Running Legal Like A Business - Ch. 10 - Legal Project Management (LPM), Part 1

In chapter 10 of Running Legal Like A Business, author Susan Lambreth takes us through her 4 phase approach to Legal Project Management (LPM). There is so much good info. packed into 22 pages that this two-part post just begins to scrape the surface. If you attended the recent PLI LPM program she co-chairs, this chapter is a good succinct summary of the day's lessons.  

Lambreth notes that LPM does not commoditize the practice of law but instead "its processes automate much of the humdrum of law, freeing up top law professionals to practice law as they intended." At the outset, Lambreth notes that her focus is on the execution of legal matters, as opposed to process optimization projects as Kiran Mallavarapu covered in ch. 9.  

It was a good reminder to keep this delineation clear. At prior employers, where we budgeted every legal matter, operations served a key LPM role. Our team's primary function was to partner with the lead attorney during engagement and early case assessment (ECA). In particular we would document the workflow and inputs to ensure the scope of work accompanying the budget was sufficiently specific to hold legal service provider to account, as well as to negotiate on an informed basis any adjustment to the plan.  At Hearst, where so much work is handled in house, to date the Ops Squad have focused primarily on process optimization.

As Lambreth notes, LPM is not rocket science but it does often require attorneys to shift from a more reactive to proactive approach to law.  As she is fond of noting, lawyers as a group test high in urgency, a trait that tends to give short shrift to planning. It is this core client trait (alongside highly analytical and emphasis on carefully-crafted written communication)  that tends to differentiate legal operations from service operations in other settings. 

Lawyers at times dismiss the elements as common sense without marshaling the discipline to execute.  The "common sense" aspect hinders adoption.  For analysis of this tendency, see Gawande's brilliant Checklist Manifesto, or the digest version in my blog post "An Ode to Atul Gawande's Checklist Manifesto". 

Lambreth notes research studies have confirmed disciplined LPM delivers more accurate cost estimates, improved communication with fewer surprises, on schedule delivery, more informed legal service provider selection, more reasonable allocation of people resource hours (reducing stress), and greater consistency in quality of delivered work product, and improved teamwork. 

With that, Lambreth summarizes 4 phases for LPM:

  1. Engaging: Intake of the matter from the business client, including confirming stakeholders and defining a project charter and scope of work; in short documenting client expectations to ensure alignment at the outset. 
  2. Planning: Also referred to as Early Case Assessment (ECA),  Lambreth brings a disciplined approach including mapping out a workflow with conditional steps and corresponding schedule, staffing the matter, determining an appropriate budget, communication and risk management plans and a defined procedure for change management.  While the entire chapter is very strong, this section is particularly noteworthy.
  3. Executing:  Getting to the legal work and managing the work streams.  Aside from lawyering know-how, communications is key for attorneys in this phase.  Operations steps in to help assess the impact of plan changes in response to evolving fact patterns and to monitor budgets and staffing.  Lambreth brings LPM discipline even to the checkin meeting agenda.  In my experience the responsibilities she lists under the project manager role are handled by more than one person in close coordination.
  4. Evaluating: Often referred to as the post mortem or after action review, this is an opportunity to Identify lessons learned, reusable assets that can be turned into template documents, and checklists to close the matter out.  This task is often given short shrift, due to tendency to move on to the next project and preference to celebrate success rather than capture what can be improved upon.  However, it is often the most beneficial 15-30 min. one can take for the future success of the team.

These phases loosely correspond to the classic Sigma DMAIC framework reframed for a more familiar attorney context.  Ops in a Box, Legal Edition (OBL) contains a basic Six Sigma model overview.  It is an area in which the kit does not dive into detail, because there are a number of good codified templates and checklist sets produced by Six Sigma and PMI certification providers.  That said, a Six Sigma philosophy drove OBL's creation.

And as noted in my last post, a Hearst Ops Squad goal for 2022 is tightening up our project management in particular communications. As such I was struck by how much communications permeates each of Lambreth's 4 LPM phases from aligning expectations, to  a formal communication plan created in phase 2, to regular check ins and realignment at the conclusion for going forward projects.  For each project taking the time to develop a formal communication plan is a good place to start. Lambreth suggests: (1) identify all key stakeholders; (2) determine what type of communication is preferred and most effective (Editorial hint: It is almost never ever email); and (3) who is responsible for ensuring the communication, and (4) how and when the communication occurs.

Food for thought.  Will pick up on Peter Dombkins "Notes from the Field" coda next week.