Legal Project Management for Small Firms
Bottom Line: Legal Project Management has been rising in popularity in the legal industry in direct reaction to two major trends: client demands for cost efficiency and pressure to lower fees. Moreover, much of the money and effort to execute LPM to date has been focused on Big Law. Solos and small firms have yet to reap the full rewards.
Since there is some debate as to the scope and even definition of LPM, let me be clear on how I define it: LPM is an umbrella term used to describe a collection of management methodologies, tools and processes designed to organize, streamline, and simplify how work gets done inside a law firm. It goes by many names and has an array of definitions. Some prefer to focus on one of several components within LPM like process improvement, communication or knowledge management. I think this is too narrow-minded and should be broader in scope so as not to miss out on value.
Whatever you want to call it, know that LPM is based on tenants that have been around in the business world for decades. You probably already incorporate pieces of it into your existing practice, but chances are you are not sold on the value of implementing the full approach. As an entrepreneur, you may find a “fly by the seat of your pants” approach works for now. The trick is to first understand the entirety of LPM and then selectively incorporate what works at the small firm level – at your firm.
An Overview – LPM 101
There is a plethora of material online on the fundamental steps involved in LPM as well as to the value it brings to a firm. Here are some good starting points: Project Management 101: Business Tips for Managing Legal Cases, 20 Essentials Tools for Project Management, and Using Legal Project Management for Competitive Advantage. For reference, here are ten basic steps of Legal Project Management (again, you may already be doing some of these):
1. Set Objectives
2. Define Scope of Engagement
3. Itemize Tasks, Duration and Deadlines
4. Define and Manage a Budget
5. Assess Risk and Contingencies
6. Assign Task to People
7. Manage Communication with Team and Client
8. Negotiate Adjustments in Scope or Objectives
9. Conduct End of Matter Review Internally
10. Conduct End of Matter Review Internally
What seems to be lacking is attention to the “meat on the bone” – that is, answers to the question “so how do I actually do it?” I think the meat should include a) what tools and resources there are to actually implement LMP in a small firm and b) how to know what is and what is not essential for a specific small firm.
When it comes to the value of LPM, it is clear that large litigation matters or big M&A deals benefit from a systematic, disciplined approach – one that maps out each phase of the project, who is doing it, how much it will cost and how long it will take. A common misconception, however, is that LPM doesn’t work for smaller projects. It is true that following the steps to the letter for a contract revision or reviewing a benefit plan is overkill and almost always wastes time. But consider the practice that has 50 open matters and 3 employees. For example purposes, all of the cases in this practice are small or brief in nature. In this case, Legal Project Management can help from an integration point of view – by making sure all the trains run on time or by quickly identifying who can take on a new project and when. In this way, the commercial litigator can get as much value out of LPM as the IP/patent practitioner.
Implementing LMP in Small Firms
If you are serious about getting more efficient in your approach to managing how matters are opened, worked and closed, then start with a few tools and resources and see if they work for you. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and furthermore, there is no need to overhaul the way you currently do things all at once - you can add pieces along the way.
Here is a simple way to approach implementing LPM in your small firm:
1) Self-Assess: look at each fundamental piece (from the ten listed above) and see if a) you are doing any of these things currently and b) if you can improve upon what you are doing. Gather all your documents, processes and programs used to manage how work gets done. Are they working? Can they be improved upon?
2) Summarize and Prioritize: create a list of areas/aspects of LPM you think could be improved on in your firm. Assign each item on your list a priority – from 1 to 5 for instance – based on a few variables such as difficulty to implement, cost, time commitment, and overall impact to your practice. This will help you choose what to tackle first.
3) Off-The-Shelf or Custom: now you need to decide on solutions – tools that can improve your practice’s efficiency. Perhaps you will decide to customize, at least to some degree, but there are some free tools out there that may require little to no customization. Check out my website for a list of great tools and resources.
4) Test Drive: when it comes to adding software or technology solutions to your practice, there are two basic rules of thumb: First, one size does not fit all. And second, test drive a select few and focus on ROI. With all the choices in the market, you can easily get overwhelmed. There is no magic bullet that does everything, but there are some great solutions out there than can cover more than one function (e.g., project management and document management or project management and invoicing). Just make sure if you need your LPM software to integrate with another software program, you test it in advance. Find the time to explore these options or delegate that to someone who knows your business.
5) Pick a Client as a Pilot – by this point you should be ready to try out some new processes and tools with actual clients. Start simple and try out one solution with an existing client first. The more you learn about what works and what doesn’t, the better. The best part is, you can learn and adjust WHILE you are continuing to service your client base, not instead of doing it.
Still not convinced you need to (or you can) implement LPM in your practice? Here’s one of your own talking about how he learned to love project management. One key point Mr. Furlong touches on is how this is a growing trend in legal services but that there are still many who dismiss it. In his words, “this train still has many empty seats.” Think about it: How many of your competitors are doing it well? If you are looking for a way to differentiate your practice or for a way to grow it the right way, perhaps Legal Project Management is the key.