How I learned to stop worrying and love project management

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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