Many of the Luminaries agreed that we are likely to see a big increase in demand for LPM services.

Legal Value Network Council of Luminaries Meeting Report: COVID-19 Crisis Series

As director of (what is to the best of my knowledge) the largest legal project management team of any law firm, I was not the source for the above. But it was music to my ears and consistent with my lived experience. My team has observed a spike in demand for LPM services.

There are, however, limits in the legal ecosystem’s overall ability to immediately satisfy this demand for better project management. The near-term constraint creates longer-term doubts about the sustainability of the uptick in demand in many organizations where there is no current LPM capacity to meet the urgent need. Sustained commitment is required, and worthwhile.

While I reflect here on LPM, I submit that what is true of LPM is equally true for many other items on the legal innovator wish list. Opportunities abound but an inflection point does not automatically translate into changes that best serve the collective interest. We face hard choices—followed, unavoidably, by hard work.

WFH was feasible and imperative

In considering the surge of interest in LPM (or anything else that addresses some of the fallout from the challenges we all face) it is worth examining why legal service delivery was able to pivot to work from home given that the speed of the transition to WFH is now being cited as evidence of how quickly legal services can adapt.

Consider two critical elements of the velocity with which WFH became standard operating procedure: (1) we had no choice and (2) the infrastructure was already in place.

The lack of choice is conspicuous. WFH is necessary. The alternative was ceasing to serve clients in a moment of crisis. Yet while I submit our current challenges, including the need to maintain the cohesion and coherence of completely remote teams, has made the compelling case for LPM all the more salient, I would stop well short of labeling LPM as “necessary.”

The infrastructure component is less prominent. Imagine if C19 hit in 2008 (as part of the Great Recession). An immediate transition to a completely remote legal workforce would have been unthinkable and an unmitigated disaster. The mix of hardware, software, broadband access, information architecture, and ways of working simply were not available at the scale necessary. Fortunately, we have the general WFH infrastructure in place now. In this narrow respect, we were mostly prepared for the pandemic. Unfortunately, we lack a general LPM infrastructure—for now, we only have discrete pockets of LPM excellence, unevenly distributed.

Thus, while this crisis should accelerate the integration of LPM into the multi-disciplinary delivery of legal services, this ascension is not assured. “We’ve always done it this way” remains a viable, if sub-optimal, in many respects. Conversely, organizations that have not previously made serious investments in building their LPM capacity may be hard pressed to do so amidst a liquidity crunch and severe economic downturn.

The concise case for LPM

To leave no doubt, I welcome the increase in demand for LPM. I want to contribute to a period of industry-wide punctuational change, including the broader deployment of LPM. It can absolutely be done but requires sustained commitment. LPM is not a quick fix.

Quick or not, I submit the argument in favor of LPM remains fairly unassailable.

All projects are managed, the only question is whether they are managed well. LPM applies the disciplines of project management to legal service delivery. LPM makes legal work trackable, tractable, and transparent for lawyers and clients. Quality outcomes, on time and on budget, are the purpose of professionalizing project management of legal matters and portfolios. The larger and more complex, the greater the impact of LPM.

LPM is not “the answer” to every question because there is no singular answer. But a well-integrated LPM function can serve as connective tissue—instrumental in helping lawyers take advantage of, and optimize, the variety of tools at their disposal. A legal project manager involved in matter planning can assist lawyers in marshaling the full array of available resources, from technology to knowledge assets to cost-advantaged service centers, to meet client needs.

While a strong case, the foregoing is not simple, not obvious, and not easy.

LPM is not obvious

Superficially, the easiest sales pitch for LPM is: the legal project manager will take on many of the more mundane management tasks currently being handled by lawyers. And do so at lower costs.

Saving money while unburdening lawyers from labor-intensive tasks tends to land well—at first. But then many lawyers will, correctly, start to wonder about the additional costs, like communications overhead, associated with an additional team member. A new “non-lawyer”, in particular, raises questions about the divisibility of work (different than the division of labor). Is it really worthwhile to add a new person take on tasks lawyers were handling?

Yes. Yes, it is worthwhile. But not obviously so. The labor arbitrage is real. It should, however, ultimately be a minor consideration. Working differently and better is how LPM makes a major impact. But different is, well, different. Different is, almost by definition, non-obvious. And definitions do not close the obviousness gap:

Legal project management is a process of defining the parameters of a matter upfront, planning the course of the matter at the outset with the facts you have at the time, managing the matter, and, at the end, evaluating how the matter was handled (from both the firm or law department perspective and the client perspective). (here)

We define legal project management as a proactive, disciplined approach to managing legal work that involves defining, planning, budgeting, executing, and evaluating a legal matter. Simply put, it is a step by step approach to help lawyers clarify the scope and potential cost of services they are providing for a client, proactively managing the services consistent with the client’s expectations, and using each engagement as an opportunity for learning and improvement. (here)

Sounds great, in the abstract. But vague. What does this actually mean? How does it work? Like my “strong case” above, the standard definitions of LPM are not automatically accessible to the uninitiated. You only understand once you understand; everything is obvious once you know the answer. As is so often true across the ever-evolving legal service delivery landscape, this is ignorance in the least pejorative sense of the word—individuals lacking knowledge they should not be expected to possess.

