Tag Archives: legal project management

Innovation in Legal Project Management

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.

Edge International to Offer LPM Workshops in Australia

Of the thousands of effective lawyers who use legal project management (LPM) to improve their practices, many have adopted the simple approach I developed on the basis of my 20 years of law practice in New York.

I am pleased to present an LPM programme for barristers and solicitors in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne in November, 2018 with my colleagues, Sam Coupland and Dr. Neil Oakes.

More information

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After-Action Reviews: The value of taking stock

Client reviews of their law firms may be conducted annually, ad hoc, or when a contract for a preferred firm comes to the close of a cycle. Before conducting a law firm review, it is critical to have a baseline: how well does in-house counsel, legal operations, and the department overall function in collaborating with its law firms? That may depend on how well the in-house function is doing in managing itself. Legal Project Management (“LPM”) provides the discipline that enables lawyers to define, demonstrate and deliver value to their organizations by better balancing the scope of work, time and resources allocated to legal work. The last and often overlooked step in the LPM framework, the After-Action Review (“AAR”), examines how well the legal team achieved these goals.

Make or buy? The ongoing question about legal services

A law department is corporate overhead. Make vs. buy—insource or outsource legal work—is a decision reviewed regularly. Offsetting purely numeric calculations are “soft” considerations such as the value of the internal legal team’s business and institutional knowledge, expertise, management skills, focus on governance, and other factors. Consequently, the AAR of a law department’s work should encompass both hard and soft performance indicators. The specific criteria will vary depending upon the priorities of a business client or the nature of the business risk or objective that requires legal support.

The goal of the AAR is to identify how the legal team delivers value overall and, at a matter level, what works well and should be continued and where there is room for improvement in balancing scope of work, time and resources. Underlying every AAR is the need to answer the question posed by management with regard to all business functions — is the organization well-served by its in-house legal team, should it use outside resources, and if law firms or other advisers are involved, what is the optimal mix of inside and outside resources?

Where to begin

An AAR typically is a joint undertaking between a legal team, including in-house and outside lawyers, and the business client. Nevertheless, when first conducting an AAR, law departments should start by focusing on matters where the in-house team is solely responsible for the work—i.e. outside firms and other third parties are minimally or not involved—and conduct the review without involving the business client. Focus on a matter or group of matters that arise regularly so that the findings of the AAR process are immediately applicable to other work. Identify the client goals as they evolved during the course of the matter in relation to the outcomes. Analyze the causes of variation in those matters. This simple start provides the foundation for tackling more complex matters.

How to do an After-Action Review

The level of detail and formality of the review should be commensurate with the importance of the matter and the expectations of corporate management. Take the time. This systematic review is critical to demonstrate the law department’s commitment to the stewardship of corporate resources. The LPM framework provides the structure.

Can you answer five questions?

The LPM framework calls for legal team members to be able to answer five key questions at the launch of a matter and throughout its course, even in the face of changing circumstances, in a manner appropriate to their roles. The AAR assesses, qualitatively and quantitatively, the alignment, gaps or inconsistencies in the team and client’s understanding of:

  1. WHY we are handling this matter for the business—why is it important to the company’s strategy and operations?
  2. WHAT legal strategy will accomplish the business goal and what legal work is out of scope?
  3. WHEN and in what sequence must work be done and what are the uncertainties and dependencies regarding timing?
  4. HOW do we manage the work, given constraints and requirements such as budget, strategic importance, regulatory and reporting obligations, timing, and risk management protocols?
  5. WHO is involved in the work and what is each person’s role and responsibility?

The answers to these questions have consequences—positive, negative and neutral—for resource allocation, work plans, scope of work, stakeholders, roles and responsibilities, teamwork, training, communications throughout the project, status reporting and client satisfaction. Not all observations flowing from the AAR will require action; some may require more attention.

Do you have all the facts?

An AAR is a fact-based discussion that requires data. The primary source of data should be the information that grounded the initial planning for the matter and updates to it. Data-gathering processes, checklists, guidelines for outside counsel, precedents, invoice review processes, timelines, staff allocation/management systems and report templates should already be in place to permit this kind of look-back and comparison to the initial plan and similar matters. If the data are unavailable or unreliable or it is difficult to do this kind of analysis, a lesson is quickly learned: action is required to improve information quality.

