Keepin’ it Real: Implementing a Firm-Wide LPM Program, Part 1

Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, a 300-lawyer business law firm in the U.S. mid-west launched a firm-wide legal project management (LPM) initiative in 2011. They deliberately chose not to publicize the program – until recently.

Carl W. Herstein is Honigman’s Detroit-based Chief Value Partner. In this two-part blog series, Carl discusses the decision to “keep it real”. His experience exemplifies the commitment, forethought and resources required as law firms consider similar programs.

Q. What prompted your firm’s interest in legal project management (LPM)?

Beginning in 2004, we noticed more client demands for lawyers to operate in a more disciplined, cost-effective and efficient manner.

It was apparent to us that this was a trend that was happening in every business, whether they were successful or not or whether there was a recession or not. We have a lot of construction clients, a big real estate practice and a large amount of health care clients, so we know that project management is critical to those sectors. We could also see the emphasis on process taking place with a lot of our IP clients and throughout the whole supply chain.

There was increasing emphasis on paying more attention up front to what you were trying to accomplish, how you were going to accomplish it, what resources you were going to bring to bear, analyzing how matters proceed and learning from the outcome. Really, that is essentially a description of LPM.

Q. When did you start seriously considering LPM as a solution to this demand?

We formally started the program in 2011, as part of our strategic planning process.

Q. Who holds the key roles in LPM adoption?

The key roles are shared between three attorneys who now lead our value team: myself, as “Chief Value Partner”, Joe Sgroi, also a partner and head of our bankruptcy practice group, “Associate Chief Value Partner”, and a litigation associate, Value Associate Robert Riley.

We developed the vision, laid out direction and are now implementing the firm’s LPM system through training and coaching people, working with department chairs, practice group heads, and the directors of the business units. We now also have a project manager position (and are about to add a second), but we didn’t for the first few years.

Q. Why have partners spearheading LPM implementation instead of others?

Our view is that it makes sense.

Some firms have executives or non-practicing JDs in charge of LPM. As talented as many of them are, it can be very difficult for people who the lawyers tend to believe are “employees who may not understand the practice of law” to persuade lawyers to adopt LPM. In many cases, it isn’t fair to them or the firm.

So, the “why” gets back to our belief that this model had to be partner-driven, integral to the practice of law and something that is embraced as part of our legal DNA. It couldn’t be simply something we add on like a new set of clothes.

The culture at Honigman LLP is characterized by partners who enjoy actually doing the hard part of the work, whether it’s delivering legal services or educating people on LPM or helping practice groups with the details of LPM implementation. It’s something we pride ourselves on. We think that the best and most efficient way of accomplishing the work is to be involved and understand how to do it.

LPM isn’t something we are trying to provide to the lawyers. We want it to be how we practice.

Q. How have clients reacted to the change in your title?

HersteinI think it does what it was intended to do, which was to provoke discussion! I wanted people to ask what it means and what we’re trying to achieve.

That said, it was really important to us to avoid publicizing our LPM program until we knew we had something substantial to talk about. This stems from my past role as Chair of our firm’s Technology Committee. We heard a lot of presentations from vendors. Often, after we did some due diligence, we realized that a lot of it was vaporware.

I wanted to ensure we weren’t providing the legal equivalent of vaporware.

Q. How was your LPM program rolled out to the firm? What obstacles did you encounter?

In any large organization – especially one that is successful – people don’t want to change for the sake of change, and they don’t want to follow something that they’re not entirely convinced is the right thing to do. There are a lot of fads and fancies in any business.

Part of our job as Value Partners is to persuade the skeptics that LPM isn’t a fad or fancy, but something that makes sense and isn’t enormously different than what they already do. It simply applies it in a more structured, disciplined and carefully spelled out manner. It’s not intended to be a rigid set of rules to apply in every single case. Instead it’s a set of guidelines as to how you approach what you do. It’s a more complex and sophisticated process in complex and sophisticated matters and it’s more simplified in smaller, less complicated matters.

It’s our job to persuade people that we can help them with the way they practice without creating rules and obstacles that make it more difficult for them to be doing what they want to do and what they enjoy. (Although, I need to be careful in describing LPM as an obstacle, because while it can be perceived that way at the beginning, it’s worth the effort in the long run.) It’s also important for people to be skeptical sometimes because it forces you to think about the value of what you’re doing.

I would also say that the task of bringing something like LPM training to a large organization (we have 300 lawyers) is a logistical challenge. People are busy. They have a lot of urgent day-to-day obligations. Our job is to break through and say “we know you have a lot of urgent tasks and crises, but we have to get you into that ‘important, but not urgent’ quadrant”. As practicing lawyers and partners, each of us experiences this in our own day-to-day work. 

Q. Did LPM integrate with other programs at the firm?

We’re trying to do this. For example, delegation was one of the biggest obstacles we faced in adopting LPM. It’s something that law schools don’t teach and something that happens in firms, but it is usually dependent on individual lawyers and their habits and workflow.

We decided to take a more thoughtful, disciplined approach to it. We developed our own delegation training with our in-house director of training and worked with our department heads and practice group chairs to develop a 90-minute program. We asked everyone how to do this effectively. The answers varied from department to department and among all levels of lawyers, so we customized training by lawyer level and by practice group and rolled it out to the entire firm over a three-year period.

We talked to partners about what should/shouldn’t be delegated, what the obstacles to delegation are and we gave them a chance to give us feedback on specific delegation issues they faced their world, which was healthy. We talked to newer lawyers about how to be a good delegatee and what questions to ask.

All of this was done within the ambit of LPM, so we were speaking with lawyers of all levels of experience in all practice areas about why delegation was important as it relates to project management activities .

If you’re developing the budget, you’re creating certain expectations about who is doing the work and how much time will be spent doing it. Once you’ve done this, you need to communicate it. For example, if a partner budgets for 50 hours of work on a case, 40 of which the associate is expected to do, wouldn’t it be a good idea to communicate to the associate that if they’re at 20 hours and not at the halfway point in the work, they need to talk to you?

Similarly, we need associates to understand that if the partner doesn’t tell you, you need to ask how long a task should take. And, if you find that you’re getting into the project and it’s not taking the time the partner thinks it should, you need to speak up. The training gave people an opportunity to air their concerns on these issues, which, let’s face it, everyone has (e.g., “I don’t want people to think I’m stupid.” That’s a big assumption to make. It may just be that the partner didn’t realize how complicated the work is or maybe you just weren’t the right person for the task.) If you get people to talk about these issues it’s just so healthy for the firm.

We have also tried to incorporate LPM into competency standards for our in-house training for newer lawyers. It’s something we want them to become capable in. It’s a constant challenge to try to integrate LPM holistically across the organization, but we’re making progress.

By now, each of our offices has been exposed to it, albeit some more than others (the Chicago office is only 6 months old). LPM adoption will vary a bit and we have to be realistic.

In the second half of the interview published on August 3, 2016, Carl Herstein discussed how legal project management blends with pricing, collections and client relations at Honigman LLP.

An abbreviated version of this interview was published on the Canadian legal blog, on July 27, 2016.