Legal Ombudsman’s view of a good cost service – Legal Project Management principles go mainstream?

Legal Project Management principles could be going mainstream. The recent report from the Legal Ombudsman about lawyers costs made its way to the public consciousness thanks to the publicity efforts of the Chief Ombudsman, Adam Sampson.  He was, for example, heard on Radio 4 last week heralding the launch of his latest report, “Costs and customer service in a changing legal services market“. After identifying issues for concern, most of the suggestions for improvement made by the Legal Ombudsman will be familiar to legal project managers.

In his most recent report the Legal Ombudsman notes that:

“Costs have been the single most common reason for people contacting us with an issue about their lawyer. Costs issues represent 20% – 25% of the problems people come to us with.”

Helpfully the Legal Ombudsman has, in separate documentation, provided his view about what  amounts to a good costs service by lawyers. While he is careful to point out that he does not head a regulatory body, and so cannot compel the profession to follow his advice, the advice he offers is sound and reassuringly familiar to practitioners of Legal Project Management.

The Legal Ombudsman suggests that client care letters “should contain information on:

• why the customer has decided to engage the lawyer;
• the course of action the customer has chosen;
• what work will (and won’t) be carried out;
• the standards and timescales for the work;
• the likely costs of the case based on the information within the letter.”

The reference to “customer” rather than “client” by the Legal Ombudsman is deliberate.  He maintains that purchasers of legal services increasingly shop around for the “best buy” and service offering most suitable their needs.

Amongst his further advice for lawyers when dealing with costs, this particular item caught my eye:

“If a customer and lawyer agree that once the price reaches a certain amount agreement needs to be sought to proceed further, we would expect this to be followed by the lawyer. We would also expect a lawyer to discuss cost control options if a customer identifies difficulties in affording the cost of the case as it develops.”

Much of this advice is strikingly similar to the core principles of legal project management: seek clear agreement with clients about the objective of the engagement and commit it to paper (define success from the clients point of view); state clearly what is, and what is not to be done as part of the engagement (define scope); explain timescales and milestones (create a simple project plan); take steps to manage the matter proactively (re-plan and re-schedule if necessary) and, of course, estimate costs (which can be done as part of the scoping exercise) and keep communicating with clients effectively throughout (create a communications plan, and stick to it).

All the points noted above can of course be considered elements of best practice implementation, regardless as to what the best practice system is actually called. Nevertheless, legal project managers can take encouragement from the observations and advice of the Legal Ombudsman. The Legal Ombudsman has supplied some principles of good practice in connection with legal costs, and legal project managers should be able to provide the detail. Legal project managers should have the tools, experience and knowledge to help law firms accelerate comprehensive and detailed implementation of the best practices identified by the Ombudsman. Moreover as a discipline, Legal Project Management can provide sound evidence for implementing systems that may be new to some lawyers, but which have a history of success when applied elsewhere.

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