Software tools supporting project management and process improvement initiatives are sorely needed by law firms, according to a recent survey published by the Legal Support Network (LSN).
The survey report claimed that
Project management is an area in which there appears to be a wide disconnect between law firms and the suppliers to the market
I’m not so sure about that. I believe the two sides are not actually that far apart. I think there has just been some confusion about what a software support tool for legal project management should look like in practice.
A degree of confusion here is understandable. With legal project management generally, there is no one approach which will work for all law firms. It follows there is unlikely to be any one particular software support tool which will suit every law firm.
The Survey: Legal IT Landscapes, 2015
The survey data was drawn from the top 100 law firms in the U.K (the survey report can be downloaded from here).
The survey report noted that
The appetite for project management and process management tools and methods appears to be off the scale.
46% of respondents said their firm was planning to use or adopt ‘legal project management technologies’ within the next two years. When looking ahead to the next five years, this figure rises to 89% of respondents. OK, these figures are not actually off the scale – unlike Spinal Tap’s ‘this one goes to eleven’ – but it is fair to say there is indeed significant demand for these kind of software tools.
My discussions with firms outside the top 100 suggests that similar results would have been obtained had the data trawling net been cast wider. I’m sure the demand for software to support legal project management and process improvement initiatives is not confined to the top 100 law firms.
A ‘wide disconnect’ between suppliers and purchasers?
According to the survey, here is where there is a ‘wide disconnect’. Respondents believe they are already using a ‘legal project management solution’ to help them plan and manage matters. Legal IT vendors say this cannot be right, as there have not been enough sales of this kind of software to meet the need as expressed in the survey.
Vendors say that firms are using matter management software in a creative way, rather than using dedicated legal project management software as such. I assume this is because, so far as most vendors are concerned, they simply do not have dedicated ‘legal project management software’ available to sell.
The way I read it, the main body of the report confirms the software vendors’ point of view. A majority of respondents – 55% – in the survey say they are using ‘matter management solutions’ to help them plan and cost matters.
Some core features matter management software
Matter management software is essentially a flavour of case management software. Rather than control practically every aspect of matters, as some case management solutions attempt to do, matter management is ‘light touch’ legal workflow.
The core features of legal workflow software, whether applied as ‘case management’ or ‘matter management’ are well-known. Essentially, legal workflow software will:
- Schedule tasks
- Place tasks to be completed in fee earners electronic diaries
- Issue reminders when tasks are due
- Escalate tasks when they are overdue
- Automate tasks whenever possible (eg produce standard letters and legal forms)
- Generate reports about matter progress, including costs
- Integrate with time recording functionality so that time spent on tasks is translated directly into chargeable time for billing purposes.
Vendors supplement these basic features with lots of others, such as task based billing, document management and client access via portals etc.
It’s not hard to see how, in light of the core feature set outlined above, legal workflow software can help firms plan and execute matters better. Many of the building blocks needed to achieve these twin aims are already supplied by the software, such as task creation, task-scheduling, time recording and reporting.
Matter management alone is not enough
However, the survey report also indicated that, for many, applying workflow software alone for the purposes of supporting legal project management activity is not enough. They are surely right. So what other options are there? Potentially, quite a few:
Enhanced workflow software – following on from above, the most obvious approach is for vendors to enhance their existing workflow software, to better assist with more overt project management activity. Usually this takes the form of enhancing core workflow functionality with data analytics capability, as part of the continued evolution of legal workflow software.
Cost budgeting software – some of the more innovative firms of cost lawyers have developed software which will estimate litigation costs (based on previous case data) and produce Precedent form H. As you would expect given its origins, this class of software is particularly focused on technical aspects for compliance with the current cost budgeting rules in force in England and Wales.
Almost inevitably however, the scope of the software is expanding. The next stage beyond estimating is managing, so naturally this kind of software helps with matter management by tracking costs, comparing actual expenditure to budgeted expenditure and flagging up in advance when the budget is likely to be exceeded.
Dedicated Legal Project Management Systems – its fair to say the notion of dedicated legal project management systems originated in the USA. Typically these systems have legal workflows, high level Gantt charts and proactive notices to lawyers about the current status of their cases. As with cost management software, the notices are usually generated by comparing budgeted schedule and costs with actual. Generally, vendors in this segment have clearly spent a lot of time working on the presentation of project data to lawyers and its interesting to see the different approaches taken by different vendors.
This segment has experienced some recent turbulence with the announcement from a leading US based vendor that it is leaving this market. However I know of another US based vendor which has made inroads into the UK legal market and a UK based PMS software vendor which is developing a specific tool to assist with budgeting and resource management. It seems to me that there is still a lot to play for in this market segment.
Integration software – yet another option is available from vendors who specialise in providing software integration tools and services. These vendors have the technical capability to bring together data from different systems, such as workflow, time recording and document management. This presents a holistic picture of disparate data to users. This data view can be tailored to reflect the need for improved project management capability and I know of some specialist software integrators who are particularly focused on meeting this need.
Legal Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) – several leading legal software vendors are in effect moving their flagship Practice Management Systems (PMS’s) towards becoming legal ERP systems. As the name indicates, the differentiator is the emphasis the latter systems place on resource planning.
Resource planning systems should go beyond resource allocation, as workflow software can already do this. Ideally resource planning software should allow project managers to see, on-screen, the peaks and troughs of resource demand against a time-line. It should then provide for means of levelling out these peaks and troughs by, for example, the electronic re-assignment of tasks.
Legal ERP systems should of course also include workflow functionality and much else besides. This is both a strength and a weakness. Outside law, where ERP systems are much more well established, some people view them as ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. This is actually fine for organisations which require a broad spread of functionality (Core Financials, CRM, Workflow, Inventory Control etc) developed to a reasonable degree of complexity. For more sophisticated requirements however, users feel the need to supplement their ERP product with a more specialised software. It will be interesting to see how the legal sector develops in this regard.
Obviously, legal software support tools of all kinds will continue to evolve. What’s likely to happen in 2015 is that greater emphasis will be placed by vendors on software to assist with legal project management and process improvement. After all, the demand for this kind of software is clearly there.
It follows that many law firms will be trying to work out which is the most appropriate software for them to adopt.
If your firm needs help with selecting and implementing software solutions to help improve productivity, please get in touch with me. I’m sure I could help.