Legal Project Management – a note in defence of the ‘legal’ prefix

Over the last few years in the U.S. A and Canada the concept of Legal Project Management has become widely known and there are a number of commentators, consultants and practitioners who regularly engage in online discussion about all aspects of Legal Project Management.  I will refer to some of them in this blog post and will undoubtedly refer to them, and others, again in later posts.

Recently Paul Easton has explained, in his long established Legal Project Management blog, how ‘Legal Project Management has Grown Up’, although as Paul acknowledges, the discipline is still in its infancy.  Last summer there were a series of lively online discussions about whether there is such a thing as LegalProject Management at all.  See the 3 Geeks and the Law blog  “Is it ‘Legal’ Project Management or just Project Management?” and a post on the Legal IT Professionals site by Jeffrey Brandt: “Holy Semantics Batman! There is no such thing as ‘legal project management’”.

The most important thing to note at this stage is that every contributor to the discussions – without exception – agreed with the premise that law firms can benefit from the application of project management techniques.  The issue was one of nomenclature.  Is it realistic to talk of Legal Project Management, or should we refer simply to project management being applied in the legal sector?

In summary, contributors to the discussion seemed to fall into three camps:

  1. Those who believe that the legal sector is just another vertical sector where project management principles can be applied to improve effectiveness; there is therefore, no need for the Legal prefix
  2. Those who essentially agree with the first group but say that if using the Legal prefix helps with marketing to, and adoption by, the legal market then fine, let’s call it Legal Project Management.
  3. The third group say that the legal sector really is different – particularly concerning the culture and modus operandi of lawyers and law firms – which means that the legal sector is not like other vertical sectors and so the reference to Legal Project Management is necessary and justified.

I won’t repeat the arguments supporting each of these viewpoints – they are all set out in the blogs referred to earlier – but I am in the third group.  I think the legal sector does differ from others, and I plan to discuss U.K legal cultural traits in future blogs.

Jeffrey Brandt, who is firmly in the first group above, made his original post (informative, entertaining and quite nostalgic for old-time Batman fans!) on the Legal IT Professionals web site.  That’s right, Legal IT Professionals (my emphasis).  To paraphrase Jeffrey’s argument: is there really a need to differentiate legal IT professionals from other IT professionals?  Isn’t IT, just the same IT, regardless of the sector to which it is applied?  Well, as we know, it is not.  I think everyone would agree that we have a Legal IT industry, which serves the specific needs of the legal market.  Why?  Because it is a distinct market, which requires market focused solutions and know-how to solve legal sector specific problems.

This was most clearly illustrated to me years ago.  I worked for a U.K legal software supplier and we had some discussions with a very large multinational software supplier about a potential joint venture.  The multinational concerned supplied enterprise business systems to blue chip companies in many sectors, but not legal.  The multinational was very successful, had extensive resources and staff of high calibre.  During the discussions they suggested they could handle legal billing, as they were used to supplying high volume billing systems in complex corporate environments.  So they asked us to take them through a few U.K law firm billing scenarios so they could start modelling.  We did, and before the day was out our friends from the multinational said that the solutions required seemed to be very sector specific and so it would be best if we remained responsible for this process along with others deemed ‘legal market specific’.

No great surprise here, as the emergence of a legal IT industry has resulted from a need to solve sector specific market problems.  I’d suggest the same should be said for Legal Project Management.  It is far from being ‘an industry’ at the moment but it is developing and evolving as it meets the needs of the legal market.  Of course there is no point in legal project managers re-inventing the project management wheel as, everyone seems to agree, project management techniques are most successful when applied and adapted in context.  So I think the legal prefix is justified when referring to Legal Project Management, as it is when talking about Legal IT, as the legal market is sufficiently different and distinct from any other.  At least, it is for now…

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