The International Institute of Legal Project Management defines legal project management (LPM) as the “application of project management principles and practices to enhance the delivery of legal services”.
The question often being asked is whether legal project management is simply traditional project management applied in a legal environment. The answer is partly yes, as well as recognising that the application of project principles specific to legal services has some nuances. With this in mind, practicing lawyers would benefit from general project management training. Lawyers would benefit immediately from applying some standard project management principles to their work.
Lawyers and their clients benefit further when these principles are adapted to meet the needs of legal service delivery. This requires an insight to the legal practice environment.
Legal Project Management in Context
A global study conducted by the International Institute of Legal Project Management of lawyers in nine different countries found that when referring to LPM, the legal industry insiders also take the term to cover the application of technology, process improvement , and leadership skills.
Therefore, the term LPM covers a more broader application than simply project management as it incorporates the approach to legal design and practice management, including the selection and integration of all systems, processes and methods that enhances lawyer productivity, and refining the more human aspects behind legal matter delivery.
Four Key Drivers Behind Formalising Legal Project Management
To better understand why legal project management is required in law practice, is to examine the key drivers behind its popularity.
1. The Shift from the Billable Hour
To better understand the need for legal project management over traditional law practice is to look at the historic way legal matters were planned and progressed.
Law practice has traditionally used the billable hour model. This requires minimal planning to define the initial work to be done, allowing the lawyer to start on tasks and then expand the scope until the legal outcome is achieved, retrospectively charging for their time. This meant that the client was unable to accurately predict their legal spend and making a more informed decision as to whether to progress a legal matter even with the high ambiguity around the total cost.
This also meant that planning practices around key areas like risk strategy, communications and stakeholder analysis was not carried out, or only superficially. No planning around costing modelling was required, and therefore having to determine the human resources, physical resources, schedule and customer price for the whole legal matter upfront was avoided.
The lack of transparency and certainty in the fees has been a challenge for clients for years. This could have been prolonged with an unwillingness to change despite client demand, however the greater shift from law firms to internal counsel has meant that many clients are now lawyers who themselves now have to manage their department’s legal spend. These pressures have led to alternate fee arrangements being developed, including fixed price legal services.
A fixed price pricing model requires the lawyer to well define the scope, determine the tasks, the schedule and all the human and other resources required upfront to identify a more precise cost to the practice to enable the calculation of the client price. As the fees are fixed, the risk on the law firm to actually perform is increased. The greater the productivity, the higher the profit reward, which is arguably the opposite for the billable hour where profit comes from the time the work takes.
The billable hour can actually promote inefficiencies as the law firm benefits from it. Compare this to a fixed price model where profit is driven on productivity that calls for smarter work practices, efficient processes, and maximising the benefits technology brings. This drive for performance without compromising quality outcomes, is more aligned with client desires for speed and price clarity.
The path for efficiencies was also promoted by higher marketplace competitiveness, and a requirement to rein in costs and being more effective. All these factors led to the need for a more process-driven approach found in project management practices.
2. Focus on Efficient and Effective Work Practices
Project management as a discipline is often referred to as an ‘art’ and a ‘science’, as it combines both interpersonal skills with the complexity of process-driven systems and methods. These are important as process guides behaviour, however in the legal environment, it is especially required for strict information management regimes, a need for consistency, auditability and regulatory compliance.
Law services are highly reliant on practice management software, especially given the requirement to maintain information integrity and the important of knowledge management. Everything collected, produced and utilised exists on technology.
With a focus on integrating systems, and the growing application of artificial technology means that technology remains a key factor in reviewing and improving legal practices.
What LPM brings to the legal practice is a focus on process design. The term ‘legal design’ is being used to convey the development and refining of legal service to be more human-centered, so process design needs to consider the people dynamics of how to better engage and integrate with the users of the legal system.
3. Focus on Lawyer Mental Wellbeing
Legal roles historically bring long hours, high pressure and a focus on the number of billable hours worked.
Over the years there has been a shift from lawyers being the sole reference point for legal knowledge to legal guidance becoming far more accessible through the internet as technology and handheld devices are driving consumer behaviours and buying decisions.
