Legal Project Management

Okay you can keep the ‘Legal’ tag; but it’s just Project Management!

I’ve been ‘white-boarding’ legal matters since my days helping out on front-end major projects back in 1996; so the concept of ‘mapping out’ how a transaction might progress, what may be ‘in scope’ and ‘out of scope’, the approximate amount of time the transaction may take and how we are going to resource it are not new to me. In more recent times (largely following the GFC in 2008) the legal industry has formalised my approach of ’white-boarding’ matters to become Legal Project Management. 

While I was never really that sure over the years how Legal Project Management differed from the more general Project Management, I have been assured – on numerous occasions – that there is a difference. When asked how, the most common response I received was that:-

  • Legal Project Management is the discipline of project managing ‘tacit knowledge’ – as ‘knowledge workers’, while
  • Project Management is the discipline of project managing tangible products, e.g., the construction of a hospital.

And until the last month or so I thought that was a pretty good answer.

So what changed?

Well, in the last month and a bit I have attended a collective 5 day (2 day and then a 3 day) course on Project Management Fundamentals run by PM-Partners Group here in Sydney.

The two day Fundamentals (essentially, theory) session was outstanding and broken-down into the following nine (9) modules:

  1. What makes projects succeed (and by implication, fail)
  2. The essential project management philosophy
  3. The project life cycle
  4. Project planning – project definition and scoping
  5. Project planning – creating the WBS & schedule
  6. Project planning – estimating
  7. Project risk
  8. Project execution & control
  9. Project closure

In turn, if you were on a course where you learnt all about: 

  • scope creep
  • the difference between what a risk is and what an issue is (hint, one has happened and the other hasn’t)
  • how to do a business case and a project plan
  • the triangle of scope, cost, time and quality
  • the four dependency types [finish-start; start-start; finish-finish; and start-finish], and
  • you get to work on creating a Work Breakdown Structure and Estimating (Optimistic, Pessimistic and Most Likely – also looking at the Cone of Uncertainty)

Wouldn’t you think you had been on one of the best Legal Project Management training courses around?

Well, that’s exactly what the two day PM-Partners run Project Management Fundamentals course taught me and I have walked away from that course thinking to myself that you can keep the classify ‘Legal’, at the end of the day it’s project management and it’s this type of project management we need to get better at.

My biggest take-out though?

Understanding the difference between a risk and an issue, because anyone doing pricing should get their head around this because it really is as important (and probably goes hand-in-hand with) as what happens with scope creep [helpful extra tip: want to understand scope creep, look up what happens with the formula: n (n – 1) /2].

Get in touch if you want to hear/find out more, otherwise get yourself on a really good PM Fundamentals course because I can guarantee it will pay for itself!

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What strategies are being used to manage outside legal costs? – not AFAs!

“The growth of AFAs has been much slower than many predicted, remaining at roughly 16% of revenue in 2015…

… Most of the resistance has come from clients who are not comfortable with what law firms have proposed as AFAs, and would rather stay with hourly rates and discounting.”

[Both of the above are taken from the recently published 2017 Client Advisory, by Citi Private Bank and Hildebrandt Consulting Inc  (see page 9)]

I completely understanding why clients feel frustrated with the so-called Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs) that law firms often propose to them and are pushing back on these. Whenever you discuss AFAs with law firms, all you tend to hear is talk of ‘fixed fees’, ‘capped fees’, ‘success fees’, ‘risk collars’ and other such loft terms, more often than not being held as if they were innovative disruptors in the way we price legal services when the reality is 99.9% of them have the billable hour underpinning them and have been on the pricing menu for more than two decades. So why shouldn’t clients just go with a standard billable hour and get a 10% discount at the end of the matter – much simpler and proven route (and, as a side note, interesting to see the report continues to show realization rates on the slide!).

No, as a profession, the time has come to accept that if we want to be real about offering clients alternatives to the billable hour then we must get on the front foot and become more creative about what we are offering them. And the best, and possibly only, way we will achieve this is if we start to have conversations with our clients about this.

And herein lies both a solution and a way forward!

