way to offer better value than the competition.” Furlong is not as charitable: “…today, everybody project-manages: it’s SOP in corporate life, and lawyers are the only ones in the business chain who seem to have missed the memo.”

In making a similar point to Westwood and Furlong, I don’t wish to obscure the live debate about the ideal division of project management responsibility between lead counsel, other lawyers acting on a file and litigation support professionals. The Sedona Commentary does not suggest that lead counsel should become project management leaders and, instead, says that files should benefit from a “lead e-discovery attorney in charge” who is “empowered by the client to manage the effort of counsel and service providers.” Others, like e-discovery and litigation support consultant Brett Burney, say that the project management specialist role is best performed by professional project managers.

I take no position on whether lawyers or litigation support professionals are better suited to play the role of legal project management specialist. I only say that all litigators need at least basic project management acumen regardless of the staffing model which they most commonly employ. Staffing files with a project management specialist is not an option on smaller files, but project management itself is still required. On larger files, the development of litigator project management acumen is an important change management objective that will help teams of individuals function well and project management (through a project management specialist) succeed. And finally, project management supports alternative billing and the business aspects of a litigation practice.

Do you have a view on the importance of project management to a litigation practice? A view on who should contribute project management expertise to litigation files? A view on how to get litigators on board? Please comment below.

(Thanks to my colleague and trained project manager Heather Colman for directing me to some great resources on legal project management.)


  1. Thanks for the post. It’s nice to see more lawyers talking about the importance of legal project management. You bring up an interesting point about whether lawyers or litigation support professionals are better suited for legal project management and whether law firms should hire “professional” project managers. By “professional,” I’m assuming that you mean “certified” or at least trained and experienced in a standard methodology such as PMBOK or PRINCE2.

    Over the past six months or so there have been a number of articles written on this subject, published in various industry publications and news letters, which I’ve discussed on my blog.

    In my experience, a great project manager, like any manager, is great due more to his or her personality, communication, and work ethic than formal training. I’ve worked with wonderful project managers from a variety of backgrounds. Some were lawyers. Some were trained in computer science. Some had a background in HR and staffing. Some were paralegals. A good number were individuals with years of litigation support experience, who picked up a lot of technology and law over the years, were detail oriented yet personable, but had no formal training in any “related” field.

    One area where formal training can improve project management performance, whatever your background, is project management training. Project management education will not make up for poor communication, a poisonous personality, or technophobia. It will, however, help improve an otherwise competent e-discovery project manager’s ability to understand and measure the work that needs to be done, to estimate the time and resource requirements needed to do the work, and to track the progress of the work to make sure the project requirements are met on time and within the budget. It can also help interface with corporate clients’ IT staff, who are often more familiar with, and use, project management methods and jargon.

    While I don’t know of any solid data to back claims for the value of applying project management standards to legal work, the Project Management Institute has sponsored research to make the case for the value of Project Management in general. I don’t know that a legal project manager needs to hold a PMP certificate, but I do feel strongly that a solid understanding of project management standards will improve the effectiveness of anyone responsible for managing large, complex legal projects.

  2. Thanks so much for the comment Paul. I actually owe you an apology, because I used your blog as a resource in preparing my article. I used quotes from other sources, so neglected providing you with the credit you deserve. Your Legal Project Management Blog is a fantastic resource of detailed and quality thinking, and one I will follow! Cheers. Dan.

  3. Turning lawyers into project managers will not happen until law schools and Bar Admission courses change their view of what it means to practice law – but there’s very little sign of that happening. Litigators generally do not have project management skills (as you say) and they are also not even oriented to the basic concept of planning. As a result many lawyers seem to reject the idea of bringing someone with project management skills onto the team. I agree with those who feel this needs to change, and soon. To deal with the challenges of e-discovery, I try to help firms establish proper, professional litigation technology support groups, including project management resources, and then encourage the lawyers to broaden their concept of what a litigation team looks like.

  4. Dan,

    I’ve actually published a very relevant series on PMO and Law firms, I invite you to read it (and maybe comment on it) when you get the chance.