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Legal Project Management: Thoughts, tips, and discoveries related to the management of legal projects.

Defining "Legal Project Management"

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When I speak of legal project management, I generally have in mind the application of widely accepted project management standards, such as those promulgated by the Project Management Institute ("PMI"), to legal matters. The use of such project management standards is what distinguishes legal project management from more traditional "case management" approaches. Because most lawyers are unfamiliar with project management, they often undervalue it. My experience with most firms and legal staffing agencies is that "project manager" is just a label they slap on to someone they assign to manage part of a litigation matter (almost always discovery projects). For the overall management of legal work, most firms have not moved beyond traditional case management. In some ways, the way cases are managed has not changed much in many generations with the exception that it has been computerized and focused on capturing billable hours. Very few firms have taken advantage of the project management knowledge and tools that have been developed over the past 50-60 years. I see this as the missing piece that lawyers need to move beyond the billable hour and to remain competitive in an increasingly commoditized profession

Legal Project Management Versus Case Management

A standard definition of a project is "a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result." Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (4th ed. 2008)[hereinafter "PMBOK Guide"], at 5.  Project management is defined as "the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements." Id. at 6. It is helpful to distinguish "projects" and "project management" from "operations" and "operations management". "Operations" are defined as "an organizational function performing the ongoing execution of activities that produce the same product or produce a repetitive service." They are "permanent endeavors that produce repetitive outputs, with resources assigned to do basically the same set of tasks according to the standards institutionalized in a product life cycle."  Operations require operations management or business process management. Id. at 12. In contrast, projects are temporary, meaning they have a definite beginning and end. 

A legal "case" can be defined as "[a] general term for an action, cause, suit, or controversy, at law or in equity; a question contested before a court of justice; . . . A judicial proceeding for the determination of a controversy between parties wherein rights are enforced or protected, or wrongs are prevented or redressed; any proceeding judicial in its nature. . . . In ordinary usage, the word 'case' means 'event', 'happening','situation', 'circumstances'." Black's Law Dictionary 215 (6th ed. 1990). In my experience, lawyers and legal support professionals use "case management" loosely to mean those law-practice-management activities directly applied to a specific matter.  One could define "case management" as the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to meet the case requirements. I don't think that it is too far of a stretch to say that a "case" is a legal project. Most legal work takes place in a highly projectized environment. For litigants, a case may seem to drag on forever. But even in a Bleak House scenario, a case is, in fact, a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique result. 

So, is "legal project management" merely another word for "case management"; just a fancy--and unnecessary--neologism? I don't think so. Case management as practiced by most attorneys does not follow a standard framework. Most firms do not document, much less promulgate, best practices that would be recognized by project managers following any of the popular project management standards. The project management community is focused on standards and best practices whereas the legal community is, at best, ambivalent about developing standards and best practices in legal work that clients could use to compare and measure legal services. Clients need to reject the tired argument that the uniqueness of each legal matter makes standardization and estimates impractical--project management standards are specifically designed to address unique endeavors. Why is a legal case any more unique than, say, a software development project? Why are attorneys given so much more leeway with scope creep than software engineers?

I see this mindset reflected in the programs law firms use to manage their cases. Most case management applications (e.g. ProLawTime MattersAmicus Attorney) are basically unified group calendar, contact, and task management applications. Many also incorporate time entry, accounting, billing, and document management and assembly features. These applications do a good job in bringing together all the data related to a case and support how most attorneys work. What these applications generally do not do, however, is help with efficient resource allocation and time estimations. In short, while they can help you work more efficiently, they do little to report on how efficiently you are working. They don't force you into a mindset of estimating how long different tasks should take based on historical benchmarks and then calculate an aggregated time estimate for the entire case. Buy hey, as long as all your billable time is captured and you are not missing deadlines, why bother with measuring efficiency?