A shift to values-based alternate fee arrangement means that income is not directly linked to the billable hour anymore, rather to the value the legal service brings for the price being charged. In reality, fast delivery is a valued outcome that clients are often willing to pay for, which was counterproductive to the billable hour.
This brings re-emphasis that models like fixed price legal services call for more efficiencies in the delivery of legal services. This includes refinement through workflow analysis, leveraging technology and its integration with other systems and processes, and increasing the personal competencies of the legal team to ensure productivity is maximised. This is enabled through LPM practices and aims to reduce the stress from the billable hour focus, to one of increased productivity that brings greater reward by early delivery that retains more profit. Fixed price legal services encourages the use of smart workflows, technology and work practices, given the faster and cost effective the delivery the more profit is enjoyed. It ties into the adage of doing more with less.
The technology option for legal guidance, including the growing number of free online resources from governance agencies and other legal service providers is making for a more competitive marketplace. Lawyers are often being asked to be out of the firm strategic networking to build relationships that ultimately bring work into the legal practice. This of course means less work time and billable hours. This also is a reason why LPM has such a focus on interpersonal and communication skills, as people prefer to do business with people they know, like and trust.
4. Focus on the Guidance of Professional Behaviour
Process guides behaviour. Human beings like to operate in predictable and stable environments. The concept of good or best practice recognises that methods and techniques needs to offer a consistent, repeatable and standardised process, and they are deemed to be superior practices as an industry norm.
The use of designing workflows enables the analysis and integration of the systems, processes and methods with a legal practice, including the use of technology and other tools, and the interaction with those using, supporting and benefiting from the service.
Designing such methods with human beings in mind, means that they support the way the team operate, over the team adapting to technology practices. This is why orchestrated process workflow designs are important as it is designed with the people in mind.
What LPM brings to legal practice is a greater emphasis on the integration of these elements (i.e., systems, processes and people), and how they each contribute to the productivity as a whole. It recognises the need to select and integrate work practices with software solutions.
This provides a stable platform to approach the legal matter with the right structure and support, inevitably allows the law firm’s information and practice management systems. It comprises the legal practice’s business system and intellectual property.
A Model for a LPM Framework
To look at the differences between traditional project management and legal project management is best examined by looking at its application.
The International Institute of Legal Project Management base their training programmes on the following LPM Framework that reinforces the core principles in traditional project management, and the uniqueness of the legal profession extensions. This was designed to guide those applying project management methods in legal services, including the wider technology, process improvement and leadership aspects.
The LPM Framework recognises:
- The external influencing factors of the legal market, regulatory and commercial factors;
- The four phase life cycle stages of define, plan, deliver and close;
- The key functions and elements under each phase;
- The productivity tools and enabling approaches; and
- The people and organisational capability elements.
This LPM Framework is now further discussed in light of its difference to traditional project management methods below.
Level of Regulatory Guidance on Process
Clearly the regulatory oversight on legal practice and its outputs makes legal project management having its core on quality systems, which in traditional project management refers more to the quality controls of tests, audits and inspections, where legal practices are quality centric in their construction, information gathering, advice formulation and the actual outputs.
The law profession has many complex facets, including the systems of law and the specialist practice areas.
Legal Specific Terminology and Team Structure
The practice of law uses specific terms that are distinct to other environments, for example, a legal project is called a ‘legal matter’. This is evident where Latin is still used today for key legal principles. Processes like ‘legal hold’ in anticipatory litigation cases have to be considered, given the importance of information, evidence and knowledge management in law. This alone makes understanding the principles and practices of project management more acceptable and easily recognised as being applicable to the lawyer’s role.
There are also roles specific to working in and supporting legal teams that generally do not exist in other professions, such as the practice manager, paralegals and knowledge management professionals given the high compliance nature of the work.
Four Phase Matter Life Cycle Model
Both traditional project management and legal matters follow a four-phase life cycle.
In traditional project management, it is often referred to as initiation, planning, executing and close-out, however there are even subtleties in each phase. IILPM has coined the stage terms as define, plan, deliver and close.
These terms were to better imply the subtle differences, such as the Define phase that is effectively the first stage of client engagement, so it is more about capturing client requirements and getting clear on scope, whereas the traditional project management basically does a full plan process, but at a high level.
