In almost every article in the legal press over the past few years, the term legal project management (LPM) has been mentioned. It has been described as a “must have” by some and a fad that will be fleeting by others. For the most part though, it is seen as a critical component of law firms’ response to their clients’ pressure for greater efficiency.
We spoke to Susan Raridon Lambreth, principal at LawVision, and founder of the LPM Institute, to get her thoughts on this issue. Lambreth and her colleague Carla Landry of LawVision will be presenting their ever-popular two-day LPM certification course on Oct. 29-30, in Sullivan & Cromwell’s New York offices.
Legal Executive Institute: So, what is legal project management?
Susan Raridon Lambreth: 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).
Many successful lawyers have already been doing aspects of this to manage their work. The difference today is that client pressures on lawyers are driving the need for a more proactive, disciplined, or systematic way of doing those steps. At its core, LPM is about better communication with the matter team internally and between the lawyers and their clients, whether the matter is being handled by a law firm or done within a legal department.
You have mentioned the pressures clients are putting on outside law firms for greater efficiency. Is that the main reason why lawyers should care about this, or are there other reasons?
Lambreth: The two main drivers of LPM in most firms are: (i) the declining realization/matter profitability as a result of large write-offs; and (ii) client pressures to implement LPM, process improvement, alternative staffing models, and other approaches that drive greater efficiency and lower legal spend. Since the global financial crisis in 2008-‘09, many clients started asking their lawyers for fee quotes or even detailed budgets for their matters.
At first, many lawyers assumed this would be like prior budgets where clients asked for them, ticked off the box that they received it, and neither side looked at it again. What has become clear is that every time a lawyer gives a client a budget or even a soft estimate, that number is seen as a “cap” by the client. Your contact may understand you didn’t have enough information, or that details of the matter changed after you provided it. However, other stakeholders in the client organization have been provided that budget number in order to make other decisions, allocate resources, etc., and they may not be able or willing to change it and pay your firm more when fees exceed it.
This has resulted in millions of dollars in write-offs or write-downs because many law firm partners were not managing the matters like they were caps. The most likely way to get paid more than the cap is to have clearly defined and agreed-upon work that is in or out of scope for the budget provided. Unless the law firm can explain clearly what work was needed or done that was not originally anticipated — and shouldn’t have been anticipated based on past experience — it is unlikely you will be paid anything over the cap. Additionally, many Request for Proposals (RFPs) sent to law firms have specific questions about how firms are implementing LPM and whether they can provide legal project managers to help keep the matter on track and more.
It used to be that law firms could “fake it” by putting in language about their efficiency, value to clients, and maybe even their approach to LPM without actually having much of any program in place. Today, clients ask about specific examples of how you have utilized LPM techniques with clients, how it benefited clients, what roles your legal project managers play on matters, and more.
Another important reason lawyers should care about LPM, though not a primary driver, is the role that LPM can play in risk management. Leading malpractice insurers have identified the common causes of claims to include failure to communicate early and often, failure to explain risks and costs, failure to manage outcome expectations, and failure to document. The core elements of LPM address each aspect of this and doing LPM well means you are managing risk by communicating well and often, explaining and managing risks, etc.
What are examples of what it means to implement legal project management?
At the matter level, LPM starts with ensuring that lawyers understand the client’s expectations, objectives, and success factors for the specific matter. Does the client want to win the litigation at all costs or settle with minimum negative publicity and business interruption?
Next, based on the objectives, LPM means developing a detailed scope of work document, clarifying these objectives and expectations, etc., along with defining what work will be “in” and “out” of scope, key deliverables, milestones, assumptions, and at least a high-level budget.
Once the work starts, LPM means developing a project or work plan for the matter, including the resources and staffing of the matter, the steps (phases, tasks, and activities), communication protocol, risk analysis, and change plan. After this, LPM means managing the matter to meet the budget and the client’s expectations, dealing with scope changes along the way, and finally, evaluating or reviewing the matter at the end. What worked well and what could be improved next time?
Not every matter will have all these steps done but including even a few of them goes a long way toward enhancing client relationships and reducing write-offs.
Many law firms are now hiring directors of legal project management or legal project managers. What do these roles do?
The primary functions of legal project management professionals can vary from helping the firm identify how to get an LPM initiative off the ground and get partner buy-in to identifying technology solutions to develop budgets and manage to them. The people in these roles are also part of a matter team where they help the matter team develop a scope of work document and a budget or project plan and manage to it.
Legal project managers may also coach lawyers on how to keep a matter on track and manage client expectations. They also may meet with the client’s business or legal operations professionals to help them understand how the law firm is managing their matters efficiently.
What are some of the benefits law firms and clients can achieve if they implement LPM now?
Recent studies have shown many benefits to clients, including fewer surprises, more matters on time and on budget, better communication between the law firm and the client team, greater efficiency, and reduced legal spend. Benefits to the law firm can include reducing write-offs or write-downs which results in greater matter profitability, attracting new work, enhancing client relationships, creating better internal teamwork and morale as unnecessary “fire drills” can be avoided, and easing the stress on the matter team as LPM can prevent some of the “what keeps you awake at night” issues.
Join Susan Raridon Lambreth and Carla Landry for a two-day LPM certification course on Oct. 29-30, in Sullivan & Cromwell’s New York offices. The program will teach legal professionals how to apply LPM to their matters. By the end of the two-day certification program, they will have the necessary understanding and approaches to begin to use it immediately on their matters or to assist others. For more information or to register, click here Legal Project Management Training Certification.