Innovation in Legal Project Management

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By Aileen Leventon | Nov 27, 2018

Innovation is a hot topic, and when I was recently asked to edit and contribute to a book to be titled Innovations in Legal Project Management, I was challenged to find a useful definition. As a lawyer, consultant, expert on legal project management (“LPM”) and as an author, I needed something more useful than “I know it when I see it.” I began by developing a baseline understanding of LPM practices that are the norm, in order to be able to identify those that are different – and possibly innovative.

The current state: In the past ten years, client needs and expectations for the delivery of valuable legal services have created significant pricing pressure and competition among law firms and other service providers. Law departments, inside counsel, and other professional staff numbers have also grown. Demand in meeting the needs of the business (internal clients of in-house counsel) in a cost-effective manner has accelerated. Legal project management, process improvement methodologies, data analytics, knowledge management, the increased stature of legal operations professionals (previously referred to as “non-lawyers”), and technology are all included in the portfolio of resources that are available to meet the challenges of providing cost-effective and valuable legal services. During this time, LPM has gone from being perceived as another management fad to broad acceptance and increasing usage. In many organizations, lawyers rely on a support role so that LPM also involves a stand-alone or well-integrated and respected function. In some law firms, LPM collaborates with pricing professionals, or reports to those with titles like “chief value officer.”

A baseline of LPM practices at law firms has developed; a cadre of LPM professionals have self-organized in trade groups and networks; and training programs for lawyers and paralegals that build awareness abound. Corporate law departments have adopted LPM practices through their systematic approach to intake of (or declining) client requests, and allocation of work internally and to external counsel. Both the Association of Corporate Counsel and the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium have developed frameworks and playbooks for LPM. All provide useful tactics.

With this baseline, I believed that a book on innovation needed a different lens. I sought examples of the difficult work of harnessing the relevant aspects of LPM as a strategy that is explicitly aligned to a law firm’s or legal department’s business objectives and culture. My search was rewarded. I found law firms with communication strategies and techniques to train, coach and mentor those acquiring the skills to implement LPM practices as a core aspect of the firm’s business strategy, operations, and commitment to delivering quality legal services. Others integrate LPM in the firm’s essential focus on the client experience. I invited the International Institute of Legal Project Management to contribute a chapter, since it has the most comprehensive approach to professional development and government-approved accreditation in LPM in the world.

Innovators in LPM see around corners to improve the legal profession. They create value for their firms, clients, and organizations. I found examples in both domestic US and global organizations, with case studies from both practicing lawyers and other industry experts. There is a common denominator that may be used as a working definition of innovation in LPM. Innovators systematically and continuously:

  1. Use deep insights about particular clients to create new services and ways of doing things that impact the client’s business goals;
  2. Incrementally improve the speed, value (cost/margin), and quality/benefits of the product or service they deliver; and/or
  3. Rely on technology that is home grown or highly customized to meet users’ needs.

The first is the most difficult to achieve and appears to be the least prevalent in LPM today. Support from technology and service-delivery professionals are part of the baseline of LPM practices. But how many lawyers and supporting professionals thoroughly understand what it is really like to be the client unless they have been a client?

Innovators in LPM incorporate these techniques – for example, during the scoping of a matter – by asking such questions as:

  1. What is the business background and context for the situation that requires legal advice, services or other counsel?
  2. What is the definition of a successful outcome from a legal perspective? Is it the same as the business perspective? Are there stakeholders with conflicting views? How will this be reconciled?
  3. What are the metrics and the process for capturing them in evaluating the performance at the matter and organizational level for all stakeholders in the matter?

Effective use of LPM will assess whether the answers to these questions at the outset continue to hold true over the course of handling a matter. Finally, innovators will go beyond a basic after-action review to actively engage with the client to capture a deep understanding of the client’s needs, business and the extent to which the lawyer’s legal services made it easier for the client to do his or her job.

Where to start? Other disciplines provide a path: the design thinking methodology requires empathy with the customer; lean and process improvement frameworks require hearing the voice of the customer; and marketing and business development provide opportunities to convey differentiation in client-service delivery.

Yes, I do know innovation when I see it. We have just begun to understand how to unpack the buzzword of 2018 to make it concrete and practical for those seeking to maintain their edge.