Legal project management can improve client satisfaction, teamwork and the economics of legal services, writes contributor Aileen Leventon in this first of two-part series for the LexisNexis Business of Law Blog.
Law firms and legal departments are moving quickly to augment skills in managing how legal work is done. “Getting it done” is no longer good enough. With clients’ refusal to pay for work deemed inefficient or excessive, it is critical for lawyers to concur on the scope of work and to execute well.
Likewise, “leave-no-stone unturned” is not synonymous with quality. Legal project management (LPM) is a framework for analyzing and communicating about business needs and the associated legal work as a matter is initiated, planned, carried out, monitored, completed and evaluated to improve lawyers’ overall effectiveness.
There are many LPM frameworks that have been described in books, promoted by consultants, developed by law firms, and disseminated through training and certificate programs. Although they may differ in the details, they nevertheless all reflect a common mindset that is grounded on a series of first principles. They enable lawyers to foster their relationship with existing and prospective clients by giving them confidence that their matters are approached with judgment, experience and will be in control.
The First Principles of LPM
Consider the following “first principles” with respect to law practice:
1. Legal work is undertaken to achieve a client’s business goal; it is not a professional pursuit in a vacuum.
2. The client’s goal – and the importance of it – anchors decision-making in handling the matter and the legal strategy.
3. Although lawyers serve a critical advisory role, others (stakeholders) have interests and requirements that are usually foremost.
4. How the work is done is almost as important to clients as results; substantive skill is assumed when a client retains a lawyer or firm.
5. Cost matters: the resources applied to legal work must be in proportion to the benefits and risks inherent in the effort; it must conform to the client’s measure of value.
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Every matter involves a team of people with different roles and responsibilities. Its composition may be as complex as a team spanning many locations involving the client and its internal and external advisors, including a law firm. And within the law firm, it may require partners, associates, paralegals and assistants from different practice groups. Or a matter may be as simple as simple as one lawyer and client.
In a well-managed matter, team members should be able to answer the following questions in a manner that is commensurate with their role:
1. WHY are we handling this matter for this client? Why is it important to the client? What is the business goal of the legal work?
2. WHAT work will accomplish the goal and what work will specifically not be done? For example, is this a litigation matter or a mediation session with settlement on parallel tracks or will we take a scorched earth posture? Is this an asset or a stock deal?
3. WHEN must work be done and in what sequence? What are the hard deadlines, and what timing is uncertain or dependent on unknowns? What are the milestones and key dates in our time line?
4. HOW do we manage the work based on constraints and requirements such as budget, strategic importance, client mandates or risk management protocols? What does our work plan look like?
5. WHO is involved in the work and what are their roles and responsibilities? Who is responsible for the actual work, who supports that person, and who must be consulted or informed about status and decisions?
The order of these questions is relevant because “Why?” asks about the business context first. All legal work flows from the business need. Is it strategic or ordinary course of business? Is it “bet the company” or derived from requirements for regulatory compliance?
For example, in an M&A deal, if a company is being sold by its founders, the business context is strategic and novel; if the acquirer is a private equity firm buying yet another portfolio company, the matter is operational and should follow a familiar pattern. Understanding the business context also sets the foundation for the client’s definition of value, which should then translate into the appropriate pricing and fee structure.
“Who?” does the work comes last in the list to emphasize that staffing is based on the answers to the first four questions. At that point, it will flow smoothly to assign the right person at the right level to deliver quality work that achieves the client’s cost objectives, the law firm’s profitability or realization target and gets the results for the client’s business.
Consider the current norm: the client says “go,” and roles, responsibilities, goals, strategies, assumptions, deadlines and budgets are clarified – or not – on the run. Panic followed by triage is the response when the client expresses concern about the quality of management or challenges fees or billing practices.
The 5 questions provide the analytical framework that allows lawyers to apply their legal know-how with greater focus on context and client service to improve the effectiveness of legal services. They are the foundation of sound legal project management.
Note: Join Ms. Leventon and our own Kris Satkunas on January 13, 2016 at 1:00 p.m. EST for a complimentary webinar she is co-presenting titled: Bridging the Gap Between In-house Counsel and Law Firms: A better framework to understand metrics.
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Aileen Leventon, JD, MBA, is President of QLex Consulting Inc., which focuses on improving the results and economics of legal services for both clients and their counsel.
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Photo credit: Flickr, john.schultz, 5/4/2010: To-Do List (CC BY-SA 2.0)