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The Legal Project Strategy Gap: How To Narrow It

The Legal Project Strategy Gap: How to narrow it

The legal project strategy gap refers to the disparity between strategic aims and the reality of project implementation experienced by law firms and in-house legal departments.  Continue reading to find out how this gap can be narrowed by adopting a classic project based approach to strategic project management.

A Systems Approach

Creating the following framework and supporting processes should help narrow any legal strategy gap:

  1. Define organisational strategy.
  2. Communicate that strategy clearly, especially to those tasked with managing the organisational project portfolio (see next point below) and the project delivery teams.
  3. Create a senior management governing body (let’s call this the ‘portfolio management team’) which has the task of keeping all projects under review.
  4. Establish criteria for selecting, prioritising and managing projects, which the portfolio management team then applies. Some high level criteria to start with are:
    1. Degree of alignment between intended project outcomes and organisational strategy.
    2. The Project Delivery Capabilityof the organisation to deliver. In other words, how confident is the portfolio management team that the projects proposed or in-flight will be completed (within acceptable tolerances), on-time, on-cost, and within scope?  More importantly, how confident is the team that the completed projects will generate appreciable value for the organisation?
  5. Create a schedule whereby the portfolio management team reviews the organisational project portfolio regularly (say once a month) and ensure the schedule is adhered to.
  6. Provide means of communicating the portfolio management team’s decisions and recommendations back to everyone else involved in project delivery.

Project Portfolio Management (PPM)

The brief outline above of organisational Project and Portfolio management (PPM) will be recognised instantly by project professionals.  The professional bodies for project management, The Association for Project Management (APM) and the Project Management Institute (PMI), champion this approach.

Similarly, the more comprehensive standard methodologies invariably have their own methods for helping ensure alignment between organisational objectives and project delivery.  For example, one Theme of Prince II (Prince II is made up of ‘Principles’, ‘Themes’ and ‘Processes’) is the creation of business cases underpinning projects, and the regular review of both projects and business cases throughout the project lifecycle.

PPM Outcomes

The rationale for implementing a PPM process is compelling.  PPM helps organisations deliver projects more successfully.  More particularly it is often said that a good PPM process helps ensure that:

  • Projects are better aligned to the organisation’s strategy
  • The organisation’s strategic plan is better executed
  • The organisation’s portfolio has a good balance of projects
  • The organisation prioritizes effectively, so that the right projects are done at the right time.

PPM Supporting Tools

There is an abundance of tools for organisations and their portfolio management teams to help them manage this process.  These tools range from simple low cost Microsoft Office based project reports, to application software (increasingly cloud based) designed specifically to help organisations of all kinds with PPM

The State of PPM

Research has shown (see for example, this report by pm solutions) there is a close correlation between an organisation’s level of project management maturity and its adoption of a PPM approach.  The higher up the project management maturity scale an organisation is, the more likely it is to implement a PPM process.

Organisations are also much more likely to implement PPM if they have an established Project Management Office (PMO).  A PMO is made up of personnel who have responsibility for defining, maintaining and supporting project management standards and practices in their organisation.

PPM in Law

As with so much in the legal services industry, it is the larger law firms that lead the way.  Nothing surprising here, as the larger city based and national law firms have greater resources to call upon.  PMO’s, along with senior staff with titles such as Programme Directors, are becoming more prevalent in this class of law firm.

I believe that a higher degree of project maturity, along with PPM processes, need not be the preserve of only the largest law firms.  It is rare to find any reasonably sized organisation engaged in solely ‘business as usual’ activities.  Projects of various kinds will be either planned or in-flight.  These projects need to be managed from an organisational point of view.  This is especially true where resources are tight and the potential cost of failure is high.

Project Thinking

SME law firms will, inevitably, be running a number of project concurrently. One problem is that they will not be considered as ‘projects’, so there will be no project management controls placed around them.

Lets just take a few obvious examples.  SME law firms run marketing initiatives.  Streams of marking activity might cover social media advertising, blog posts, writing articles for print publication and attending events to meet potential clients.  So from a PPM of view: which resources are going to be devoted to each project? How long is each project (marketing campaign) going to last? What are the objectives of each campaign?  Which campaign is succeeding most? Should time and resources be switched from one campaign to another?

PPM tools and techniques can help senior management keep track of all of this and help them make timely decisions.  PPM can also help in other areas of strategic importance to SME law firms such as monitoring staff professional development, departmental objectives and IT system upgrade or replacement projects – the list goes on.

Introducing PPM by Stealth

Every law firm (and legal departments of significant size) has management meetings.  Frankly, there should be plenty of scope for introducing PPM techniques by stealth into these meetings.  After all, ultimately, PPM is simply a conceptual framework made up of tools and processes to help manage organisations more efficiently and effectively.  All law firms can – and should – be able to implement a light version of PPM.  This can be done by using simple tools (ie MS Office based templates) and focusing on just a few key organisational success criteria.

I’d also suggest a wider take up of PPM by law firms would be achieved by moving away from the project management terminology.  Portfolio management sounds fine to a professional project manager but I’m sure this (and other project management terms) can sound off-putting to busy lawyers and law firm managers who do not have a project background.

Cost Effective Introduction of PPM

What is required however are people who know enough about PPM to promote its introduction and sustain its application.  The PPM champions must also be prepared to help develop project gateway criteria, project review procedures and supporting tools.

With less money to spend on infrastructure support than their larger competitors, SME law firms find it hard to justify the full-time employment of project management professionals and the creation overheads such as a project management office.  The good news for these firms is that they can increase their project maturity and delivery capability without needing to employ full-time project staff and incurring other high overheads besides.  If this is of interest, please contact me to see how I can help.

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