Analyze the facts

After analyzing the information, address the following issues from an LPM perspective to determine what factors fostered or detracted from efficiency and the client’s view of value:

  1. What did we intend to accomplish at each point in time and why—what were our goals
    and our strategies?
  2. What did we actually do, who did it and how did we implement our strategy?
  3. What were the differences between our intended goals, strategies and execution and
    what we actually did? Why were there differences? What was the root cause of both distress and success?
  4. What could we have done to improve the implementation of our plan?
  5. What were the differences between our approach, the outcome and the client’s expectations?
  6. What were our successes and how do we repeat them and export lessons learned to other matters?

Look for what worked well and should be replicated as a best practice. “Good work” should result in retained knowledge, new action plans, training opportunities and templates for use in other matters. Watch the tendency to be hypercritical—find the positive. Also watch out for regression to the mean; consensus does not necessarily mean that a common practice is a “best practice.” Strive to raise the bar. Understand how your work product and advice meet a range of client objectives. Ask for candor about what is important to internal constituents—how they define predictability, accountability, risk and value.

Look at what caused tension among the team and with the internal client. Fertile areas for review are those characterized by rework, duplicative effort, misunderstandings, “surprises” and poor communication and the effort to get back on track. Focus on the root cause of variances from plan and the steps taken to recover. Shifting stakeholders may have materially changed the scope of work and strategy. Concern about business reputation or relationships with suppliers and customers may have emerged to eclipse the legal team’s approach and required a dramatic change in plans.

Identify, too, the root cause of problems leading to the need for the legal work. Part of the law department’s mission is to use its knowledge of the business to prevent legal problems from arising in the first place.

What might you find?

A recent AAR revealed significantly different staffing utilization and time lines for closing acquisitions of similar properties depending upon which lawyer handled the matter. The variation primarily resulted from how each lawyer utilized paralegals. Often differences in processes, time lines and cost arise depending upon which lawyer is handling the matter or the experience of the businessperson. Facts, not impressions, are needed to document and address the causes and implications of variations.

Another AAR found inside counsel often gave the business client insufficient notice for document production because of the absence of a sound record-keeping and calendaring practices. Look at what caused tension during a matter and identify steps to alleviate the root causes going forward.

Once the in-house team is familiar with the AAR process and is making improvements and establishing best practices, progress to reviews of matters where outside law firms play a significant role. Law departments that conduct regular self-assessments generally are able to communicate more effectively and learn more from reviews their law firms. And after getting a good handle on the inside-outside relationship and dynamics and determining how the combined legal team will present itself to the client, then bring in the clients.

Establishing the Proof of Concept for Legal Project Management

Blank measuring dial. Industrial colored gaugeLaw firms consider using Legal Project Management (LPM) as a strategy to protect margins and improve competitiveness and client satisfaction. The first steps a firm takes towards LPM implementation may be generic training programs or practice group seminars. Others designate a few key partners or professional staff to participate in industry groups so they can benchmark and serve as an internal resource. Staff and paralegals may be tasked with matter-specific reporting or facilitation.

In each approach, cultural, operational and financial issues are at play. Workshops and online programming—bespoke or generic—can be cost-effective on a per-head basis to introduce concepts widely. Training staff or hiring PMPs (Project Management Professionals) helps if LPM is not yet viewed as a lawyer’s job. Training a few influential lawyers may work: if they are onboard, others may believe they can safely follow suit. Many approaches can build awareness of how LPM addresses profits, margins and client satisfaction.

Ten years into our work with Legal Project Management, we find that the one factor that determines whether the LPM framework actually takes hold and pays back is that a proof of concept has been established and communicated by leadership. Until this happens, partners are apt to say “LPM makes sense theoretically, but it won’t work in my practice or with my clients.”

How to Prove the Concept

LPM can improve economics and client satisfaction, and Key Performance Indicators (“KPI”) can prove it. Here is how.

