Six key insights on legal project management are offered by Dr Kishore Sengupta, Director of Executive Education and Reader in Operations Management at Cambridge Judge Business School.
As law firm clients have raised their expectations of legal service consistency while demanding increased transparency and certainty over billing, there has been a growing demand for project management as an important component of legal service delivery.
The law firm environment offers unique challenges for project managers, not least the high-profile and high-pressure nature of many projects. Whether it is a five-year fraud investigation or a multi-billion pound transaction spanning 45 countries, managing legal projects is not for the faint hearted.
Effective project management relies on a wealth of tools, but many law firms struggle to know where to start. It’s essential to manage the unknown in complex legal matters, and that requires tools hard and soft – targeting both the analytical, mechanical side of a project and the behavioural, organic side. Examples of hard tools include checklists, scenario analysis and stage gates, whereas soft tools include informal dialogues with project sponsors and more frequent communication. Jon Trim, Head of Business Change at Mishcon De Reya, suggests a pragmatic approach to instilling project management at law firms: “You can’t expect law firms to go from zero to sixty in project management overnight. Taking a flexible approach to project management that gets the basics of scoping, tracking, reporting and risk management right without overloading the lawyers is a sensible approach.”
Information overload can stifle effective project management, but there are solutions. Information overload can occur when too many messages are received or the messages are not sufficiently organised. As a result, managers sometimes tend to rely on solutions that seem “good enough,” but we should use the brain to go beyond such a “good enough” approach. Decision-making improves when both sides of the brain are used: The right side is rapid and non-conscious. It reads between the lines, uses intangible information, gut feeling and previous experience. The left side uses the facts: tangible, objective, and measurable information. It is slower and involves conscious deliberation and analysis. Using both sides improves the speed of the decision-making process and the quality of the decision.
Selecting former lawyers as project managers can help establish credibility. The law firm environment offers unique challenges for project managers given the complexity of many situations law firms are called upon to handle. Former lawyers with deep subject matter expertise and established relationships often benefit from a head start. As Cathy Mattis, Head of Legal Project Management UK, US & EMEA at Herbert Smith Freehills, points out: “One of the benefits of having a lawyer as a project manager is that they don’t need the issues translated by the others working on the matter.”
Project managers often rely on subjective information due to limited time available, and they tend to favour good news over bad. As a result, it can take much longer to realise that a project is in trouble and that the underlying problem is not being addressed, which in turn can lead to problems suddenly escalating. Specifically, managers too often embrace subjective good vibes (“our client seems much more confident they will persuade the seller to agree the clause”) while downplaying measurable bad news (“access to the data room has been delayed by a week”). This can lead to faulty reasoning and decision-making (“the client is getting on much better with the seller now, so we’ll make up that lost week and still complete on time”).
Good legal project management encourages challenge and constructive debate. What Mattis describes as “a truly rehearsed partnership” can foster such a debating environment, and this can be crucial in complex, high-stakes situations, particularly where there are mixed signals. Otherwise there is a real risk of problems being masked, which in turn can contribute to project failure and difficult conversations with clients. The project manager can tenaciously ask difficult questions in these situations, as well as formalising, documenting and following up on what is agreed.
If a project faces problems, be wary of optimistic sentiments from the project team and client. The partner and project manager should ask: “Where do the statements come from? Is it sheer hope, or is it based on hard fact?” This type of rigorous challenge can help mitigate decision-making risks. While partners and project managers shouldn’t ignore the feelings of their team or clients, they should treat subjective input with care and weigh it alongside more objective information when making crucial decisions.