How to persuade a lawyer to embrace project management

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How is project management perceived and applied in different industries and professions? That’s been the focus of a series of APM discussion groups in recent months.

The latest event, hosted by Antony Smith, a non-practising solicitor and director of Legal Project Management Ltd, focused on the discipline of legal project management, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in UK law firms.

A legal project manager (LPM) can mean different things, depending on the firm, said Smith. LPMs “can end up being given a wide range of tasks, because their role is not defined”. One attendee said that, in their experience, an LPM can be involved in any work that impacts on margin – whether working with clients or partners.

Here are four of the top talking points from the event...

1. Fee earners need educating about the benefits of project management
Lawyers focus much of their time on generating fees. Getting them to change their behaviour, or to see the benefits of legal project management, for example, can be challenging. This can be overcome through positive client feedback, Smith said.

One attendee said that their client feedback included a request for LPMs to be involved in legal matters, which was then fed back to fee earners. They also highlighted the value they had found in looking at ‘pinch points’ for lawyers, such as reporting on or scoping a piece of work. It was necessary to ensure these were completed because the client had requested it, instead of simply “going through a process”.

2. Software will help embed new processes
Designing a legal project management approach for fee earners means changing the way people work. But it is possible to introduce a new framework into these processes by embedding aspects of project management into the way work is carried out.

Smith said ideally this can be implemented through the software people use. “It should be relatively straightforward to embed checks and balances into workplace software,” he said, which means you can insist on the scoping of work and on reports being created, and “then it becomes embedded into the way that people work”, he added.

There is specialist legal project management software on the market such as Cael and Planning Blox. “If you pick the right software you can embed practices into the way lawyers are doing things quite easily – almost as if they don’t know,” Smith added. One member of the workshop said that in terms of designing a legal project management approach for fee earners, their team has been pushing LPMs as a value-add that clients should be looking for in a project.

They added their team will highlight ‘quick wins’, whether in terms of costing, fee reports or scoping, in order to get them noticed “with the caveat that this isn't all we do”. They also highlighted the benefit of having stats to show the difference an LPM makes to profit margins after they have been embedded within projects.

3. Be careful when proposing meetings
Lawyers are pressed for time and want to start work on legal matters straight away, so it can be challenging to convince them to define the scope of the work or attend a ‘kick-off meeting’. But Smith suggests triaging the matter to ensure some form of scoping exercise is carried out.

Having a reputation as someone who holds meetings that get work done will help to make kick-off meetings happen. Similarly, ‘lessons learned’ sessions sometimes don’t take place due to time pressure and needing to get started on the next project. Smith's advice is to make the process “really easy” for lawyers. “If you make the review process as easy as possible people should have no excuse for not doing it,” he said.

4. Determine the primary point of communication
If multiple members of a team – of any size – are communicating with the client it creates a situation that is ripe for confusion, Smith said. But while project managers are traditionally seen as the guardians of communication, particularly outside the legal profession, lawyers can be resistant to this system.

“And you can easily see why,” Smith said, as usually whoever does most of the client communication is seen as owning the client relationship. And if that is the LPM, they can appear to be doing the work that the lawyers are supposed to be carrying out.

Smith said one possible way around this issue is to do the communications that lawyers don't want to. He suggested collecting data such as time records, how much work has been done and tracking where you are on the original project plan. This can then be turned into interesting conversation points with the team and the client. But it will involve a lot of basic data gathering, he warned, which is what most lawyers don't want to spend their time doing.

This latest in APM’s series of sector-focused workshops was held at The Law Society. Previous sessions have discussed the role of project management in life sciences and pharmaceuticals and financial services. If you’d like to join a future debate, register your interest with lauren.humphrey@apm.org.uk

Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith

Posted by Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith on 19th Mar 2019

About the Author

Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith is part of the Project editorial team. Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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