Identify a high-grossing partner who handles multiple similar matters, or a partner with an important client relationship that is not meeting your firm’s realization or profitability targets, or a partner with a history of write-offs for a significant client. Alternatively, work from a client’s perspective: Identify a client who has retained the firm after asking about LPM as part of an RFP or pitch, a client who has complained about your fees, or a client you believe would be receptive to a joint LPM program.

Set benchmarks so you know how previous comparable matters turned out, using for example, the fees, expenses, duration, staffing, variance from plan, and client communication process that characterized the matter. Identify the factors that consumed resources excessively or unexpectedly and created billing “surprises” for the client. These benchmarks create useful KPIs such as pre-bill and post-billing write-offs, leverage, budget vs. actual vs. percent expended against budget, etc. From a law firm perspective, KPIs will also be reflected in profitability and realization metrics. Engage partners in tutorial-style discussions. Drill down on causation: what was it about the specific matter or portfolio of matters that drove use of resources, variance from plan, or friction?

With this in hand, establish the proof of concept. Determine which LPM tools have an impact on the selected KPIs. The next time there is a comparable matter, use relevant LPM practices. Engage a coach or facilitator if a lawyer is not sufficiently skilled to apply the framework from beginning to end.

Anticipate the lessons learned about cost drivers and variance from plan, and address them in real time. Analyze. Track. Monitor. The goal is to compare the metrics from the “unmanaged” matter to a matter where LPM tools have been applied. If the client has not asked for a budget, work with the partner to develop one anyway; it is essential to manage a matter against a baseline. Use a Work Plan as the gateway LPM tool. Configure performance reports that produce metrics against the Work Plan. Make comparisons with other matters, particularly those that have benefited from the application of LPM tools. Which KPIs changed and why? Did economics and client satisfaction improve? Almost certainly the answer will be yes. Applying LPM to specific matters and clients resonates in a completely different way than will a general training program.

This is the proof of concept that underlies almost any kind of change program. Different aspects of LPM are valuable for each lawyer, client, and matter type. Adherence to a single LPM approach within a firm is unlikely to produce results across the board—that’s the limit of one-size-fits-all generic training. Variation in the use of LPM is important—LPM provides a tight framework and a loose fit.  Encourage lawyers to determine the KPIs and LPM tools relevant to different clients and matters. Let them prove to their own satisfaction that LPM works. That’s when it takes hold.

Curing Communication Babble

1 HiResA Slightly Disguised True Story

Legal Department Head of Litigation:

“Sam, I swear I’m about to throttle you guys, or at least fire you. You keep sending us these urgent demands for decisions and information with totally inadequate lead time. We get settlement requests, notices of hearings, pleadings and documents for review, and requests for interrogatory information with only a couple of days for turnaround.

“Do you have any idea how long it takes to go up and down the decision ladder around here? You turn every routine communication into a pressure-prompted emergency. We’re sick and tired of getting the bum’s rush.”

Client Relationship Partner [clearly taken aback]:

“Laura, I had no idea we were causing you so much distress, but we will fix this communication problem, like right now. How much time do you need for turnaround?”

Legal Department Head of Litigation:

“For us, it’s usually pretty straightforward, Sam.

“For pleadings, we gotta see ‘em one week in advance of the filing date.

“For reviewing important letters, one week in advance of sending.

“For settlement authority, we need two weeks at our end after we receive your case report, unless it’s a major matter; figure longer — three weeks – for high-stakes decisions.

“We need to see notices of mediation and arbitration at least 30 days in advance of the proceedings date.

“For rogs and deps, we need to talk case-by-case, but you have to stop assuming that we all can jump through hoops at the snap of your fingers.  Our clock is not like your clock.”

The moral here is clear: if the parties had taken the time to discuss communication pathways and timeframes early on, they could have avoided a lot of later pressure, stress and hard feelings in the law firm-client relationship.

Who’s to blame? Everybody. The partner should have asked. The client should have taken the partner through a communications reality check at the get-go.  But nobody communicated, and now everybody suffers.

