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Project management skills of lawyers: a litmus test of competence?

Several law firms have told me recently that some of their practice areas have lost out when bidding for new work as part of a formal tender process.  Nothing unusual here – sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  The hard-luck stories got more interesting however when it was explained to me that, as part of the feedback process, the firms’ learned that the project management skills of their lawyers failed to meet the standard required. This was cited by the purchasers as a major reason for the failure of their bid.

Clearly this is a wake-up call for the individual firm’s concerned, and it may also represent something of a tipping point: potential clients now examine closely the project management capability of the legal service delivery team as part of the law firm selection process.

Client expectation

Upon reflection, this should come as no surprise.  Most commercial organisations apply project management principles throughout their business as a matter of routine.  Naturally, they now expect the same of their legal advisors (both internal and external).

Competitor differentiation

There may, however, be more going on here than meets the eye.  Sales gurus regularly advise caution when bidding for work as part of a tendering process.  There will invariably be an incumbent supplier who will often influence the success criteria applied by the purchaser.  There is nothing sinister about this, just a fact of commercial life.

A purchaser will start to draft tender documentation by using the current supplier’s overall performance as the base benchmark.  Sometimes incumbent suppliers are able to ensure that particular aspects of their performance, which they believe differentiate them from competitors, are included as part of the key benchmark indices.  Could it be that some incumbent suppliers of legal services already have quite well developed legal project management capability and this is being used, in effect, as a barrier to entry against other competitors?

A litmus test

I suspect in the instances of the failed bids referred to above, the prospective clients were already benefiting from their incumbent supplier applying legal project management techniques and they were using the tendering process as an opportunity to raise the bar even higher in terms of overall performance.  Regardless of the actual reasons behind the focus on project management skills of the lawyers, the effect on potential new suppliers was the same: they had to demonstrate a certain level of capability concerning legal service delivery and, arguably, competence with legal project management techniques was used as a litmus test for this.

Evidence required

Evidence from the failed bidders supporting any claims made about legal project management competence must have been deemed weak by the purchaser. Supporting evidence comes in several forms.  Examples of explicit supporting evidence might include showing examples of standard processes and documentation used by the firm to manage matters.  Perhaps something like matter risk assessment processes and templates (which go some way beyond basic requirements of anti-money laundering) or typical communication plans where the type, format and frequency of communication to all stakeholders (not just the prospective client) is set-out.

Supporting evidence can also be provided during conversations with the purchaser during the bidding process, particularly during any formal presentation.  Lawyers who are relaxed, knowledgeable and happy to share experiences about project management techniques adapted to their practice area will obviously inspire confidence.

Sometimes the true purpose of questions asked by purchasers may be unappreciated and the most obvious answer is not going to be the winning one.  So when a purchaser asks whether the legal team makes use of analytic software or practice management system reports for example, it is likely to be less concerned about the technical capability of the software in question and more concerned about whether the legal service delivery team fully appreciates (and can demonstrate) how the data is used – and this, ultimately, is to help with the effective management of matters.

Warning signs

Why do so many law firms appear to wait until they have lost work before seeking to improve their legal service delivery capability?  If a firm has lost existing work, or failed to capture new work, then it is too late – the horse has long since bolted.  It need not be like this.  Law firms of all shapes and sizes can take immediate steps to improve their front-line project management skills.  Perhaps the very first step is to become more sensitive to the warning signs that improvement is needed.  In my next post I will run through the most common warning signs, which practically all law firms experience.

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