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Project Management Tools in the Legal Environment: Can Old Dogs be Taught New Tricks?

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A few days ago Steven Levy wrote a toughtful and thought-provoking response to my post "Buying a Lathe Does Not Make You a Carpenter" in his Lexician blog. Steven B. Levy, Rethinking Legal Project Management Tools, Lexician, Sept. 21, 2009, at URL

In Rethinking Legal Project Management Tools, Levy argues that "standard project management tools" are not appropriate for most law firm environments. Not only that, but focusing on the software could cause efforts to implement project management to fail. In explaining why this is the case, Levy discusses what he sees as the three levels of project management. These are:

  1. Scheduling, resource allocation, costs, dependencies, deadlines (not the same as scheduling), risks, and, to be honest, a certain amount of CYA.

  2. Managing the people and resources to control and achieve the stuff in Level 1.

  3. Understanding and influencing the overall system so that you can be effective at Level 2.
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According to Levy, most firms start at the first level, where they should first understand the overall system. Focusing on scheduling, controlling costs, or managing resources tempts the inexperienced project manager to look for software solutions. 

I think Levy's point applies not only to implementing project management standards in general, but also specific process-improvement methodologies, such as Six Sigma. Rarely will a project manager have the luxury of building a company or department from the ground up. When trying to transform an existing organization, most project managers and their sponsors are not going to have the power to impose revolutionary changes. Even if they did have the power, the disruption and stakeholder resistance to revolutionary change creates its own inefficiencies at best and, at worst, risk the stability of the business.

Most programs to implement project management in an organization are, therefore, going to be incremental and iterative. To reap the greatest benefit from the effort and resources expended, you'll want to first conduct a thorough study of your organization, its work processes, and who the champions and early adoptors--and nay sayers and foot draggers--are. This is why most firms that have had success at implementing project management and Six Sigma have started with the litigation support department and, more specifically, with electronic discovery projects and processes.

Those working in litigation support, especially electronic discovery, already use a lot of software to manage their work. Also, they are used to having to measure and report on a number of metrics and making cost and schedule estimates--even if they are only using MS Excel. Most would find that specifically tailored project management applications would make their lives easier and would welcome improved and better documented procedures. That is, so long as the budget and resources necessary to properly implement the new procedures and applications are made available.

Overall, Levy's article is spot on.  But I do take exception with two assumptions that he makes. One is that "standard project management" software is not appropriate for the law firm or legal department. The second is his rehashing of the stereotype that lawyers are not going to adopt new systems and technologies, so don't bother trying to get them to.

As for the first assumption, in the hands of an experienced project manager, Microsoft Project and its ilk are very useful tools for mapping out legal processes, tracking resource usage, and exploring ways to compress schedules. I'm not saying, however, that it is appropriate for every project and should be used by the entire team. I don't expect attorneys to create their own work breakdown structures, decompose it into activities, create a network diagram, and calculate the critical path for their cases. But I can envision a Legal Project Management Office (LPMO) where case and project managers work together to track legal work and look for inefficiencies, risks, under utilized resources, etc.

For many projects, the LPMO would find standard project management applications helpful, but not all. It wouldn't be efficient to plug every matter into Microsoft Project. Case Management applications generally do a good job at tracking tasks, deadlines, communications, and documents.  You might want to plug a few matters into more specialized project management or business process mapping tools now and then to really scrutinize the process to see if there is room for improvement, but it would be inefficient to manage all legal matters in standard project management software. 

So, it is not that I disagree with Levy, I just come to a slightly different conclusion. Standard project management software has a place in the law firm and corporate legal department. But knowing what that place is requires an experienced project manager who has a deep understanding of the firm's "system" and I gladly adopt Levy's definition of system as:  

The ways that the various parts of a business interact with each other. Business systems are both nested / hierarchical and cross-linked.
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The second assumption that Levy makes, which I do not entirely agree with, is that lawyers are not going to adopt new project management tools, so don't risk failure by trying to make these old dogs learn new tricks. If I didn't know more about Levy's background, I might say that this is an IT guy's condescension towards lawyers seeping through. Levy has years of experience working with and building products for lawyers, so I trust that his comments come from a depth of real-life experience. Also, I have worked with lawyers who still wrote everything on legal pads and had their secretaries print out their e-mail, so I do understand the impracticality of forcing new software on lawyers in many situations.

Still, when a technology improves what lawyers feel is their core work, they embrace it, and it has little to do with age. Certainly, the "Millennial Generation" of lawyers entering the workforce have been reared on technology.  But even the Baby Boomer attorneys love their smart phones and the boomers are the fastest growing user group for Facebook. Even if all lawyers at your firm are luddites, however, that still doesn't make the argument against project management software. That lawyer I worked with who wrote everything on legal pads and the number of lawyers I knew who did all their edits by dictation, still invested in modern word processing software. Their legal assistants and paralegals were not creating documents on Remington typewriters. Similarly, the lawyer I knew who had his e-mail printed out for him, still had e-mail. They had the technology, but hired others to operate it.

It is tempting to laugh at these lawyers' "luddite" practices and, right out of law school, I did. What I realize now, however, is how efficient some of these "old-fashioned" processes were. For some time now, I've been working on ways to minimize my e-mail and route most messages through assistants. I waste too much time reading, responding to, and filing mundane messages that less expensive team members are better positioned to process in the first place. Every time I receive a message that I have to route to someone else or call someone else for information to respond to, I see this as evidence of an inefficient communication process. 

The problem is not luddite lawyers fearing technology or being too lazy to use it, but rather that lawyers are increasingly engaging in what traditionally has been secretarial or paralegal work. We are assembling our own documents, entering our own data, processing our own (e-)mail. 

The point of this is that just like attorneys may have others manage their calendars; format, print, and copy their documents; and organize evidence for trial; they would likely delegate much of the project management work to a specialist hired or trained for that purpose. The fact that the economy and oversaturation of legal talent is leading to the lawyerization of litigation support, paralegal, and litigation assistant work doesn't change my point. Lead attorneys shouldn't be spending their time creating GANTT charts any more than they should be doing first-pass document review.

Therefore, arguing that it is difficult to get "a senior attorney to do a task not related to the actual practice of law" does not mean project management software cannot be effectively adopted in a legal environment. It can, so long as those senior attorneys understand the value of such software and hiring or training talent to manage it for them. Proving the value of such software and successfully implementing it, however, requires a deep understanding of the firm's environment. Levy does a terrific job at explaining the different levels of project management and the dangers of considering software solutions prior to understanding the system of which they will become a part.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Paul C. Easton published on September 26, 2009 2:46 PM.

The Lawyerification of Litigation Support: Is a Legal Education a Benefit or Just Baggage for an E-discovery Project Manager? was the previous entry in this blog.

LPM the Talk of the Blawgosphere is the next entry in this blog.

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