This is a guest post by Antony Smith, a solicitor by training with qualifications and experience in project management. He is the owner of Legal Project Management Limited, and offers legal-project management services to legal-service providers in the U.K. He also writes about legal-project management on his company blog.
© Antony Smith, 2012. All rights reserved.
Disruptive change is the most conspicuous characteristic of the current legal-services market in England and Wales. What does this mean for legal-project management? Is legal-project management no more than a passing fad, a barely established movement that may, in any event, have missed an opportunity to make a mark? Or do the market changes mean that more law firms will adopt legal-project management principles sooner rather than later?
Among the changes that are affecting the legal market, and therefore have implications for legal project management, are:
- Regulatory changes: The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has moved to an "outcomes focused" as opposed to a "rule based" approach, which includes implementation of its own risk-assessment processes along with the requirement for law firms to adopt something similar to manage their own risks.
- Alternative Business Structures (ABS's): The SRA is also the body responsible for licensing ABS's, organisations that can offer legal services without being wholly owned by lawyers - the much heralded "Tesco law". It seems that something in the region of 125 organisations have applied to become ABS's to date.
- Acquisitions and investment: We are seeing increases in law-firm takeovers, with transactions ranging from the local to the international in scope, and increasing private-equity activity in the legal sector, with the completion of many deals being dependent on the targets being granted ABS status.
- Legislative changes: The highly controversial Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) is currently making its way through parliament with two of its themes being reduced public funding available for citizens needing "free" legal advice (Legal Aid) and ) and seeking to lower the cost of litigation generally, one feature of which is a proposed ban on referral fees in personal-injury cases.
- Renewed focus on legal costs: One aim behind the LASPO is to implement some of the recommendations of the Jackson Report on legal costs. There is also a Jackson-inspired, court-based, pilot scheme running at the moment, concerning cost budgeting in civil litigation, while recently the Legal Ombudsman has noted that 20- 25 percent of referrals to him concern lawyers costs.
- Rise of the fixed fee: There is no doubt that fixed fees are becoming much more widespread, in response to increasing purchaser demand, but there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that many lawyers are still struggling to get them right.
In light of the above, how is the emerging discipline of legal-project management faring? Eversheds remains the most renowned advocate of legal-project management in the U.K, and even a cursory glance at their website cannot fail to leave an aspiring legal-project manager impressed. A few other law firms also say on their websites that their staff are competent legal-project managers. At the very least it seems the concept of legal-project management is sufficiently well known to become an acceptable marketing differentiator. It is probably also fair to say that more law firms really are embracing the notion of legal-project management as a means of coping with the more pronounced business-process-driven nature of legal-service delivery.
A number of consultancies offering services to law firms also refer to their legal-project management competence or, if the phrase "legal-project management" is not actually used, they offer services familiar to project managers such as risk management and helping to make law practices "leaner" following Six Sigma principles. Articles about legal-project management are now starting to appear in traditional hard-copy legal journals, and presumably this trend will continue. Perhaps this is a sign of legal-project management starting to go mainstream, with interest no longer being confined to innovative early adopters who seek out blogs such as this one.
When considering required outcomes, such as effective risk-management processes, legal-service providers of all types are under pressure to put in place procedures to help achieve those outcomes. Many who have created what may be called "home-grown procedures," may not be calling what they do "legal-project management." Should this matter?
Some would argue that, provided the procedures help firms deliver effective client services, it does not matter what they are called or whence they spring from. Practicing lawyers are renowned for "just getting things done" and some may believe that implementing a series of ad-hoc processes will be enough to see them through. I disagree. To remain competitive, legal-service providers are going to have to become adept at managing projects and programmes that endure and lead to greater systemization of their whole business. It sounds obvious, but many lawyers do not seem to have the experience, knowledge, and skill to make this happen. Even buying-in these skills and managing them effectively pose new challenges to lawyers.
These challenges can be overcome. Beyond "just getting things done" lawyers by training also value tried and trusted procedures, precedent and reasoning by analogy. Project management has a long history (early civilisations learned how to manage groups of people for common endeavours) and offers frameworks, methods, and procedures that can be adapted to meet different needs. Legal-project managers sensitive to legal culture and wider stakeholder requirements can help law firms make the transition to greater systemization, which should in turn lead to increased productivity and profitability. But then, as someone who advocates legal-project management as a means of achieving improved legal-business practices, I would say that, wouldn't I?