It is about streamlining the processes, so they are more aligned to how legal matters are handled.
Functions of Project Management
The LPM Framework shows the key functions and their breakdown elements aligned to each phase of the legal matter.
The international de facto standard for project management that is titled ‘A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge’ (PMBOK®) has defined project management as comprising ten functions of knowledge areas that include scope management, schedule management, cost management, resource management, quality management, communications management, stakeholder management, risk management, procurement management, and integration management (watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HjSOignu69A).
Whilst it can be argued that they all apply to any project application including legal matters, the emphasis and importance does vary between professions. For example, procurement management covers supply, contract management, and asset management, however legal matters are more often delivering professional legal advice and associated legal instruments or court decisions over building physical assets and infrastructure.
One of the biggest differences in legal practice is the unique pricing models that often have regulatory constraints that may limit other industry models being used that exist outside of the law profession.
This has been so important that law has given it its own name as ‘alternate fee arrangements’ that provide multiple pricing models that move away from the billable hour model. This is a point of difference in how legal services work, as the profession even have cost lawyer positions and an array of pricing consultants in the industry.
Differing Applications of the Functions
Although there is evidence that the priorities of the functions of project management would vary for each profession, the depth of these changes when considering the nuances of legal practice are wide reaching. For example, in traditional project management, risk management is focused on any event that can slow, stop, or interrupt the project delivery process. With legal advice brings higher risk of adequate professional advice, so the risk analysis is from multiple perspectives.
The first perspective is from the law firm’s analysis whether taking on the legal matter is a good decision. Secondly, is to consider the risk on the client benefiting from the legal advice, particularly whether they are in a favourable position for winning legal matters like litigation cases. The third perspective is the factors that will impact the delivery of the legal matter, and the fourth factor is the risk of the actual legal advice or outcome being robust and legally sound, given the many salient factors of a matter that warrant caveats.
Culture Focused Methodology Delivery
Law firms are arguably project-based organisations. Every legal matter is a project, so the performance of legal projects drives the actual culture of the organisation. Hence there is a need to consider the leadership and interpersonal skills and dynamics of the teams that contribute to the culture. This connects back to the importance of legal design in bringing human-centered design thinking to legal practices. This is important as a client’s satisfaction with legal services is a key factor to a healthy internal culture.
Law practices have become every focused on the importance of its culture, and that includes attempts to address the profession’s reputation for long hours, high stress, and imbalances of maintaining wellbeing.
LPM aims to support that pathway by bringing processes that guide behaviour, leverage technology and have a focus on the interactions between people and their behaviours.
It can be concluded that LPM although relatively new to legal practice as a specific discipline, is bringing more project rigour, technology, process improvement and people dynamic focus to the profession.
Legal matters have always been projects, and this is coming to be more realised when the principles and practices of a more formalised project management approach is being implemented.
The historic method of using the billable hour has held productivity back from deploying project management practices that have improved other industries worldwide, including those that develop and deliver legal tech solutions to the legal profession.
The greater need for efficiencies, productivity and alternate fee arrangements has made legal project management a new global trend for moving law firms into new ways of doing business.
About the Author: adjunct Associate Professor Todd Hutchison LPP
Adjunct Associate Professor Todd Hutchison is the Chairman of the International Institute of Legal Project Management, a former global Board Director of the Project Management Institute, and an awarded and practising international project manager.
He heads the global management consultancy and training company Peopleistic, including the Peopleistic Legal PM division. He also holds adjunct positions with CQ University, Edith Cowan University and Curtin University, resides as part of the MBA academic staff at the Australian Institute of Management, and is undertaking legal project management research in collaboration with universities such as Leeds Trinity University.
Todd has worked as an advisor, consultant, trainer and practice manager for law firms, and in-house counsel. He is an international bestselling business author, a certified professional speaker, has been recognised in the Top 101 Industry Experts specialising in project management, and is listed in the prestigious Who’s Who of Business in Australia.
 IILPM (2017) Legal Project management Competency Framework, A Global Standard for Professional Development in Legal Project Management, Executive Summary, International Institute of Legal Project Management.