How I learned to stop worrying and love project management

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Project management is about as close to a silver bullet as the legal profession could ask for these days. Consider:

  • It’s easy to understand.
  • It’s inexpensive to implement.
  • It lowers costs.
  • It improves quality.
  • It enhances communication.
  • It facilitates lawyer training.
  • It makes fixed fees profitable.
  • It makes clients happy.

If it could cure cancer and direct an Oscar-winning movie, it could hardly be a more attractive proposition. For a profession suffering from aggravated clients, shrinking revenues, competitive inertia, archaic business practices and system waste, it’s the nearest we’ll come to meeting the definition of “panacea.” And yet, with few (but increasing) exceptions, there’s not much enthusiasm for it among lawyers and law firms — there’s an odd reluctance to embrace something that clearly delivers so many benefits. Identifying the source of that reluctance tells us something very important about lawyers and our capacity to adapt to the new legal marketplace.

The good news is that project management is starting to catch on within the profession. Two excellent recent articles in the legal press illustrate this, one in Canadian Lawyer (in which I’m briefly mentioned) and one in the Legal Intelligencer, which tells the success story of a law firm (Dechert) that took project management seriously, engaged a consultant (Pam Woldow) to help, and can already see the benefits. More good news comes courtesy of Tim Corcoran‘s terrific blog post that addresses common concerns about legal project management and should be read by every firm whose lawyers are generating static about LPM. There’s also a very good book and a very good blog about legal project management by Steven B. Levy. In short, there’s a growing wealth of resources and reasons for lawyers to leap onto the project management express — yet this train still has many empty seats.

These same articles point us in the direction of the problem. “It’s pretty tough to get lawyers to change their ways,” a big-firm partner told Canadian Lawyer. A regional managing partner at Dechert entered training with deep misgivings about its broad applicability. “Doesn’t legal project management apply only to commodity practices?” is a question Tim Corcoran has to address. Resistance to innovation, yes — we all know that fits lawyers to a T. But what really comes across from these accounts is a sense that lawyers aren’t trying project management primarily because they don’t want to. It’s a resistance that does not, I think, have much to do with lawyers’ inability to grasp project management’s features or benefits. I think it has much more to do with lawyers’ distaste for procedure, systematization, methodology, routine — with process. For most lawyers, as my Edge colleague Rob Millard says, “process is a dirty word.”

Why is that? I think it’s because we lawyers pride ourselves on our capacity for ingenuity: the unexpected insight that makes a deal possible, the brilliant argument that turns a trial around, the stroke of inspiration that not only saves the day but also shows off just how bright we are. Smart people are drawn to the law like moths to a flame, and one of the things about smart people is that we prize raw intelligence over plodding procedure. We use loaded words — drudge, mindless, humdrum, grunt, and several less polite adjectives — to describe legal work that requires limited imagination, consistency over brilliance, and a lot of attention to detail. Any real reflection on the matter will show that work of this nature is no less valuable or worthy than the racier, hyper-intelligent work most lawyers crave — but in our professional culture, there is a clear distinction between the two, and it matters. (In this same vein, note the tone in which lawyers utter the word “commoditization.”)

It’s a distinction, unfortunately, that we draw at our peril. Our competitors, some inside the legal profession but most of them outside it, have no qualms about embracing project management and the systems-based benefits it confers. They look at the way lawyers have traditionally gone about their work and they see countless inefficiencies just asking to be exploited. Whenever a legal task gets outsourced to India or assigned to a computer program, project management is at work, exposing all the ways in which traditional lawyering not only wastes time and money but also fails to deliver the most effective and accurate result. We give document review and due diligence tasks to bright associates with zero training and zero interest in the job; our competitors apply rigorous scanning, screening and review templates by trained workers who actually like to do this sort of thing. Who do you think will get better results?

The day of the haphazard lawyer, who pursues a solution by intuition, experience and the loosest possible timetable, is drawing to a close. In his place is emerging the process-driven lawyer: disciplined, procedural and systematic, who understands that madness lies not in method, but in its absence. Most of us don’t like that idea. We’d much prefer to maintain the image of the ingenious lawyer who triumphs by intellect rather than by procedural discipline. It confirms our belief in our innate intellectual advantage over non-lawyer competitors — and, frankly, it makes us feel better about ourselves. At some level, we take offence at the idea of project management because it seems to reduce this wonderful profession of ours to little more than a series of steps, a collection of flow charts, that anyone could follow. (It’s not just lawyers, either; doctors are notorious for refusing even to follow hand-washing checklists. Read John Gillies’ excellent review of Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto at Slaw for some great insights on legal project management.)

