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Legal Project Management: a framework for the modern lawyer

The term Project Management is entrenched in our modern-day vernacular almost any undertaking in a corporate environment has increasing moving parts. For the uninitiated, Project Management is, by the definition of the Project Management (PMI) Institute, the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.

As any veteran in-house lawyer knows, the landscape of business and the requirements of corporate legal departments have changed enormously in the last ten to fifteen years. To quote Professor Richard Susskind, one of the world’s leading authorities on the future of legal services: “In-house legal departments are under pressure from CEOs and CFOs to reduce their internal headcount, to spend less on law firms, and yet they have more legal and compliance work than ever before. So, these clients need more legal service at less cost and this challenge will define the next ten years of the legal industry."

These circumstances have seen the birth of Legal Project Management (LPM), which is the adaptation of traditional project management techniques to a legal context.

The PMI defines a project as a “temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result." If we apply a legal lens, let's say it is any ‘matter’ proceeding with a defined time frame, scope and resources. 

Shaun Plant, LawVu’s Chief Legal Officer was integral in designing PMI’s definition, tools and processes for the Legal Project Management community of practice. He believes LPM helps lawyers to understand what their clients need and create for them a fit-for-purpose solution. LPM upends the traditional legal approach of billing by the increment and producing a lengthy document of legal advice that may not serve the client. Perhaps creating a legal advice workflow presentation or workshop could be more appropriate to the specific client and issue at hand.

“No one wants to pay for legal services”, says Plant. Bearing this in mind, LPM focuses on providing a legal service, not just finding a solution whatever the cost. It regards the processes involved with dealing with clients; internal decision-making, stakeholder management, and communication. Essentially, every client engagement is a business service and the LPM process puts a handbrake on lawyers burning through their clients' cash. 

The easiest way to define LPM is the creation of a defined project methodology. Ashurst Advance Delivery breaks their LPM practice into four key steps: initiation, planning, execution and closure. Initiation is determining the needs of the client and appropriate engagements. Planning defines the project scope, mapping out deliverables, resources and costs, and scheduling activities to ensure transparency and best working practices for the engagement. Execution is about acting on and delivering the project whilst monitoring progress against milestones and budget and mitigating any issues that arise. Closure is improving the delivery capability and client experience through a controlled closure of the project that captures best practices and lessons learned.

Following this methodology and the subsequent optimization of workflows creates the best possible project outcomes at the best cost to the client. The difference between in-house legal teams and private practice boils down to billing clients and the volume of work. Private practice faces the pressure of incremental billing and charging to their clients. In-house teams are free from this, although they are tasked with delivering large volumes of work as efficiently as possible.The implications of this are that in-house teams experience the consequences of their outputs if they are not fit-for-purpose.  However, this provides an opportunity to learn from and better future services. Meanwhile, private practice lawyers find themselves removed from the solution output post-delivery as the continuation of their engagement would cost the client, essentially cutting off a relationship that could provide growth. 

A 2020 June in-house survey confirms a desire for better legal processes, with 52.3% of respondents stating a desire for a “high priority” towards optimization of workflows and project management. Incorporating LPM for in-house teams has huge benefits. It allows a legal team to closer align itself to the organization and its business objectives, effectively breaking down the silo that legal often sits in. 

The flow-on effect of an optimized in-house team positively impacts the entire organization. Sales can tender more efficiently and successfully, independence is on top of evolving risks, and core functions of the business can work, with clear communication established with the legal team, keeping the business on the front foot of contractual issues that may arise. 

LPM skills are aligned with the notion of a T-shaped lawyer, someone who possesses a deep legal knowledge and who also has multidisciplinary skills that allow them to provide a full service to their clients. Every lawyer knows you learn on the job. Law school provides you with legal insight and theory, perhaps with some additional ethical, political or commercial study, but it does not teach the practical application of the law. 

As Plant puts it: “At law school, you are never actually taught to be a lawyer. LPM compliments subject matter skill with some good behaviours that are extremely appropriate for when you are delivering something where there is a time frame and costs involved to the client.” 

LPM in its essence is a framework that allows lawyers to provide their clients or organization with a better service.  Or, as Plant sees it, a more modern service that is tailored to what the client desires. It is the overdue recognition that every legal service is a business transaction, and as such should be optimized to provide the best value for solution and money to a client possible. 

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