The deficit of automatic understanding of what LPM can offer is only exacerbated by the divergent ways LPM is deployed. Even in organizations where LPM is well established, legal project managers can serve rather different purposes.

When I was consulting law departments on their legal buy, I put the following questions in RFIs:

  • How many legal project managers does the firm employ?
  • What specifically will the firm’s legal project managers do to add value to [client]?
  • What are the conditions under which LPM will be deployed to benefit [client]?

It is well established I consider such questions essential and have found considerable entertainment in many answers, good and bad, I graded over the years (though, candidly, I was a victim of my own bombast and reluctant to write about my new role until I was confident we could answer these questions better than our peer firms).

In surveying the landscape of LPM in law firms—LPM in law departments and ALSPs is more opaque; LPM at the Big 4 is a different story entirely and demands another post about segments of the market where LPM leaps from competitive advantage to competitive necessity—you find, first and foremost, most law firms employ relatively few legal project managers. Not that many law firms with over 500 lawyers even break double digits with respect to their ranks of legal project managers.

Next, you find the LPM remit varies greatly. At some firms, legal project managers are focused on process improvement. At some firms, they are more akin to account managers, supporting billing and reporting to augment specific client relationships. At only a small minority of firms are legal project managers regularly deployed to help actively manage the firm’s largest, most complex matters. There is nothing wrong with any of these (my team does all three—though we prefer to setup the client-specific processes for billing/reporting and then hand those off). But the diversity speaks to the intelligibility, or lack thereof, when busy lawyers first encounter the suggestion they incorporate LPM into meeting client needs.

LPM is not simple

For the initiated, the end state of LPM is appealing.

The lawyers get to lawyer. They manage by exception—i.e., address critical issues early while avoiding racing down rabbit holes to gain clarity on the status of the many items that are going to plan. They conduct constructive, data-informed conversations with clients because the necessary status and budgetary information is immediately available and well-organized into visually enhanced reports useful for decision making. The lawyers deliver quality results, on time and on budget, by ensuring the right mix of tech-enabled resources are working cohesively and coherently.

The legal project manager facilitates this by bringing the appropriate tools and templates to bear. They serve as a central organizing force, not only engineering but also refining and maintaining a workflow that results in a reliable single source of truth. The attendant ability to report on status, finances, risks, and issues, including dependencies and downstream impacts, lends itself to simplified dashboards that highlight where lawyer/client attention is required, and where it is not. This is a product of skill and savvy. It is also the product of intense, focused labor—the immense effort required to collect and collate disparate data while ensuring it is current, clean, and concise.

The LPM end state is appealing. The beginning, less so.

Where do you find that first legal project manager? This is not a rhetorical question. We have hired a couple dozen legal project managers around the world in the last year and need to fill a similar number of new openings in the years ahead. Locating quality candidates is a challenge. As mentioned, there are few legal project management teams and most of the ones that do exist are small. If anyone has recommendations for me, please share. Because we have the infrastructure, we are exploring how to ‘make’ legal project managers—legal project manager being both a role and a set of skills / disciplines that must be learned, applied, and refined.

Next comes the first project. The new legal project manager is unlikely to have available the fit-to-purpose tools or templates that underpin a well-structured matter. These are born out of experience. Iteration. Operationalizing lessons learned. Finding what needs to be fixed and fixing it in ways well calibrated to the lawyers and matter types being supported. The new legal project manager can add value immediately. But their contribution will be circumscribed. Repeatability is central to the LPM value proposition—but there is nothing being repeated on the maiden project.

Then comes the paired challenges of growth and teaming. Having one legal project manager in one location working in one practice area is not an LPM function—which consists of individual legal project managers but also, in aggregate, assumes responsibility for more systemically instilling project management discipline and process excellence, including for the large majority of matters that will never have a designated legal project manager. The individual journey must reproduced with different lawyers working in different areas of law. Then, at a certain point, to reach its potential as a contributing team, LPM has to establish and enforce consistency across the organization. This is far harder than it sounds. It requires legal project managers, who are cast in a supporting role, to be proactive in shaping the way legal services are delivered at scale. The legal project managers not only need to supply their lawyers with good tools and processes, they have to shepherd lawyers into standardized tools and processes, which are then fine-tuned to specific needs [I’m getting nodding agreement from peers in legal operations, technology, pricing, knowledge, et al. who appreciate the vigilance and fortitude required to maintain consistency in large organizations populated by smart, successful, autonomous, action-oriented professionals].

