It is taken as given that law firms need a well-defined business strategy to succeed. But how many firms implement their strategy successfully? Take just one example by way of illustration. According to the Price Waterhouse Cooper Law Firm survey 2015, 80% of law firms see their digital services strategy as critical but only 23% had taken steps towards implementing it. That’s quite a gap between aspiration and reality.
The gap between organisational strategy and its successful implementation is well known. Nor is this gap a problem which afflicts only law firms. Project professionals often see this gap and know how to narrow it. Yet project based solutions to this problem are often ignored or poorly applied. It seems clear that all organisations, including law firms, would benefit by closing the gap, or at least getting it narrower. So why does the strategy gap still exist, sometimes to an alarming degree?
Identifying the Strategy Gap
Law firm strategic planning invariably revolves around the twin aims of increasing revenue and increasing profitability. There are many ways of trying to achieve these, some of the most well-known being:
- Growing through cross selling to existing clients
- Creating marketing campaigns to find new clients
- Outsourcing some infrastructure support capability to help reduce costs
- Delivering legal services via lower cost centres (offshoring or nearshoring)
- Investing in IT to improve various aspects of practice management
- Investing in training, including project management training, to improve lawyer productivity.
I’m sure you have come across all of the above – and more – as part of law firm strategic initiatives. I’m equally sure you have seen these kinds of initiatives implemented with varying degrees of success, including outright failure. You are not alone.
The State of Project Management Annual Survey 2016
This survey, a joint endeavour by the Association for Project Management (APM) and Wellingtone makes for rather depressing reading in many ways. The survey was completed by over 600 project management professionals in the U.K, covering a wide range of industries. The survey headlines are that:
- 32% of organisations sometimes or never complete projects on time
- 31% of organisations sometimes or never complete projects on budget
- 31% of organisations sometimes or never realise full anticipated benefits from projects.
According to the survey the biggest challenges facing project management professionals are:
- Organisations attempting to run too many projects
- Frequent changes to scope whilst projects underway
- Inconsistency in approach to project delivery
- Poor organisational resource management
All the above is unsurprising when faced with the following statistic:
- 45% of participants are somewhat or very dissatisfied with the current level of Project Management maturity in their organisation.
Project professionals believe that organisations implement projects poorly because of inadequate levels of organisational project maturity. Project immaturity is also the fundamental reason why implementation strategy gaps exist in a wide range of organisations.
As is by now usual with surveys of this type, there were too few respondents from the legal sector for this to warrant a specific industry categorisation in the survey report. However, I’d suggest that project management trends in the U.K legal services industry are fairly clear to industry observers.
Project Management Trends in the Legal Industry
As I see them, the trends can be summarised as follows:
- Applying project management skills to strategic projects outside of I.T (for a long time, the only place where project management skills were found in law firms) is growing, especially in the larger law firms.
- Applying project management methods to help manage legal matters has taken root. Evidence for this is in the increasing number of legal project managers employed by the larger law firms (particularly those in the City of London) and the increasingly attractive salaries on offer. Law firms are now beginning to truly value legal project management.
- Smaller firms are also appreciating the benefits that good project management can bring but, given their resources, they are less able to justify the cost of employing professional project managers full-time. Nevertheless, there is a discernible tickle down effect from the larger firms and in the SME law firm sector consultancy project management is on the rise.
The legal sector has come a long way in terms of its overall project management maturity over the last few years, but I suggest it still lags behind other sectors. Looked at this way, it is unsurprising there is an implementation strategy gap in the legal sector. Other sectors with a longer history of project management, and hence greater project management maturity to draw on, are still suffering from this gap.
Why is there a Strategy Gap?
One reason is the downward spiral caused by trying to achieve too much with insufficient resources. There are so many initiatives going on in organisations that people feel too busy to focus on just a few and see them through properly. As a general rule of thumb if an organisation tries to run 10 projects concurrently the chance of it succeeding with any one of them is pretty low. If the same organisation were to run with just 3 projects concurrently, the chance of being successful with two of them are much better.
I’m sure we all can think of lots of other reasons which contribute to strategy gaps in the legal sector particularly. Three immediately spring to mind. ‘Pet projects’ with little strategic focus being pushed through by senior partners. The rational desire of younger lawyers to concentrate on earning fees (because that is why they are rewarded) rather than becoming involved in efforts to improve the practice over the longer term. Poor communications, which means that many law firm employees don’t know what their firm’s strategy is and how they can help execute it properly.
Frustration is not confined to the legal industry
The APM – Wellingtone report indicates there is a significant degree of frustration among project professionals regardless of their particular industry sector. As mentioned in a previous post I have recently done some project consultancy work for a non-legal organisation. The organisation concerned has not fully adopted and applied all of the project management controls I would like it to, but it is more project aware than it once was. Slowly but surely its project delivery capability is improving as it advances towards greater project management maturity. This in turn is improving the way the business is being run.
I see similar progress in legal service organisations I work with. I am helping them progress their practice by implementing change successfully. With this in mind, in my next post I will suggest how law firms can begin to narrow the strategy gap.