Compare this with project management applications (e.g., Microsoft ProjectSerena OpenProjPrimavera). PM applications are all about efficiency.  While these tools may integrate group calendaring, contact management, time tracking, and other features, their core functions are tracking task time, both estimated and actual, and providing sophisticated tools to manage resource allocation and report on schedule and budget estimates. When I think of a case management application, I conjure an image of daily/weekly/monthly calendar views with deadlines and daily tasks. When I think of project management applications, I picture GANTT charts

The fact that corporate (in-house) counsel are showing increased dissatisfaction with the cost of services provided by their outside counsel is hardly breaking news. As Douglas Allen points out in one of the few articles on legal project management, many of the complaints cited in various industry surveys, including cost, poor communication, and lack of responsiveness, point to inefficient management of legal matters. Douglas C. Allen, Legal Project Management: Developing and Managing the Scope of Work, Schedule, Budget and Communications for Legal Transactions and Dispute Resolution, Max Wideman's Project Management Wisdom, http://www.maxwideman.com/guests/legal_pm/intro.htm. Forward-looking lawyers should integrate project management applications (and project managers who understand how to use them) into their law practices and determine where additional efficiency can be squeezed out and which resources, whether in house or outsourced, should be allocated to which tasks. I also think that project management is the missing piece of the puzzle for implementing alternatives to hourly billing, which is something clients want, and which many lawyers have spent a lot of time discussing, but few have implemented.

It will be hard for many law firms to change. Legal project management is focused on monitoring legal work rather than executing it. It requires managing skills that are different from legal skills. Case or practice management, much less project management, are generally not taught in law school. Paralegal programs may cover the basics of calendaring and records management, but that's about it. Project management skills are most likely to be held by litigation support staff, especially those that have a strong IT background.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that one area of legal work where project management is given serious thought is in electronic discovery. 

The Electronic Discovery Reference Model, which seeks to develop guidelines and standards for e-discovery consumers and providers, has organized a Project Management Workgroup that has published on-line a draft version of an EDRM Project Management Framework (EPMF). The framework is composed of two models: the Project Management Team Model, and the Project Management Process Model. The team model seeks to define the primary stakeholders (or groups of stakeholders) in an e-discovery project organized by the three entities most likely to be involved in a large e-discovery project: the "corporation", "law firm", and "vendor" (only one?). The process model "defines a high level sequence of activities for managing electronic discovery projects." Seven "phases" comprise the "process" model: (1) scoping phase, (2) preliminary planning phase, (3) team selection phase, (4) detailed planning phase, (5) start-up phase, (6) execution phase, and the (7) closeout phase. 

I'll examine the EPMF in more detail in a future post. For this discussion, suffice it to say that training in the EPMF will not supplant or make useless more general PM certifications for legal and legal support professionals. The EPMF only lists the project phases and associated deliverables for an e-discovery project. It does not go into detail on all the processes and knowledge areas of which a competent project manager should have a solid grasp. A PMP can easily apply the PMBOK to the EPMF. Moreover, the EPMF only addresses a part of discovery, which is only a phase of an entire litigation matter. So, it does little to address the overall need for law firms integrate project management into their practices.  I fear that outside large e-discovery projects, few firms see a need to focus on project management. 

Some law firms, however, do get it. For example, the law firm of Morris, Manning & Martin uses project management to differentiate their firm. They have created the position of Director of Legal Project Management, which they filled by hiring someone with deep project management experience in the corporate world. They also provide continuing legal education courses on legal project management and have even gone so far as to patent their own legal project management system.  I think Morris, Manning & Martin is onto something here and I expect that as they and other firms with strong project management expertise continue to educate and win over corporate counsel, we'll start hearing more discussion of project management in the legal community. The fact of the matter is that the value of project management and it potential application to legal work should be all too obvious to the corporate executives who ultimately control the purse strings.

One partner at Morris, Manning & Martin puts it this way:
The ultimate question is this: Is your legal department measured by results? All other business units are using project management to enhance their results. If your legal department is expected to act as a productive unit of your company, maximizing opportunities and minimizing costs at every turn, then you can no longer afford to ignore project management.
Grant Collingsworth, Lawyers as Accidental Project Managers-The Case for Project Management in the Practice of Lawhttp://www.mmmlaw.com/articles/article_318.pdf

I can't think of a better way to conclude my first substantive post to this blog.

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Lary Port, a founding partner of Rocket Matter, a practice management SaaS solution, recently spoke about legal project management at MILO Fest [1], a "a conference for Mac-Lovin' Lawyers and their families."[2] His talk was entitled "Running an Effici... Read More

Dan Michaluk, an associate at Hicks Morley, recently discussed why project management is a key litigator competency on Slaw.CA.[1] His post discusses a number of points that this blog has covered in the past, but placed in a Canadian context.He st... Read More

Apparently, to Project Counsel, "legal-project management" is an annoying "buzz phrase." Or so that is how it is referred to in an otherwise well-written article on the surge in litigation and compliance document review in Europe. Legal-project manage... Read More

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