Communication Turnaround

Poor communication between law firm lawyers and in-house lawyers and general counsel contributes to misunderstandings, dropped balls, inefficiency, unpredictability, acrimony, and a generally adversarial cloud over the law firm-client relationship. Each side blames the other.

But stop: where does blame and shame get us? How does it improve things? How can the players light a collaborative candle rather than continually cursing the darkness? To do this, everybody has to take two basic steps: 1) resolve to communicate better because lousy communication is so costly, even in “minor” matters; and 2) consciously focus on up-front communication planning.

Da plan, Boss, da plan!

If there’s one thing that Legal Project Management reveals, it’s that lawyers are loath to plan. Too time-consuming. Too… administrative. They prefer a “ready, fire, aim!” approach in which they charge into action, patching up problems and re-jiggering erroneous assumptions down the road.

Although creating detailed communications plans for significant or complex matters – plans that include input from both law firm lawyers and in-house counsel – probably is about as appealing as rubbing ground glass in your eyes, maybe we can cajole you into creating at least a simple template, basic checklist or discussion guide.

How simple? As simple as practically possible, because complex plans take time both to create and monitor. And let’s face it: the majority of law firm-client communications do not relate to huge engagements with scores of contributors and boatloads of moving parts. They involve the simpler, quicker interactions of a couple of lawyers who have worked with each other a lot, know each other well, and have done this sort of thing often before.

Do such workaday communications really warrant protracted scoping and planning? Obviously not. But even simple communications warrant some basic framing and reality-testing. Lawyers working in familiar territory are even more prone to making untested assumptions and therefore getting sucker-punched by inarticulate communication than lawyers project-managing sophisticated matters. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say.

For simple communications or complex, the following guidelines will help improve the overall quality of communication.

Try it, you’ll like it

When thinking about who should be in the communications loop and what form of information is appropriate for each stakeholder, non-lawyer project managers often trot out the acronym RACI.  RACI reminds you to consider the different players who may need to be part of communications and decisions by asking four framing questions:

  1. Who is responsible for performing the various tasks involved in the matter, and what information does that person need to do the work?
  2. Who is accountable for (i.e., who “owns”) the matter and what type/level of information does that person need to stay on top of things?
  3. Who needs to be consulted before a decision is made or an activity commenced?
  4. Who else needs to be at least informed of where and how things are going?

Regardless of which side of the law firm-client wall you’re on, for complicated multi-party communications, you’ll do well to create some kind of BCP – that’s a “Basic Communication Protocol“ – which may be no more than a set of scribbled notes describing:

  • WHO: The names and titles of everyone who needs to be somewhere in the communications loop (even lower-level worker bees).
  • WHY: The reasons and rationales for why each player is communicating with other players.
  • WHAT: The kinds of information that need to be shared, and what kind of response is required.
  • WHEN that information is best shared and when a response is needed.
  • HOW that information is best shared: Email? Phone?  Written report? Meeting? (meetings are costly, but they actually go a long way toward minimizing communication babel)

The best way to end-run lawyers’ natural tendency to avoid discord and conflict is to minimize situations that trigger discord and conflict.  And the best way to avoid damage control mode is to think more seriously and respectfully about your modes, methods and style of communication – even for simple matters – at the outset.  A problem averted is not a problem.

©2015 Edge International US, LLC.

LPM for Associates: The View from Ground Level

1 Highway5010_thumbSuccessfully implementing Legal Project Management initiatives understandably focuses first and foremost on the folks driving the bus – on the roles and responsibilities of partner-level performers: client-relationship partners, project managers, practice group leaders, client team leaders, etc. Considerably less time is spent teaching LPM to associates or, for that matter, thinking about what the worker bees think. This is a serious oversight. If you want LPM to work in your firm, we urge you to walk a mile in your associates’ shoes.

Different Folks, Different Strokes

In training with senior-level lawyers, we typically define LPM as:

A systematic approach for efficiently scoping, planning, managing and controlling legal work within agreed time, budget and mandatory performance requirements.

