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Legal Project Management Practice 2020

Every year the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM) surveys legal project managers and lawyers, asking questions about legal project management practice.  The survey is just one way the IILPM keeps track of global developments in legal project management and related areas.

In this post I will discuss some aspects of the 2020 survey results.  Please bear in mind the survey was completed before Covid-19 wrecked such havoc with our lives.

In my next post I will look ahead a little and discuss what legal project management practice is likely to look like in the short and medium term, assuming some pick up of economic activity as lock-downs across the world ease off.


Challenges facing legal project managers

The IILPM asked respondents to select from a list their three top challenges going into 2020.  The top three challenges selected were:

  1. Educating fee earners about the benefits which legal project management can bring
  2. Recruiting suitably qualified staff to join our existing team of legal project managers
  3. Identifying and implementing appropriate software support tools to enable legal project management.

I’d like to quickly review these in reverse order.

Software support tools

Having access to good software and ‘clean’ underlying data is crucial for effective law firm operations.  This is not just a legal project manager thing.  Information Technology (I.T) affects every part of our lives and its barely conceivable that modern law firms can operate effectively without a good I.T infrastructure.  Hence its no surprise that I.T features prominently in the work of legal project managers.

One respondent noted later in the survey, as part of a free text answer, that what they would really like is

dedicated legal project management software. Nothing on the market is fit for purpose

This is a pretty sweeping statement, and it reflects frustration on the part of this respondent about their search for suitable software support.

Looking at the survey results there is still much work to do by suppliers targeting the legal project management software market.  They must either develop the functionality required and / or demonstrate to the market that their software does indeed have the functionality required to help legal project managers manage matters effectively.

Personally, I think this is more of a marketing and communication issue which needs to be addressed by software suppliers.  I know there is plenty of good legal industry software on the market, although I would not claim any one application as being perfect for legal project management (in fact, I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘perfect’ software of any kind – all software is constantly under support and development).

What continues to surprise me is how much of a communications gap there is between legal software suppliers and their intended target market audience.  I know legal I.T professionals in law firms understand the technical (and sometimes, business) merits of potential software.  However once you get beyond I.T staff there is less understanding by potential decision makers and users.  This is not because staff outside legal I.T department’s are incapable of understanding higher level technical issues and more detailed business issues.  Experience shows me that, generally, legal software suppliers are not as good as they ought to be at communicating to non-technical staff.

From a personal perspective perhaps I should not mind this too much, as I still get assignments from law firms asking me to help them find suitable software for them or asking me to ‘translate’ what their suppliers are saying to them in the midst of a project which is not going well.


Recruiting suitably qualified staff

Struggling to find suitably qualified staff for legal project manager roles is less of a surprise to me.  Finding the right people with the right level of experience for the role in question is not easy.

I’d suggest this in part this reflects the growing maturity of the sector.  Large law firms, which have established legal project manager teams, have differing legal project manager roles to fill.  Whether the classification is simply from ‘junior’ to ‘senior’ legal project manager or whether the classification is more nuanced such as differentiating between legal project managers who are embedded in legal teams compared to those who provide more general support for firm wide change initiatives, a lot of time and effort is required to find the right person.

I have already explained in a previous post what the key abilities, skills and attributes of good legal project managers are, along with the 10 skills most sought for by recruiters of legal project managers so I will not dwell on these here.

Ideally law firms would develop their own legal project manager talent and ensure their resourcing requirements are met this way.  More law firms are doing this but, until Covid-19 so rudely interrupted normal life, the demand for legal project managers outstripped supply.

Personally, I think the demand for legal project managers and other legal operations staff will if anything increase in the post pandemic legal world and I will explain this further in my next post.


Educating fee earners about the benefits which legal project management can bring

Less than half respondents (48%) said they are confident their practising lawyer colleagues know and understand their role as legal project manager.  This repeats a theme carried over from last year: many practising lawyers still need to be educated about the role of legal project managers.

Many law firms have made significant investment in legal project management, but they will only derive a good return on this investment if their legal project managers are deployed properly.  Effective deployment of legal project managers depends in part on how well their role is understood by practising lawyers.  Hence educating practising lawyers about legal project management (and, I suggest, about legal operational improvement generally) is still an important work in progress for all concerned.


Greater involvement of legal project managers in matter delivery

Notwithstanding the above, survey results show that, compared to last year, legal project managers feel they are much more involved in matter management than they were.

For example, in the 2019 survey only 28% of respondents felt they were involved early enough in matters to help define scope properly, whereas that increased to 59% this year.

Similarly, in 2019 only 33% of respondents felt confident they were the primary point of contact for all operational issues concerning legal matters whereas this year the figure rockets to 76%.

This fits in with the impression I have after talking to legal project managers in the U.K.  They tell me that once they are assigned matters by practising lawyers they tend to be assigned more work from the same source.  So much so, some legal project managers say they no longer have to chase for work – quite the opposite.

What all this means I think is that the distribution of legal project management work can be uneven, even in firms which have established legal project management teams.

On the one hand legal project managers are becoming more involved in matter management and are trusted by some practising lawyers to do their job well.  While on the other hand, there are still a lot of practising lawyers who do not understand the work that legal project managers do and so do not engage with them or deploy them as much as they should.


What do legal project managers do?

Perhaps it would help practising lawyers (and others) to understand what it is that legal project managers do on a day to day basis, as reported by survey respondents.

As noted above legal project managers help with scoping matters properly and they then create project delivery plans.  66% of respondents also hold project kick-off meetings for all their complex matters, where plans are developed and team roles confirmed and clarified.

Once matters are underway legal project managers then track the cost of work done (over 80% of respondents say they do this) and track the amount of work done (over 90% of respondents say they do this).  Then they (74% of respondents) regularly compile matter status reports and send them out to all key stakeholders.

This year the IILPM introduced a new question about pricing.  40% of respondents said they most commonly worked on matters which were offered on a fixed price per matter phase, 30% most commonly worked on matters which were priced according to a single fixed fee for the matter as a whole, while 26% worked on matters priced (if that’s the word) according to the standard billable hour.

Legal project managers also conduct post project reviews.  However just 54% of respondents regularly conduct post matter review meetings and complete a lessons learned record sheet.  I suspect this is in line with project management practice in other sectors.  Generally, project reviews are done less frequently than they ought to be, as project teams disband and move on to the next project before reviewing the last one.  This is such a pity as holding regular post project reviews and recording lessons learned is the easiest – and best – way of improving project performance over time.


So what does the future hold for legal project management practice?

In my next post I will discuss an unlooked for, and in some ways surprising, response of many respondents when asked what would they change about their current role.  This leads directly to discussion about the changing role and status of legal project managers in future.  A discussion which has been brought more sharply into focus by the economic disruption caused by responses to Covid-19.

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