The world’s premier law firms are now more than purveyors of legal services. In the past decade, they have become multibillion-dollar global businesses and face many of the same challenges and issues as the clients they serve.
Successfully running a large firm today requires not only a cadre of great legal minds but a team of professionals focused on continually improving both operational and process excellence. During the past five years, we’ve worked directly with clients and shared our best legal project management (LPM) ideas to help them reduce cost, risk and time in executing everything from routine to mission-critical work.
Important Considerations for LPM
It’s probably safe to say that most lawyers don’t go to law school to run a business; most pursue the profession so they can practice law. And given the choice between researching a novel legal question and sending the client a matter status update, many lawyers would understandably prefer to do the former.
But what if your in-house client is about to provide a matter update to senior management or the board of directors? Or submit an annual multimillion-dollar budget forecast? At these particular points in time, that matter update may be just as important as a sound legal analysis – possibly even more so.
There are a number of training courses lawyers can take to build proper project management skills, but we have found that they deliver mixed results. Oftentimes, the project management of a large matter requires a full-time resource; in some cases, matters are large and complex enough that you may be better served to "call in the professionals."
Here’s the good news for the legal community: Project management has been applied successfully in a multitude of disciplines, so there is a ready supply of talent to take on such a role. However, and perhaps not surprisingly, an approach that might work in building jet engines may not work for legal services. Assembling the right team with the right expertise is simply critical in the high-stakes matters we regularly handle for our clients.
Building the Optimal Team
What should you be looking for in assembling or working with an LPM team? Based on our experience, you need a mix of different skill sets.
Clifford Chance has invested in and employed a dedicated team of 14 legal project managers, some of whom are lawyers but most of whom have gained their experience across a wide array of sectors and industries. Based on our experience, the benefits of a strong LPM approach are significant for in-house legal teams, including greater predictability and transparency of costs, improved processes, faster cycle times, and reduced risk.
We’ve also noted one important side benefit: happier lawyers who are relieved of, or supported in, certain non-legal tasks they see as "administrative."
Our team divides along one other important line. Some members have backgrounds in process management (Six Sigma), while others focus on traditional project management. These two approaches are distinct yet complementary, and both are deployed throughout the LPM process.
In general, process management is better suited to repeatable work, and project management is a better fit for one-off endeavors. But their interplay on the ground is more complex as even one-off matters have repeatable elements at their core. Process improvement initiatives quickly identify where better execution is needed, and project management disciplines efficiently weed out deficient processes. Thus, the combined skill set of our team generates a virtuous circle, improving LPM processes and discipline.
Integrating LPM: Three Challenges
We routinely face three particular challenges with integrating LPM in the law firm context.
Overcoming the perception gap. Lawyers don’t readily view their work as either processes or projects. But it is nevertheless true that legal tasks are like any others in terms of proceeding along a timeline with defined milestones and engaging in a transient endeavor that targets a specific outcome. We’ve had some luck in closing this gap by speaking with clients about their own perceptions. The real and often surprising story is not about their responses but rather the delight they readily express in learning that the firm is "speaking their language." They are happy to learn that we are focusing on process maps and project plans as integral companions to their substantive work. Client feedback helps lawyers become more receptive to the idea that everyone’s purposes are served when – as it often happens – legal project managers become directly engaged with their equivalents at the client organization.
Addressing the issue of control. For good reasons, lawyers are naturally reluctant to delegate decision-making responsibility when it comes to client matters. So an important facet of helping them embrace LPM is to assure them that the legal project manager has only operational control. Strategic control stays with the legal team. By way of analogy, in construction terms, the project manager ensures that people and resources arrive on time, but the architect remains responsible for the overall design.
Proving the value-add. In advance of experiencing LPM firsthand, lawyers tend to think that they’ve got it covered and don’t need that extra pair of hands. Here, we face the challenge of parsing the topic as a question of degree. Granted, no legal matter has ever gotten off the ground without some level of matter management, and initially, project management tools like Gantt charts might seem like overkill. But when the critical path of a high-stakes matter shifts midstream, LPM can add immeasurable value in immediately identifying the consequences and enabling lawyers to focus straightaway on managing them. While it only takes one such incident to make believers of all of us, we still face the challenge of pleading our case in advance.
LPM Delivers Value to Clients
Our legal project managers help our lawyers design the most efficient way to approach large, one-off matters as well as frequent tasks or matter types. They also help our legal teams execute against those plans. Our LPM approach operates at quite a high level, for example, involving a process map of 20 steps rather than several hundred. Further, we identify a correlation between the degree of commoditization in the legal work and the level of project management detail at which you need to operate to get the best return on your investment.
As successful case studies mount, lawyers and clients increasingly recognize the value that LPM can bring to the delivery of legal services. We foresee further growth in this area – and no doubt a war for talent for those legal project managers who can work successfully in a legal environment.
Process management: Working with a client to speed up regular transactionsThrough our discussions with a key banking client, we became aware that a regular transaction we perform for them was taking longer than was ideal. We agreed with the client that improvements could be made and kicked off a joint process-improvement workshop. During an intensive two-day workshop in our New York office, and with the help of two of our legal project managers, Clifford Chance partners and associates worked with members of the client’s in-house team to analyze every step in the existing process. The workshop identified the causes of delays and established consensus on changes to be made on both sides. Since implementing those changes, transaction speed has been improved by up to 40 percent in many instances. Moreover, our two teams now understand each other better and are working together in a more joined-up way.
Project management: Supporting a large corporate reorganization We appointed a legal project manager to ensure the effective coordination and efficient delivery of a large-scale corporate reorganization. The matter team was split across six Clifford Chance offices – from New York to Sydney. The legal project manager facilitated the overall task planning, ensuring that all team members were briefed and aware of the documents due for delivery on each day throughout the transaction. The legal project manager coordinated with a lower-cost provider on the production of standard documents, allowing the matter team to focus on delivering the intensive legal advice our client needed. As always, our LPM process involved sending timely status reports so the client could remain aware of our progress against the budget and ensure that legal costs were appropriately managed. Thanks in substantial part to LPM, our lawyers delivered a completed transaction against a tight timetable.
Global Head of Innovation and Business Change Bas Boris Visser comments on how legal project management links in to our wider strategy:
Innovation in service delivery is a key component in our strategy, and we are committed to delivering tangible value to clients. We call this “Best Delivery,” and our approach draws on four pillars: knowledge and information, right resources, process management, and advanced technology. Legal project managers deliver much of the focus on process management, but we have a long list of other “tools” to enhance our approach to service delivery.
We recognize that having a long list of tools is in itself not enough. Knowing what tools to use for a particular matter is a crucial part of the design process.
Legal project managers sit at the vanguard of our Best Delivery "toolkit." They help our fee earners establish what the right tools are and design new ways of working. They also feedback ideas for new tools that we can develop.
Published November 4, 2016.