Legal Project Management and its Importance to Law Schools
Legal matters are effectively projects, and those leading legal matters are arguably project managers, however the need for a more rigorous and traditional project management approach in legal practice has become globally evident through a trending client demand for fixed price legal services.
The Australian College of Law (2016) noted, “The introduction of fixed fees, outsourcing of legal work, intelligent systems and the internationalisation of Australian legal practice are beginning to impact on the legal market and how lawyers practice, and the skills lawyers will need in the future”.
Enabling fixed fee legal services requires getting clear on the scope of the work, identifying the resources required, developing a budget with execution risks in mind, and then having the processes to execute, monitor and control. This is simply project management in practice, including the processes to manage change and issues management.
The internationalisation aspect of legal practice has a high reliance on the interactivity of technology especially between geographically dispersed offices. As the International Institute of Legal Project Management found when surveying legal project management practitioners over nine countries (IILPM, 2017), project management was not just about the application of project management principles and practices to enhance the delivery of legal services, it also included technology enablement, process improvement methods and a focus on communications and stakeholder management to bring greater efficiencies and productivity to the legal firm or in-house counsel.
Technology and the introduction of artificial intelligence is a growing area of interest for revolutionising law practice and is delivered through a project means. This focus on technology, work flow and intelligent systems is also driving legal software design, with many providers already specifically embedding legal project management processes directly into or based around their products, such as Exterro, LegalTrek, CAEL and Dash that promote project management functionality.
Tharmaraj (2015) identified project management as being one of the five areas worth exploring for innovation, the others being data analytics; use of an intranet; social media; and collaboration.
Legal project management as a phrase is likely becoming an umbrella term to be used in law for a more technology-enabled and managed legal service process, but unlike ‘practice management’ it goes beyond a process to a role function within the legal matter team itself.
The role of ‘Legal Project Manager’ is an increasingly popular position found in Australian law firms, evident by both the jobs being advertised and the titles appearing on professional profiles in professional social media platforms like LinkedIn.
Outside of Australia, the role is often attracting professional project managers moving into the law sector and not just lawyers. The driver is to reduce the internal cost of overseeing the legal matter process by using a less expensive non-lawyer legal project manager who can deal with the process, communications and stakeholder management, to allow the legal experts to focus on the law.
Enabling fixed price legal services requires an accurate method to determine the budget, and a process to ensure the delivery of the legal services is efficient to assure profit is not eroded. This includes the need for more traditional project management safeguards around risk management, issues management and change management.
LexisNexis (2017) notes, “There is an acknowledgement that law firms are trying to implement better project management systems and practices, but the overall perception is that they remain far behind where they need to be.”. The likely challenge is a lack of project management know-how, technology and process.
Australian LexisNexis author, Theresa Linton, notes the ten reasons law firms need to adopt Legal Project Management as (quote):
– Improve your delivery on client expectations
– Provide a framework for scoping and costing matters
– Enable successful fee renegotiations when key factors change
– Greatly reduce the risk of alternative billing models
– Increase resilience and reduce stress for your legal teams
– Create precedents to accelerate scoping, planning and costing
– Contribute to knowledge management
– Improve team work and delegation
– Provide a competitive edge
– Lead to sustainability for the future.
The driver towards alternate fee arrangements has reinforced the strong interest in legal project management. As Woldow and Richardson (2010) acknowledge, “In the legal profession, Legal Project Management (LPM) has gone viral, primarily as a result of unprecedented changes that are rapidly reshaping the legal landscape”.
The Law Council of Australia established a Future of the Law Committee in 2016 who acknowledged that heading into 2017, “…some key disruptive technologies will likely include…project management and workflow systems.”
The move is not necessarily welcomed by all legal firms. Burcher (2009) noted, “Generally speaking this development [to fixed fee arrangements] has not been enthusiastically embraced by the profession. Rather, it has tended to be driven by clients motivated by dissatisfaction with (and distrust of) the hourly rate, coupled with a desire for greater cost certainty and manageability”.
