Legal Project Management – Do Litigators “scrum”?

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.

Thoughts anyone?


  1. I agree with using a more expansive definition of project management which could properly include litigation tasks.
    I’ve found these resources helpful:

    Project Management for Litigation Matters by Debbie Westwood

    Taming the Litigation Beast by Donald Loft

    Law firm project management by Christopher Guly

  2. I like that Andrew. It seems to adress the challenge in setting meaningful requirements for litigation projects, which may be a bigger challenge than lack of control over external variables.

    I’m engaged in a litigation project right now that involves five associates handling a number of similar matters each. I’m only managing. We meet as a team weekly to exchange information on administration, procedural and substantive issues. The individual associates are responsible for maintaining a plan for each of their own files, but I help, and we meet very frequently on individual files for short (5 to 10 minuite) re-planning sessions or, to use your term, to scrum. So far this has worked very well, and has helped push the work down, so again, I think you’ve hit on something good.

    See you on the 1st!


  3. Andrew: I have now trained 1000’s of law firm partners in Legal Project Management(“LPM”)in dozens of firms with offices worldwide, and have experienced just the opposite of what you describe. In training workshops, I find that the litigators are often the first ones to push back on the concept. But, interestingly, they have the highest rate of adoption of LPM. Corporate lawyers don’t tend to argue as much in the workshops, but they also don’t tend to adopt LPM either.

    From studying this over several years, I find that litigators operate in a naturally phased professional environment. Litigation is rule-bound and defined by phases: pleadings, discovery, motions, pre-trial prep, trial, post-trial, appeal. In my experience, litigators find it relatively easy to group tasks by phase, budget by phase and manage by phase. This is classic LPM and it simply tracks the way litigators operate.

    What I have found with the corporate attorneys is that they perceive that every deal is different so that there cannot be a common way to approach corporate transactions. Adoption rates over time are considerably lower with corporate attorneys and, again in my experience only, adoption typically occurs when clients demand greater price predictability.

    There are a few variations of this in the EU due to the differing legal systems, but they do not significantly change the overall conclusion. I would be interested to hear from you about any longitudinal studies you know about or have run.

    Thank you.

  4. I agree with Mr. Terrett that Agile PM methods, such as Scrum, are well suited for litigation. I am a California attorney with PM credentials from UC Berkeley and PMI, attempting for some years to apply traditional PM and Agile methods to electronic discovery.

    Traditional PM works best if scope can be defined early in the project. In litigation, however, requirements are defined not only by the Client but also by the Opposing Party and the Court, which arise with possible litigation events and change with actual outcomes. Optimal methods for a litigation are also uncertain until requirements evolve and the litigation’s factual (information) environment is explored.

    On the other hand, Agile methods work well where scope is uncertain but time and budget are fixed. Agile’s focus on short-term priorities, requirements backlog, and periodic re-prioritization is similar to what many litigators already do. Agile also fits because litigation project resources are mainly high-skilled people who can be quickly redeployed as priorities and methods change.

    Nevertheless, application of Agile methods to litigation faces substantial resistance. First, Agile requires clear definition of the work team, but litigators tend to view their work as involving neither a project nor a team. For many reasons, litigators tend to work independently from their attorney “colleagues” and to view litigation information specialists as “support staff” who merely execute assigned tasks. Very rarely do attorneys see themselves as part of a multi-discipline team which produces litigation service outputs. Second, Agile requires periodic communication between the work team and the paying customer but, for various reasons, litigators do not welcome direct meetings of the multi-discipline team and the Client.

    Despite Agile’s advantages in reducing litigation project cost and risk, its adoption by litigation teams is difficult to achieve.

  5. Claudia Vandermilt

    I like this concept.

    Project management can be pigeon-holed, sure, but it’s a methodology.

    Think of scientific theory – there are steps to take (same with PM) but the application can be modified for myriad experiments (projects with PM).

    I think the agile or “scrum” method would work for litigators, though, as mentioned, instead of 30-day time periods it would be milestones that set the stage.

    To management the project one would have to lay out the milestones and, though they may take any number of weeks or months to come to, it would be the indication that it was time to reassess the project for the next phase/milestone.

    From Tim S above:
    Very rarely do attorneys see themselves as part of a multi-discipline team which produces litigation service outputs.

    I’m not an attorney, so please take this as it is, a simple question. Wouldn’t it make more sense to the entire process if the attorney(s) involved did see the various people working on the case as a team? It seems like a cohesive mindset concerning, at least, the key individuals working on a particular case would be a team of sorts, with needs to share information, discoveries and changes to the original plan.

    I understand the push back, change always creates that. But wouldn’t the time/money savings be a good reason to at least look into these methods? I understand billing for time is huge, but wouldn’t it be more effective to work on a few/several projects in a timely manner rather than having to backtrack and draw things out unnecessarily? There will always be issues in law, always something or someone to drag out the process, but wouldn’t it be helpful all around to at least streamline what can be and take the chaos as it comes from a more comfortable position?

    That said, I’m sure project management training would be good for just about anyone leading any projects, in law or elsewhere. There must be some actionable take-aways from those processes that could be applied, even if the scope cannot be defined or the budget varies or the timeline gets shot.