This entirely accurate but rather abstract definition doesn’t say anything about how things look to a living, breathing associate. For the people who actually perform much of the heavy lifting, a better LPM definition might be:

LPM is an approach to assigning me tasks, delegating responsibility to me, managing my work, giving me reliable feedback, and planning team communication, that:

  1. Connects me with the whole team and loops me into the whole engagement.
  2. Diminishes the differences among how various partners do things (and want me to do things).
  3. Provides me with a clear sense of what I’m supposed to do and when I’m supposed to do it.
  4. Helps me keep my work on time and on budget.
  5. Seeks my input about better ways of doing things, as well as identifying barriers, bottlenecks, and budget-busters.

You detect the pattern here? Like all of us, lower-level project performers tend to be self-referential, interpreting projects, process and progress in terms of how it impacts them as individuals. But since those self-references define things like buy-in, morale, resiliency, commitment and tenacity, you’ll do well to factor them into your project leadership and management.

Six Easy Pieces

Here are six particularly notable insights about associate perceptions and attitudes.

  • 360° Perspective: Associates resent the hub-and-spokes approach that characterizes so many partners’ management styles – the one where the partner at the hub knows and controls everything and none of the team members sees the big picture, knows the overall project budget, or collaborates with all the other worker bees out there on the rim. Associates want the big picture, not just the micro view; they say they feel more involved in projects where the strategic objectives are explained, and more committed to projects whose sweep and scope they understand.

One large law-firm partner confirmed this point most aptly: “If an associate feels detached from the team’s efforts, they will not be there for you when you really need them.”

  • Do It My Way: A corollary to the inefficient and non-communicative hub-and-spokes management style is the tendency for every partner to do everything in his or her own unique way. Associates often tell us that false starts, do-overs, write-downs and dressing-downs result from a lack of consistency in how their work is assigned, managed and measured. Put differently, they love the consistency that LPM can offer.
  • Basic LPM Education: Associates really like LPM training that demonstrates the basic LPM building blocks (scoping, project planning, managing work, monitoring/measuring progress, and post-project review), but that also looks at these functions from the associates’ perspective. In successful training workshops, associates are taught that they are not just passive performers, but that they bear “contributory responsibility” for
    • making sure they fully understand their assignments;
    • receive objective and timely feedback; and
    • can manage their own work effectively.

In short, associates must learn that they too have to communicate better and collaborate more.

  • You’re Never Too Junior to Think About the Client: For many junior-level lawyers, the “client” is a distant abstraction. Associates are taught that they are not responsible for understanding the client’s business, needs and priorities, that client relationships live out there in partner country. This perspective is profoundly misguided, and associates report a real hunger for information about all aspects of the law firm-client relationship. Client-centric thinking is the wave of law’s future; it cannot be introduced too soon.
  • Early Warning System: Similarly, as ground-level performers, associates are often the first to see early signs of scope creep, redundant assignments, work process inefficiencies, communication babel, performance bottlenecks, road blocks, or other budget-busters. Associates tell us that the main reason their uniquely pragmatic insights are not appreciated is because they are seldom sought: “We see things that more senior lawyers don’t see, but no one ever asks us how things look from our end.”
  • Proactive Perspective: Given the opportunity to perform and excel, today’s associates are energetic, highly-motivated can-do kids. Unfettered by slavish adherence to traditional thinking, they are stimulated by change, innovate more readily than their elders, think more comfortably outside the box, and embrace rather than resist technology. For them, law’s “New Normal” is a fascinating new challenge, rather than a mine field.

Let Me In, Coach

Motivational consultants confirm two basic principles of human nature: 1) Participation fosters engagement and, conversely, engagement fosters participation. 2) Motivation does indeed correlate with work quality.

Yet partners seldom ask associates for their perspectives and suggestions, defaulting to the “when-I-want-your-opinion-I’ll-give-it-to-you” style. Before turning an indifferent shoulder to your ground-level performers, consider this bit of feedback we received from a young associate after an LPM training session we designed specifically for associates:

As a younger associate, I thought the training today was great – an informative, helpful and in-depth overview of practice management that will help me for a long time to come. I especially enjoyed the overview of practice management from both the partners’ and clients’ perspectives. This will help me think of ways to add value to my case team, as well as during client development – for current clients and for my own business development down the line. Thanks for the engaging and thoughtful time!