Change, Lawyers and LPM

1 Apr

changeBy Melissa LaFlair, Principal, LaFlair Legal and Project Management Services

Change is a tricky thing for most. It seems to be particularly difficult for those in the legal industry. My theory is that the profession is so steeped in precedent and tradition (always looking back) that lawyers need to fundamentally rewire to look forward and figure out how to thrive in a new environment where the days of “hours worked equals pay received” are quickly fading.

In an effort to address clients’ rapidly growing demands for certainty and value, there is currently a flurry of activity as lawyers in both firms and organizations rush to adopt project management principles. But, what is project management for lawyers really?

At its most basic, legal project management involves understanding what the client needs, looking at the process of how lawyers create and deliver what is needed, and then identifying ways to improve the process to better support providing certainty and value. Certainty should be relatively easy to establish, at least regarding time and cost, once the need and desired scope/product has been determined. Surprisingly, most firms and organizations have the relevant time and cost information squirreled away in various nooks and crannies, but not centralized or in a readily accessible data format. This makes it tricky to determine time and cost parameters for their legal products or needs.

Gathering this data, even on the most general level, is in and of itself a valuable exercise for lawyers in firms and organizations alike. The tools, principles and technology available to support gathering the data are numerous and varied, from the basic to the highly complex. At the end of the day, though, some work is required on the part of the lawyers to group their product types and, ideally, provide a general outline of their process.

Interestingly, whether they realize it or not, all lawyers have some sort of processes to get from the initial client question to their final legal product. Some of these processes are more efficient than others. Sadly many lawyers are unintentionally inefficient as the billable hour neither promotes nor encourages efficiency (such that many have never thought about their practice from an efficiency perspective).

Unlike certainty, value is more subjective. So, madly creating processes and introducing technologies to establish certainty without understanding and identifying what value means to your clients and what your strategy for achieving certainty is, likely will not be the best use of your resources. For example, determining whether your clients value low-cost certainty, outcome certainty, or fixed-cost certainty and whether the answer is product-dependent will directly affect the approach you take to planning, process mapping and implementing appropriate change, as well as developing and introducing associated technologies in your firm or organization.

For firms in particular, making the effort to adjust to really serve your client’s needs often means being willing to take a short term hit in the pocket book (this does not mean the hit will actually materialize; but, you do need to acknowledge and be prepared for the possibility) as you identify and implement meaningful change that will delight your clients in the medium and long term. Surprising as it may sound to those in firm settings, clients want the lawyers they work with to be around for the long term as switching lawyers generally is a pain.

And there is the rub, financially. Firms in particular are not particularly well set up for implementing change that takes longer than a year to absorb financially because, among other reasons:

  • most lawyers include expected bonuses as part of their personal annual budgeting;
  • most firms annually disperse the bulk of the firm’s earnings;
  • most lawyers operate as individual profit centres with little incentive to take actions that benefit their group, department or firm as a whole, in the short or long term; and
  • most successful lawyers have highly portable books of business (surprisingly few clients were adversely affected by recent firm failures).

Yet the change involved with retooling to deliver certainty and value generally takes a number of years to master. In this context, it is no wonder the needed change is so slow and difficult in firm settings. I do not envy managing partners’ roles during these interesting times.

That being said, change is inevitable and client demand is growing exponentially. So lawyers, if you are in a firm setting, support your managing partners and your firms and get thinking about what you personally can do about your process for delivering advice to your clients and what specifically your clients value. Do not be fooled into thinking you can rely on past success – financial pressures are everywhere and jumping ship during these interesting times only delays the inevitable.

If you are a lawyer working in an organization, think not about the immediate budget pressures but about what your organization truly needs and values so that you can work productively with your firms to get legal services that support both you and your organization’s success.

Working together to address the new realities, firms and organizations have everything to gain.

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