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Starting legal project management development in law firms

If you develop, or are helping to develop, a new legal project management practice in your law firm, what should you do?

In this post I suggest four steps new and emerging legal project management (LPM) teams should take when developing their legal project management practice.

The collective aim of these steps is to help promote understanding and deployment of legal project managers and the LPM function by practising lawyers.

 

Step 1: Identify sponsor(s) for LPM development in the firm and build a productive relationship with them

Cultivating an effective working relationship with a sponsor was also referred to in my last post, explaining how to make a start with legal process improvement initiatives.

When a firm has decided to develop its LPM practice to support legal service delivery, senior management will have signed the initiative off.  At least one, sometimes several, senior management staff will in effect become sponsors of the LPM development.

Sponsors of LPM initiatives and LPM team members should share the same vision about what a successful LPM practice looks like.

Most important, sponsors need to remain engaged in LPM development and be ready to help, especially with resourcing and political issues, as and when needed.

One of the most important tasks of the LPM practice lead is to keep the sponsors engaged.  This demands excellent communication skills along with demonstrating things such as commercial awareness and the willingness to take responsibility without leaning on the sponsor too much.

Sponsors rarely want to become too involved in operational aspects of LPM practice development, and nor should they be.  It is vitally important that you find the right balance between keeping the sponsor engaged whilst not overloading them with too much detail about day-to-day operations.

 

Step 2: Identify the key users of your LPM service

Your immediate key users will be the lawyers and other related professionals in your firm.

I am certain that as your LPM capability develops your firm’s clients will soon join the list of your key users, but at the beginning of LPM practice development they probably aren’t.

Don’t worry, increased client contact will soon follow on from the work you will be doing with your colleagues currently providing legal services to clients.

Most often I see LPM initiatives starting up because a team in a firm feels the need for project management support although sometimes they are not sure what, exactly, that support should look like.  It is the responsibility of LPM staff to demonstrate over time what effective LPM looks like in practice.

Most typically the practice areas which feel most in need for LPM services are

  • Dispute Resolution (including specialist areas such as construction and arbitration)
  • Regulatory and Investigation
  • Property (including finance, development, and construction)
  • Banking
  • Complex Corporate, including M&A
  • A range of niche practice areas where matters are typically complex, such as Pensions.

Hence you will already know who the initial users of your LPM services are, as they will probably work in one of the practice areas listed above.

 

Step 3: Identify problems your key users are facing

The most obvious way of discovering what your user problem areas are is to ask them.  The details will vary from firm to firm and practice area to practice area.

I don’t know the detail of your firm’s legal service problems, but generally the most common problem areas are listed below.

Document management

I am using the term in its broadest sense here, covering everything from how to best organise matter documents produced internally, to the management of external documentation associated with regulatory investigations, complex litigation, and pension review etc.  From an operational viewpoint, document management in some shape or form is often high on the list of tasks given to new legal project managers.

Communications

Including communications within the legal team (which is likely to comprise third parties), communications with the legal team on the other side about operational issues (again, most commonly, document access and exchange etc) and communications with clients.

Matter Budget Management

This is often identified as a problem before matter planning and pricing.  Yes, budgets do need to be managed properly, but realistic matter pricing and consequent budget management are products of sound matter planning.

Matter Planning

Matter budgeting and pricing are intimately tied to robust, and often detailed, matter planning.  This goes to the very core of the legal project manager skill set, in stark contrast to most practising lawyers who tend not to receive any training about matter planning and budgeting.

Matter Pricing

Your users probably are concerned about matter pricing but in the short-term I think emerging legal project management teams are unlikely to be in a position to help with this.  The reason is that matter pricing is often a sensitive issue and it will take a while for senior lawyers (who set the prices) to feel comfortable having pricing conversations with their legal project managers.

Those conversations will happen in the fullness of time, but for now you should have plenty of other work to be doing while you build up the profile of the legal project management practice.

 

Step 4: Make user problems go away

Emerging LPM practice groups are constrained at first as their lawyer colleagues will either be unaware of how legal project managers can help them and / or sceptical about how useful that help can be.

Hence usually LPM practitioners must start from the ground up and build up trust with their practising lawyer colleagues.

Broadly, new LPM teams and new legal project managers move through the gears of gaining trust and acceptance by:

Supporting effective document management

This can range from hands-on work helping to organise and sort documents in a client portal or other repository, through to planning and managing the deployment of third party specialist suppliers (external I.T consultants or document support specialists).

Assisting with matter planning

In the beginning of LPM practice development it can be valuable for legal project managers to simply ask questions during the matter planning process, such as:

  • What is resource availability like?
  • How has task duration been estimated?
  • How much confidence do people have in the estimates provided?
  • What are the operational risks relating to matter delivery?
  • Is there a communication plan?

The likelihood is that questions such as these are not addressed explicitly by the firm’s practising lawyers at present.  Obviously, they will not be answered explicitly either.

Legal project managers help provide the answers by working with their practising lawyer colleagues constructively.

Providing clear and concise project communications

The most obvious steps here are for legal project managers to create project status update reports, by

  • Collecting information from the legal team and data from supporting systems
  • Compiling the report, and then
  • Distributing the report to all key stakeholders according to a set schedule (i.e the communications plan).

Frankly, providing a structured communication framework and sticking to it should be an ‘easy win’ for emerging LPM teams.

Mastering relevant I.T systems

In most firms there will be systems which assist with matter management.  This could be, for example

  • Practice Management System (PMS) functionality
  • Legal practice workflow or
  • An analytics tool to help with matter planning and pricing.

LPM teams should aim to become ‘power users’ of these systems.  As power users legal project managers can help their legal practitioner colleagues in a myriad of ways.

Looking for process improvements

LPM teams soon learn which processes supporting legal service delivery are working well and which aren’t.

In the early stages of LPM practice development the work of legal project managers is often about improving aspects of legal service delivery by simply making sure ‘stuff gets done’.  Legal matters become organised despite any processes which exist rather than because of them.

Effective supporting processes make everyone’s life easier and results in more consistent delivery of legal services.

Legal project managers are well placed to identify where legal process improvement work is needed.

 

Legal project management development takes time

Legal Project Management provides a great set of tools and techniques to help make legal service delivery more effective, but it’s not a magic wand.  A lot of work is required to build up a successful LPM practice and this takes time.

The time and effort is worthwhile, as early adopter law firms discovered.

Some of the leading commercial law firms in the City of London have been employing legal project managers for over 10 years now.  They are still recruiting legal project managers and developing their legal project management practice.  These firms would not still be investing in the discipline if they could not see the value LPM brings.

To find out more about developing your skills and practice in legal project management and legal process improvement sign up for my legal project management training and certification course and / or my legal process improvement training and certification course.

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