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Buzzword 2010: project management

Law Office Management
|Written By Kevin Marron
Buzzword 2010: project management

Barbara Boake well understands how difficult it is to predict what will happen in the complex negotiations or adversarial processes in which lawyers are routinely engaged. But the Toronto-based partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP also knows that more predictability — a better understanding of potential outcomes and fees — is exactly what clients are looking for, especially in an economy where budgets are constrained and all costs are scrutinized.

That’s why she and her firm are hoping that project management — a discipline that has been applied for decades in engineering and information technology to manage resources and budgets more efficiently — can provide lawyers with a set of tools “to make what is inherently pretty unpredictable a little more predictable.”

McCarthy Tétrault is by no means alone in this. As law firms around the world feel increasing pressure from clients to manage costs, legal project management is widely seen as a potential panacea. “The time has come when lawyers are recognizing that there must be a better way of organizing their matters,” says John Gillies, director of practice support at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP. A lawyer who spent many years in-house as senior counsel for CIBC, Gillies says he well understands clients’ need for more certainty as well as “a greater voice in how their legal services are delivered.”

Project management is a way of improving the systems by which lawyers work and, as such, “it upgrades the quality of what lawyers do by upgrading the quality of how they do it,” according to Ottawa-based law firm consultant Jordan Furlong, a partner with Edge International Inc. and publisher of the blog Law21.ca. And, he adds, law firms need to invest in project management because their competitors will. “It’s on its way to becoming standard operating procedure in law firms,” he says.

But project management is so new to the legal profession that everyone is still trying to figure out what it can do and how to make it work.

Steven Levy, a Seattle-based consultant and author of the recently published book Legal Project Management, says project management involves setting up a framework for lawyers and their clients to communicate and work together on such goals as controlling costs, understanding what has to be done to meet clients’ needs, figuring out what a successful outcome will look like, deploying appropriate resources to achieve this outcome, and controlling and predicting the time spent on the matter.

Lawyers and law firms do many of these things already and have been doing them for years, he says, but project management requires a more systematic approach. “It’s a matter of putting it all together and not leaving out critical aspects,” he says.

Gillies cites the example of a corporate acquisition matter in which it has been assumed that there would be no major regulatory issues. If it turns out, however, that the Competition Bureau does pose some questions, lawyers will have to spend more time answering these and the scope of the project may change accordingly. “What happens now is that the lawyers assume that the client will realize that the bill is going to be higher because of these changes, but often that is not communicated clearly to the client so that the higher bill comes as a surprise,” says Gillies, noting that this problem can be avoided with the constant two-way communications and collaboration involved in project management.

Boake, who is playing a lead role in her firm’s project management initiative, says the basic concept is that lawyers should continue to approach a legal mandate in the traditional way, but also see it as a project that should be managed in a systematic way with detailed up-front planning, work plans to ensure that each task is carried out by the right resource, and constant communication with clients at every stage.

Gillies and Boake both acknowledge that a key challenge is getting lawyers to buy into project management. As Boake puts it: “It’s pretty tough to get lawyers to change their ways.”

Gillies says his firm has addressed this challenge by working with an outside consultant to set up pilot projects involving people who are already receptive to project management and recognize that it could be a valuable tool. He says he hopes these projects will prove successful and lead to a wider application of project management within the firm.

McCarthys has developed an extensive training program together with project management software tools in-house, taking advantage of the expertise of IT development director Rick Kathuria, who has extensive experience in project management. He says project management offers an array of tools, some of which lawyers will likely find relevant, helpful, and easy to use.

Onit Software LLC, based in Houston, Texas, has recently released a beta version of an online project management software suite (onit.com), specifically designed for the legal profession. Eric Elfman, the company’s chief executive officer, says the product fills a gap in a market that is full of project management tools that are either overly complicated or too simple and none of them are tailored to the legal profession. He says the Onit software includes a collaboration space in which participants can share documents and exchange messages, as well as tools for budgeting and estimating that will let lawyers and clients alike monitor any changes in costs that occur as the project evolves.

But you also have to make sure that project management is indeed the most appropriate tool for each law practice to use, says Andrew Terrett, national director of knowledge management at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP.

His firm began developing training courses on project management several years ago, but decided to put them on hold once it realized “one size does not fit all.” For example, lawyers who do low-value, high-volume transactional work would benefit more from tools to assist them in managing their processes rather than a system that treated each file as an individual project. And litigators may not find much value in a flow chart planning the progress of a matter that may not come to trial for five or more years, but they could benefit from a project management approach to handling all the documents involved in the discovery process.

With this in mind, Terrett, who is both a lawyer and an experienced project manager, says he is now working with various practice groups to analyze what they do and how project management might assist them. If you don’t think carefully about what you are doing and develop a coherent approach before presenting it to lawyers, you are not likely to get them onside, he says. “You only get one shot. They’re a pretty skeptical group.”

And even the man who wrote the book about it agrees that the jury is still out on legal project management. “There’s a lot of belief that this can be successful, but not a lot of evidence, frankly,” says Levy.

Freelance journalist and business writer Kevin Marron can be reached at kevin@kevinmarron.com.

  • Surge in Legal Project Management

    PM Hut
    I'm noticing lately a surge in the topics on "legal project management" and "project management by law" (I run a project management website, www.pmhut.com )

    I think the legal profession is still a long way from adopting project management, nevertheless, I think the legal personnel holding a project management certification (such as the PMP) will find themselves more competitive. It is worthy to note that, Project Management as it currently is, can only be partially applied in a legal context.
  • Project management for lawyers

    Ignacio Alfaro
    100% agree. We have down here in Costa Rica in our small law firm done the same, and we are now the top lawyers getting a degree in project management following the PMI standards. Great news!! This might take out of the streets the stand-up lawyers.

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