In another recently published report – the 2016 Legal Department In-Sourcing and Efficiency Report: The keys to a more effective legal department by Thomson Reuters (see page 16) – ‘Use of budgets for matters‘ smashes ‘Alternative fee arrangements‘ (59% to 31%) as the most popular answer to the question around what strategies are being used to manage outside legal costs.

strategies

Given this was a survey of 429 attorneys and operational professionals working in corporate legal departments by Thomson Reuters, you would think it would be a good indicator of in-house aptitude (side note: notice only 1% mention Reverse auctions? Definitely not reflective of the noise being made in the market around these!)?

Anyhow, here’s a Holidays thought for those law firms looking for alternatives to the billable hour that might actually (a) pay them some money, and (b) have the support of their clients:

go and speak to your client about use of budgets for matters.

After all, surely all those pricing directors, legal project managers, process improvement directors, innovation officers, etc talk with each other every now and then and come up with something helpful and original along these lines!

Happy holidays to all.

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Is your team Gold-plating its services?

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Earlier today Kiron D. Bondale posted ‘Avoid Gold-plating Through Agile Delivery‘ on the PM Hut site.

There’s a lot to like about Kiron’s post, and many things in it really resonated with me from a business development perspective, but what I really want to share with you though is this brilliant piece of commentary by Kiron:

“As it is with jewelry, on projects gold-plating is all form with no substance. The increase in costs is rarely justified by the value provided by superficial “bling”.

It could be an analyst adding in requirements which they came up with on their own without ensuring that those are actually required, a developer who introduces a code change or feature they believe is useful without checking with others or a quality control specialist who decides to test above and beyond approved test plans.

Don’t get me wrong – the intentions are usually good and I’ve yet to encounter an instance of gold-plating which was done maliciously. But it doesn’t matter – gold-plating is work creep.”

and ask: “Does any of this sound familiar to you?”

Because I’m guessing that if you are being honest with yourself, it does. And trust me, there’s no quicker death nail in a client relationship than scope creep.

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Some reasons why every lawyer should be encouraged to do fee estimates

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Fascinating blog post over on the pmhut.com website recently (30 April 2015) by Terry Bunio, Principal Consultant at Protegra, on “Why I Like Estimates” that should be add to the “must read” list of every lawyer and law firm business developer who hasn’t already read it and adopted its principles.

Some of the things that Terry sets out that really resonated with me in this post included:

  • Estimates make me think through a solution

“When I estimate I am forced to examine project details and technology and think through the deliverables at a detail level and how we would build them. This helps to identify issues early and give the team and client lead time to decide on a resolution. When you discover issues late in the game, your options are limited and client anger usually follows.”

Precisely the same reason why lawyers should be doing cost estimates before agreeing to undertake a matter. It makes you think through what the issue(s) is/are, how you are going to deliver the desired result to the client and what sort of resourcing you’ll need. You should also be able to determine at this time what you cannot deliver to the client.

  • Estimates create a shared understanding

“…the discussions that occur while estimating are invaluable. These discussions create a shared understanding throughout the entire team.”

Terry is absolutely spot on here. It should also allow you to assign what work the firm will do, and what work will be outsourced (to an LPO) or insourced (to the in-house team). It sets out a task management process from the offset and reduces the risk of scope creep or out of service work being done. QED, if you follow this process at the end of the day you are much less likely to have an upset client.

  • Estimates allow Clients to allocate post Minimum Viable Product budget to other initiatives

“Clients are not going to reserve large budgets just in case an Information Technology project needs it. Clients have a very limited budget and there are always more initiatives than budget. Allowing clients just to stop projects at any point does not recognize the lost opportunity cost by not starting additional initiatives that could have placed them ahead of their competitors.

Again Terry is right. While lawyers rarely want to get their hands dirty talking money upfront on a matter, it should be kept in mind that money is a limited resource to your client (as it is to your firm) and every dollar your client spends with you is an opportunity cost to the client’s business – vis-a-vis that dollar being spent elsewhere. It should therefore be incumbent upon you not only to ensure that your client understands how much they will likely be required to pay for the matter but also for you to reduce any likelihood of your firm either having to write down time or simply not be paid for out of scope work done by your team.

In short, as Terry writes: “Estimates matter” and going through a robust matter cost estimate process with your client before any instruction to act on a matter should be recommended and adopted as best practice by all lawyers.