I have read a few comments on social media recently where it has been said there is nothing so special about legal project management, it’s just project management which happens to be practiced in the domain of legal services. Consequently, it has been suggested, is there really a need to refer to legal project management?
This point of view gets aired regularly. In 2012, after seeing similar comments, I wrote my very first blog post called: legal project management – a note in defence of the’legal’ prefix. The title indicates where I stood, and still stand, in this debate.
In this post I’d like to re-state and update the reasons why I think the ‘legal’ prefix is still justified.
Project Management at its core
I would expect to see legal project managers, and lawyers acting as legal project managers, take the lead to ensure that defining, planning, monitoring and controlling all operational aspects of legal service delivery is done properly. To do this they will need to do things such as ensure the legal work is fully scoped, that everyone on the legal team knows what is required of them and that all key stakeholders, the most important of which is the client, are kept regularly informed of project progress.
Yes, these are many of the common fundamentals found standard project management applied across many industries. So I can appreciate why some people would rather we just call it project management and drop the legal.
But to stop there does not tell the whole story.
Legal as a signifier
It was not that long ago that most lawyers would not even consider applying principles of project management to their daily work. This has changed. Many, but not all, now accept the relevance of project management principles to legal service delivery.
Arguably, the ‘legal’ prefix acted, and still acts, as a signifier. It says to lawyers: project management is for you too.
Following legal I.T.
There is nothing wrong with using the legal prefix as a signifier in this way. After all, as I pointed out in 2012, this is what the legal I.T industry has long since done too. Everyone refers to legal I.T, so why not legal project management?
The core technology and class of software applications found in the legal I.T industry are found in other industries. What the legal I.T industry does is apply technology to the needs of the legal market – lawyers were relative latecomers to I.T and in some ways they are still playing catch-up. The legal I.T industry also adapts technology found elsewhere to meet the needs of the legal sector.
The phrase ‘legal project management’ suggests a similar approach: the application and adaptation of project management to legal services.
Applying project management to legal work
Project management offers a different way of seeing and approaching legal work. This can be valuable in itself.
Lets take an obvious example illustrate the point.
Traditionally, when a new matter arrives lawyers and their teams dive straight in. Outside criminal law there is rarely a need to start at lightning speed. Usually, at matter inception, time is much better spent scoping the matter and planning what needs to be done. This sounds ridiculously simple, yet even now it is often not done consistently in legal services.
Wanting to impress a client about responsiveness regularly outweighs a common-sense approach of pausing first to plan. I am not suggesting the planning should take a long time – and responsiveness is important – but some planning should be done first, before acting.
Omitting initial planning considerably increases the likelihood of operational difficulties later, which can be costly for all concerned. Building a pause button into new matter inception processes will help promote good matter planning.
Ad hoc approach to project management
Lawyers actually spend a significant amount of time on what can be identified as project management activity. This has been recognised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), which lists illustrative project management tasks it expects solicitors to be competent at.
The problem is that project management done by lawyers often appears ad hoc, inconsistently executed and without any understanding of what best practices in the field are.
This is unsurprising. Generally, lawyers are not trained about project management at any stage in their professional development. It seems they are expected to pick up project management practices as their career develops and then apply them as and when required.
Ideally, having acquired a proper understanding of project management, lawyers should then feel confident adapting project management methods, techniques and tools to meet their needs.
Project management practices and their adaptation
It is generally good practice for project managers to complete a Project Initiation Document and thereafter hold a Project Kick-Off meeting with their team. The essential purpose of the project kick-off meeting is to confirm the definition document with the team and set expectations around team delivery.
I am constantly surprised at how infrequently these two things are done on legal projects. I am not suggesting they need to be done on every single legal project regardless of size and complexity. Unfortunately, I have seen quite large and complex matters start without them. Almost inevitably, these matters then become problematic from an operational point view.
With some experience its straightforward to adapt a standard project definition document for use by a legal team. Two simple steps to start with this. Eliminate or reduce wherever possible project management terminology, as this often gets in the way of comprehension by people who are not especially well versed in the subject. Then provide general prompts on the definition document for input by users; often they will have the information to hand but won’t know if what they have is relevant or how to express it.
Keeping it legal
In reality the market has determined that there is indeed such a thing as legal project management. There continues to be a stream of vacancies advertised for Legal Project Managers and related staff. Legal project management is now a fixture on the landscape of legal services.
Legal project management is project management applied to legal service delivery. It is project management adapted and refined to help lawyers and their teams manage matters more efficiently. It enhances skill-sets of those who are responsible for, and assist with, legal service delivery. It also helps drive organisational capability to deliver legal services which more accurately reflect client need. Nothing wrong with all this, surely? So let’s keep the ‘legal’.