The reality is however, project skills for lawyers are now being included in mandatory skill requirements, such as in the case of the Solicitors Regulation Authority in the UK that now requires solicitors to demonstrate competence in project management skills as part of their overall legal skill-set. It appears the UK is leading the profession in its recognition of the need for project management skills for legal practitioners, followed closely by the USA, and now evident in Australia.
In-house lawyers may arguably need project management skills even more than their external counterparts, as they are managing legal matters, advising on non-legal projects and board strategic matters, typically leading the commercial portfolio having to deal with general business infrastructure and process, and managing the engagement and coordination of external legal counsel.
An example of introducing legal project management into law schools is the progress at the Vanderbilt Law School in the United States, who are offering both a Legal Project Management unit for second and third year Juris Doctorate students, as well as a 2-day intensive industry-based Executive Education program in a joint venture with the Owen Graduate School of Management.
Private providers in the USA are also now offering legal project management specific diploma level courses. Back in 2014, legal management consulting firm, Altman Weil, reported that law firms were in transition, “41.3% of the [USA-based] law firms surveyed (including 42% of the 350 largest US law firms) reported that training in Project Management (“PM”) is key to increased efficiency in legal service delivery”.
In Australia, education seemingly is lagging countries like England and America, even though Legal Project Managers jobs are appearing in the profession. The State law societies have been introducing seminars in legal project management, and LexisNexis in Australia published the first ‘Legal Project Management’ book.
The Law Society of England and Wales (2016) in envisaging the future for lawyers, and noted, “There is a need for all types of lawyer to expand their skills base beyond technical legal knowledge, to encompass business and project management skills and a better understanding of complex risk…”.
Similarly, Veith et al., (2016) noted, “particularly in large law firms, lawyers will need holistic legal project management skills as well as a knowledge of software”. They note, “In the future, the business of law will require fewer general support staff members, junior lawyers, and generalists – and more legal technicians and project managers”.
With representation now in Australia, the International Institute of Legal Project Management is now offering training and certification as an attempt to standardise practices and terminology, and break down the ambiguity to what legal project management is.
It is likely the university sector will have a role to play to start publishing research into the application legal project management now that it is becoming part of the legal landscape, and to begin to introduce the concepts into law studies.
The Boston Consulting Group and the Bucerious Law School joined forces recently (Veith et al., 2016) and even suggested, “To more sharply differentiate their service offerings, big law practices will have to offer more than just advice on litigation and transactional cases. They may also have to offer legal project management”.
Across the world legal project management training is starting to be embedded in law schools, including the prestigious IE Law School in Madrid.
Where would Australian law schools even start? Guest lecturing may be a safe approach for introducing the topic, and alumni focused Executive Education programs aimed at upskilling lawyers in practice today would be a great way to reconnect with graduates and add real career value by exposing them to the discipline that is still relatively new in the country, but provides the solution for fixed prices that they would be aware was topical conversation. It would place law schools back in the limelight of bringing new insights to industry practitioners. Lawyers are now seeing Legal Project Manager roles turn up in the profession, without likely understanding their place and purpose, and have little information to turn to.
Ultimately, introducing legal project management as an elective unit would be next on the agenda. US Law Professor Mark Cohen (2015) in his reflection of the trending project management in law concluded, “law schools should mandate that all students take at least an entry-level course in project management.”
In a recent address to the Law Summer School 2017 on ‘Australia’s Place in the World’, her Honour Marilyn Warren AC acknowledged one of Australia’s strengths as “being close to a world leader in international education”, and the country could step up and take the lead in legal project management undergraduate education.
It likely presents an opportunity for Australian law schools to at least get on the front end of creating industry ready graduates to deal with the changing law practices being seen in the profession.
About the Author
Known as the Corporate Mechanic, Adjunct Associate Professor Todd Hutchison is an international bestselling author and consultant, and leads the global company Peopleistic, including Peopleistic Legal PM.
He is the inaugural Australian Fellow of the Project Management Institute, and a former global PMI Board Director. Todd currently resides as the Chairman of the International Institute of Legal Project Management.
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