The truth is, much of what lawyers do can be charted, diagrammed and proceduralized, and both the quality and the cost will be better for it. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for smart, creative lawyers in the future. For one thing, systems don’t need to be straightforward and monotonous. More often than not, especially in the law, they’re complex and challenging, and they can easily be made elegant, precise, finely tuned, honed to a keen edge — the imagery of swordsmanship is intentional. And even within systems, a lawyer’s unique judgment, analysis and creativity can emerge. I teach a children’s liturgy class on Sundays, during which all the kids are given the same picture to colour; working from the same template and the same box of crayons, each of them produces vividly different and personalized pictures. The same can and does happen when lawyers work within systems.

Legal service providers who adopt systematic processes like project management will be more successful than those who don’t; there’s no doubt in my mind about this. So like it or not, you’ll have to embrace this new methodology. But what I really want to urge you to do is, in fact, to like it. Process is not a diminution of your intellectual gifts; it’s the honing, disciplining and improvement of them. Frameworks and road maps have never hurt anyone, and they’ve gotten things built and lives changed far more effectively and comfortably than we could have managed in their absence. Take a new approach to process — look at it with a fresh eye, and see what it can add to your professional life rather than what it can take away. Process doesn’t have to be a necessary evil; it can easily be a necessary good.

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7 Responses to “How I learned to stop worrying and love project management”

  1. Richard Potter

    I enjoyed the article on project mgt (PM) because it rings true with many experiences I had as a practicing lawyer. How does your conception of PM (and those of the cited articles) relate to a very particular (sub-set or type?) of PM, namely, high performance work (HPW) such as contested TOBs? Implications in your post that PM = commodity work, but HPW is the opposite, in the sense that it is thought to be “bet-the-business” work. Yet HPW is also a type of PM – it involves different timeframes and very different extremes of possible outcomes for the client, but it also shares many characteristics. Can PM teach HPW something and vice versa?

  2. Paul Easton

    I just discovered your blog through this great post. I’m looking forward to your future posts.

    Regarding the reasons for lawyers failing to adopt project management, I wonder if you give too much importance to lawyers’ self-perceptions and not enough about the perverse incentives created by the hourly billing model. As I recently wrote when discussing this post on my blog:

    [I]t is a stretch to blame lawyers’ reluctance to adopt project management methodologies on their intelligence and creativity. I agree that smart people are drawn to the law, but I believe that the reason project management is abhorred by lawyers is that law firm incentives are stacked against it. Hourly billing discourages efficiency. I’m sure smart people were drawn to the law before the 1940s, when U.S. lawyers began adopting the practice of hourly billing. Also, I know that smart people are attracted to the practice of law in countries where hourly billing is the rare exception. I don’t think that lawyers will run from the law if they are forced into fixed-free arrangements and have to start worrying about inefficiency eroding their profits.

    In short, it is less a matter of project management crimping lawyers’ style and more a matter of it crimping their wallets. Change the perverse incentives of hourly billing and watch attitudes towards project management and process improvement magically change.

    Looking forward to your further thoughts on the subject.

  3. Jordan Furlong

    Paul, thanks for your message. I agree wholeheartedly that the billable hour skews lawyers’ priorities and incentives in ways that diametrically oppose adoption of project management. Billing by the hour rewards inefficiency; project management penalizes it. And your point that intelligent lawyers pre-date the billable hour is well-taken. I’m not sanguine, though, that changing the billing system will improve lawyers’ PM outlook. I’m more inclined to think both are symptomatic of a larger issue.

    Lawyers like the billable-hour system for three reasons: (1) it’s easy, (2) it’s risk-free, and (3) it’s profitable. (And who wouldn’t like it, under those circumstances?) All three of these characteristic are important, but I sometimes think that (1) is first among equals. The easier a financial system is to understand and deploy, the less serious business acumen you need — and lawyers tend to like systems that don’t require much business savvy.

    Lawyers, speaking generally, don’t have much business proficiency and even less business training, but what they have least of all is respect for business. How many lawyers have you heard arguing the hoary angels-on-a-pin-head question of whether law is a profession or a business? It’s an argument that presupposes a dichotomy — it can be one or the other, but not both — and most lawyers (especially in the more experienced ranks) come down decisively on the “profession” side. They seem to have this sense that the work of a lawyer is beyond normal marketplace concerns, that it’s a calling more than a career. It’s a prime example of the ways in which our profession tells itself stories about ourselves that have little relevance to how the rest of the world operates.