This maturation occurs against the backdrop of the siren song of gap filling. To the extent legal project managers prove themselves adept at unburdening lawyers, there is a natural tendency to look to LPM to solve whatever problems arise. A continuous dialogue about continuous improvement should be encouraged. But, unless some level of rigor is maintained, mission creep can undermine LPM being put to its highest and best use. This is a delicate balance—pushing a burden back on the lawyers tends to be the worst possible outcome—that speaks to the need for parallel investments in complementary aspects of the legal service delivery infrastructure (those other resources LPM is meant to help marshal). There are many questions to which LPM is not itself the answer.

Creation and subsequent progression of an LPM function is worthwhile. It is also entirely achievable. But it can only go so far, so fast. The commitment required extends beyond the momentum of this crucial moment.

LPM is not easy

On-boarding new people is time and labor intensive. Legal project managers more so. Legal project managers do not merely need to be acclimated to “what we do here,” they are required to ask why things are done the way they are. In the beginning, these will not all be good questions or always lead to useful conclusions. Yet even where the legal project manager identifies a better way, better is still different. Different comes at a cost. The implementation dip is inevitable. There is no LPM pixie dust.

Ramp-up requires investment. Iteration never ends. But no matter the maturity and stability, hard work remains.

Take, for example, the insights from Alexandra Guajardo, Pricing & Analytics Officer at Shell, on a Legal Value Network webinar that preceded the Council of Luminaries report I quote at the beginning of this post (also, pay attention to LVN). In commenting on the impact of the current crisis, Alex zeroed in on the importance of law firm “LPM reports”—which she defines as matter status and financial updates broken down by phase, workstream, jurisdiction, etc.—to facilitate data-informed dialogue between inside and outside counsel.

In addition to applause for Alex, I offer an observation: these types of reports are hard work, especially on the large, complex matters where they are the most useful.

For this detailed report to be provided quickly and accurately, it must be anticipated. At the beginning of the matter when everyone is keen to get moving to meet some important business objective, the stakeholders need to pause, sit down, and have a conversation about what kind of reporting will best serve the project/client needs. These decisions will demand trade-offs and ultimately drive the matter’s data strategy.

The data strategy then requires ongoing data discipline. In particular, in the example Alex offers, the time recording protocol will need to be setup in a way that will enable closed time to be mapped to the appropriate phases, workstreams, etc. Then all the timekeepers will need to be diligent in closing their time in accordance with the protocol. This is doable but not easy. [More nodding from everyone who has ever been required to regularly close time with numerous mandatory fields (e.g., task and activity codes). Even more vigorous nodding from anyone who has been responsible for getting a large number of timekeepers do so consistently.]

Doable but not easy. Not easy, in part, because there are strict limits to what LPM can offer on its own. The reporting example—with its reliance on leadership buy-in and stakeholder compliance—illuminates how LPM is not an independent variable that delivers independent value. LPM must be integrated and integrative. My friend John Grant once phrased it so well, “LPM is something we do with you, it is not something we can do for you.” John shared that wisdom with me after he penned a marvelous essay about a failed attempt at establishing real LPM at a large law firm—my RFI questions above played a starring, if unfortunate, role in that situation coming to a head.

LPM is about not just coordination but collaboration. Collaboration has a cost. The cost is well worth it. The return on investment in good LPM is substantial. But the return is hard earned—over time. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

Wrapping Up

I’ve meditated on LPM. I agree with the Luminaries that now could, and should, be a moment for LPM to shine. While the crisis warrants our attention and our effort, it is worth projecting how our re-actions today will shape our tomorrow—a concern that extends well beyond LPM.

My desire is for near-term needs to translate into long-term investments that serve the sector and our clients well, in good times as well as bad. Yet I know from plodding through the Great Recession and its aftermath that strategic innovation is far from a natural consequence of hard times. The Great Recession changed a great many things but not always in ways or to the degree so many hoped.

Hope—that I still have. My career is premised on the genuine belief that, over time, constructive dialogue and deep relationships can drive systemic improvements that serve our collective best interest. We can, and should, pursue better together. But I am not a naif. I do not believe in magic. I do not expect spontaneous, organic, and immaculate transformations that are quick, clean, and free. I recognize the limits of incremental improvements. I know obvious ≠ simple ≠ easy. But I also know complicated ≠ hard ≠ impossible. This is complicated. This is hard. But it is not impossible.

I began with an observation that WFH took so quickly because it was imperative and the infrastructure was already in place. I noted we would not have been able to meet a similar mandate back in the Great Recession. While I know, generally, we are not where we would like to be with respect to evolving the way legal services are delivered—the mandate of the moment is murky and the infrastructure to meet it uneven—we are closer than we’ve ever been. The last decade-plus has not been wasted. We’ve been laying the groundwork for today. The readiness is all.