A hot-air balloonist becomes lost in the fog and eventually descends above a pasture where a man is standing. “Where am I?” he calls down.

          “You’re in a hot-air balloon about 60 feet above the ground,” says the man.

          “You must be a lawyer,” the balloonist says, “because everything you say, while technically correct, is absolutely useless.”

          The man replies, “Yeah, and you must be a legal project manager — because you don’t know where you are or where you’re going, yet you expect me to help. When I can’t, you get angry, so you end up in the same position you were in before, but now the problem is my fault.”

This story represents a new genre of humor, the lawyer-client legal project management joke (we trust you can identify who is who in this story). Hopefully, this joke is on its way to becoming obsolete.

The Second Wave

With the benefit of hindsight, it is evident that the Legal Project Management (LPM) movement has entered a new phase. We could call this an evolution from conceptualization to application, or from rollout to broad acceptance…or from early-adopters to running-like-hell-to-catch-uppers. Cynics would say the shift represents the transition from lip service to stand–and-deliver. There is truth in all of these characterizations.

The LPM 1.0 era, from about 2007 to, say, mid-2010, was largely about shaping LPM’s concepts, appreciating its potential benefits for firm and client, building buzz about “this bold new initiative,” and addressing the enormous amount of resistance from various levels of lawyers being asked (or sometimes told) to master an arcane new discipline.

During this period, a lot of effort was spent on cultivating general awareness and on relatively short 101-level training workshops that were basically introductions to LPM-related concepts, phases, budgets, metrics and communication. Though  many were well designed and received, these workshops were like asking someone to fly an airliner after watching a film about flying an airliner. To add to the problem, the technological tools created to support project scoping, planning and monitoring were initially overwrought and distinctly un-user-friendly. No wonder there was a lot of frustration among practicing lawyers and a disinclination among many to drink the new kool-aid.

The Light at the Beginning of the Tunnel

After their initial broad immersion rollouts in LPM’s shallow end, some ill-advised firms, bent on creating a first-to-market business development advantage, bragged loudly that they had “implemented project management.” The actions of their lawyers and the feedback from their clients said otherwise. Some lawyers balked and continued business as usual. The young Turks, hell-bent for competency, insisted that LPM training “get granular” and focus more on nuts-and-bolts with immediate and tangible utility.

At the same time, clients grew more adamant in their demands for LPM proof-of-concept, that is, tangible results: reduced legal expenses, manifestly greater efficiency, adherence to budgets, fewer surprises and better communication. Clients’ ever-increasing pressure for greater predictability (often in the form of fixed-fee fee arrangements), moreover, said, in effect, “C’mon folks, call it whatever you want, but make it work.”

Quantum Leaps

Those firms that really got the message led us into LPM 1.0, rev. 2. This period saw first-adopters and first-followers move away from broad introductory “horizontal” rollouts to “vertical” workshops that trained the LPM lens on the here-and-now engagements of specific practice groups or client teams. Case studies became more client or matter-specific, and training included more emphasis on building discrete templates and checklists tailored to particular practice disciplines. Savvy firms built out dedicated LPM infrastructures to assist in post-training LPM application to real-life engagements.

At the same time, technology support improved dramatically, morphing into elegant user-friendly integrated dashboards, budgeting tools and monitoring metrics. For the front runners, project management became a serious work in progress, rapidly maturing into adolescence, impelled to ever-greater effectiveness by client pressures greater value and objectively-measurable outcomes.

In this “how do we really make it work?” period, a crucial long-term question often was pushed to the back burner: how do we implement and institutionalize LPM throughout the whole firm?

LPM 2.0: Different Emphasis, Different Results

So what’s different about LPM 2.0? In short, it has moved from the design-build era to the implement-refine era. In best cases, successes both in client satisfaction and sustained firm profitability have hit the tipping point, the benefits outweighing the costs and discomfitures of implementation.

In many cases, the passage of time is addressing the challenge of firm-wide implementation. Over time, more practice groups and client teams within each firm are getting bespoke LPM training and tools. Internal LPM functions are becoming more experienced and sophisticated, developing an increased repertoire of matter-specific templates, checklists, pricing modules, and risk intelligence that diminish the need to continually reinvent the wheel, a major cause of inefficiency.

In the course of this change, we have observed some practical pressure points and implementation tips:

  1. Grow LPM from the bottom-up, via practical successes with specific teams and matters, rather than attempt a sweeping top-down transition from theory to implementation. LPM is an applied skill, not a cognitive discipline.
  2. Focus initial LPM training on the client teams that want it most – or whose clients want/need it the most.
  3. Don’t bother trying to mandate LPM acceptance and proficiency to all lawyers at the git-go. Give training first to those who hunger and clamor for it; the foot-draggers will come around when they see their colleagues shoot ahead of them in client popularity.
  4. On the other hand, you must mandate LPM proficiency on teams and groups that are now “onboard with LPM.” That is, once the team has bought into bringing itself up to speed with LPM tools and techniques, individuals cannot be allowed to opt out. LPM is not self-executing and it cannot be positioned as an optional activity.
  5. Identify and change the disincentives lawyers face in becoming more efficient and create incentives for efficiency.