    It’s this distaste for mere entrepreneurial concerns that I think motivates, at least in part, both the love of the billable hour and the reluctance to take project management seriously: they both spring from a strong preference to avoid business thinking as much as possible. Lawyers want to do the law and little else — another great lawyer refrain is “I didn’t go to law school to do X,” making you wonder what they thought they were going to law school to learn how to do.

    This is what I mean by referencing lawyers’ love of creativity and intelligence — not that these excellent and admirable traits themselves cause resistance to project management, but that lawyers’ disproportionate pride in and fondness of them do, coupled with a general distrust of business that seems to line up on the opposite side of the ledger. Many lawyers seem to mistakenly believe that you compromise your ethics, professionalism, creativity and nobility by taking “business concerns” seriously. That’s a cultural, attitudinal problem — one that we absolutely can overcome, once we identify it.

  4. PM Hut

    As someone actively involved in promoting Project Management through PM Hut, I’m very glad that legal Project Management is gaining strength (this is the 3rd serious article about the importance of legal Project Management this month).

    I have read very recently that lawyers and others are considering applying for PMP (Project Management Professional) certification to increase their worthiness in the job market.

    I have to say, however, that Project Management, applied in Legal, is a little contradictory. In Project Management, every project is “unique”, it is not a repetitive process, a project has a start date and an end date, and Project Management is about getting that project done in a timely manner, on budget, and according to the specifications defined in the project plan.

    Jordan, would it be possible for you to explain how Project Management, in a legal context, will still abide by the above (specs I mentioned)?

  5. Jordan Furlong

    PMH, thanks for your comment. “Traditional” project management, as it derived from and operates in business and especially technology projects, is not something that can be easily or profitably applied in the legal sphere. Litigating a product liability claim is not the same thing as installing a new server architecture, so there’d be little to gain in applying the same PM methodology or approach to both.

    Steven Levy sets out the differences and the key elements of successful LPM in a blog post that describes “The Stages of a Legal Project” (http://lexician.com/lexblog/2010/01/the-stages-of-a-legal-project/):

    ——————————————–

    The four stages here represent the lay of the land for Legal Project Management. The stages are slightly different from those of, say, an IT project. The largest variances are around post-execution steps: a technology project has long adoption/deployment and maintenance stages, for example, that rarely apply to management of a legal case.

    Consider an LPM project as consisting, in brief, of four stages:

    1. Initiation. Get the ducks in a row. Should we take this case? Is it one we can manage? For a firm, can we do so profitably? Let‘s say we take it. Who‘s the lead attorney? Who‘s managing the project, if not that attorney? Who are the key players? What do they need? Do we know what success – “Done” – looks like? If this stage is skipped – and it too often is given the most cursory attention – failure is predictable.

    2. Planning. Who should work on the project? Are they available? What does the schedule look like? Does it fit within the deadlines? What are the big risks – and how can we mitigate them? What are our costs? For firms or departments that charge back, do we have agreement with the client on fees? Many projects hit the failure track when Planning is skimped to jump into Execution.

    3. Execution centers on the actual legal work and generally consumes the vast majority of work time in Legal Project Management. (In other project management arenas, Planning may be the longest stage.) Execution corresponds to the core legal work such as research, drafting, pre-trial or trial work, and so on. Note that planning your legal strategy is actually part of project Execution.

    4. Delivery and Evaluation. What does the client get when we‘re done? (Most but not all legal projects have a small delivery stage.) What‘s the client‘s feedback? What‘s our own? What could we do better next time? Don‘t skip this stage no matter how rushed you are – especially the client-feedback part.

  6. Luke OBrien

    Superb–and superbly written–article. My company (www.brightleaf.com) helps law firms and legal departments collapse the costs associated with some of their more reiterative and time-consuming processes. We see everyday the struggle you describe. The good news? Driven by a host of environmental factors, firms are starting to “get it” at a rapidly accelerating rate. Last year, firms would ask us why they needed to accelerate or manage processes. This year, they’re asking us how fast they can do so.

  7. Mark Hayes

    The critical part of the Dechert article is the comment by one lawyer that “having a tool bag of options rather than one approach has proven very useful”. Since starting my own firm, I’ve used a wide range of client financial arrangements, including fixed fee quotes for specific tasks, monthly or annual retainers for a specified maximum number of hours of service and, of course, the old hourly rate. There is no one approach that works all of the time. My experience inside big firms is that they are more concerned about managing their internal lawyer productivity (and partner remuneration) than client satisfaction, and, even though clients hate it, the hourly rate is an easy way to monitor what everyone is doing. I’ve found that a reduction in hourly rates (due to lower overheads) and flexibility in fee calculations have been *very* popular with clients.

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