How to Start a Legal Project Management Initiative in Your Firm: 11 Ideas

Are firms becoming more attuned to the benefits of legal project management (LPM)? Are clients? Judging from a workshop I attended on this topic last month in Chicago, the answer is “yes”.

But many firms – including almost every firm I’ve encountered – still struggle with the question of how to encourage organizational and individual changes required to inculcate wide-spread adoption of LPM.

The panelists who spoke at the “LPM Showcase and Workshop” lead some of the firms that have been the most successful at LPM implementation – Baker & McKenzieLoeb & Loeb,Foley Hoag and Reed Smith. Their honest accounts of their experiences in getting the ball rolling, however, were common to organizations of more than 50 lawyers, regardless of practice or regional focus.

How did they do it? Some of the ideas heard in the workshop:

  1. Have a reason for implementing LPM that links to your firm’s core identity and its long-term vision. Make it part of who you are and who you want to be.
  2. Start small. Focus on one practice group and one leader with one type of matter that will benefit from application of project management techniques.
  3. Focus on one keystone benefit at a time – efficient matter management, improved profitability, predictability, client communication, etc.
  4. Determine what’s already working well in your firm and position LPM as an extension of current successes
  5. Gather facts that support the initiative – most firms examine data from past matters or gather relevant client feedback and then create a scenario of how the results would have been improved if project management techniques were applied.
  6. Give lawyers control over the aspects of legal project management they’ll focus on. Offer scenarios for adjacent processes after they achieve initial success and build a sense of accomplishment.
  7. Reward experimentation. It takes time and courage to try to change behaviour for the better; be open to related compensation discussions and publicly recognize results that move lawyers forward.
  8. Remove administrative roadblocks. Is there something about your technology, team management/staffing or knowledge management that frustrates people trying to manage a project? Make the learning process easier by removing the obstacle, adding support, adjusting the process or training individuals.
  9. Encourage collaboration. Host a discussion group, seminar or book club session on the topic and ask people to share ideas on how to start an initiative.
  10. Avoid jargon. Technical language and unknown acronyms alienate skeptics. Use terms people are already familiar with, especially in initial discussions.
  11. Listen. It’s natural for anyone to be apprehensive and insecure about changing how they do things. Ensure that people feel heard. Acknowledge where concerns might stem from. Point out how far they’ve already come along. Then help them move forward with even the smallest step.

I often think that the most difficult part of project management (legal or otherwise) is just taking the first action towards changing the work habits and processes we’ve become used to. Even the workshop panelists – leaders at some of the largest law firms in the U.S. – struggled with this.

Judging from the discussions with everyone at the session, an increasing number of firms are forging ahead with plans to incorporate LPM into the way they do things. With practice, they’re also becoming more successful at it.

Full disclosure: my colleague, Jim Hassett, Ph.D., moderated the panel discussion at the workshop

This post was originally published on the Canadian legal blog, on June 4, 2014.