What is legal project management and why should you care?

13/11/23

Think that legal project management (LPM) is the kind of phrase which only the really big law firms need to know about, right? For the huge cases which require a whole army of lawyers to complete? Think again.

Most legal professionals already engage in some form of project management. They just don’t realise it. Whether it’s every time they take on a case or when they are managing admin tasks, all legal services consist of highly structured processes. LPM is simply a means of enhancing that legal service with traditional principles of effective project management.

In short, it’s about taking the inadvertent project management you’re already doing, and transforming it into something much more deliberate and successful.

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Why should you care about LPM?

It almost goes without saying that employing strong project management methodologies, and being strict in their application, will make your law firm more efficient. When implemented correctly, LPM can result in reduced write-offs, better collaboration within your team, and improved profitability overall.

But, perhaps most importantly, these efficiencies result in more time – time you can spend on going the extra mile for your clients.

Clients have always wanted their chosen firm to be proactive and transparent, to communicate effectively and to meet deadlines on time. But now, they expect all of that as a bare minimum. LPM is the best thing you can do to ensure you meet those expectations.

A true statement of competence

The other major benefit of LPM is that it will go a long way in helping you meet the competencies set out in the Statement of Solicitor Competence by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

Section D sets out the expectation that solicitors must “initiate, plan, prioritise and manage work activities and projects to ensure that they are completed efficiently, on time and to an appropriate standard, both in relation to their own work and work that they lead or supervise, including:

  1. clarifying instructions so as to agree on the scope and objectives of the work
  2. taking into account the availability of resources in initiating work activities
  3. meeting timescales, resource requirements and budgets
  4. monitoring, and keeping other people informed of the progress
  5. dealing effectively with unforeseen circumstances
  6. paying appropriate attention to detail”.

Sound familiar? Not only will adopting good LPM methodologies help you do all the above, but it can also ensure you avoid making the kind of mistakes that can draw the SRA’s attention.

How to avoid common LPM pitfalls

LPM issues are often at the heart of matters when things go wrong. In fact, in our recent webinar on this subject, Juliet Oliver, general counsel and executive director at the SRA, identified the areas where most lapses occur:

  • failing to carry out due diligence and ‘know-your-client’ checks
  • not keeping, using or maintaining accurate records
  • inadequate policies and controls over data security, and
  • a lack of formal policies and procedures in place on how to manage risks in handling disputes.

These are all simple things, but getting them wrong can lead to reports to the SRA, especially for law firms dealing predominantly in residential conveyancing and probate, personal injury, and immigration. Plus, smaller firms are actually more likely to receive reports to the SRA, due to the fact that they often don’t have the necessary procedures in place.

So, when things do go wrong, what’s your best course of action? As Oliver says: “The best defence to a claim or a complaint to us is a clear and accurate record that shows the system, policy, or procedure in place and that this was followed. Being able to account for the decisions you make and the advice you give is really critical.”

How to unlock your hidden LPM skills

So, how exactly do you go about introducing LPM to your law firm? There are many approaches, but one of the most effective options is to structure and complete every one of your projects in four distinct phases:

  1. Define scope – Ensuring that you and your client are on the same page is a crucial aspect of good LPM. Make sure you understand exactly what the client needs, and be clear about what you might require from them in return.
  2. Establish a project plan – If you want your project to be successful, then you need to provide a clear plan for how you’re going to get from A to B. Set achievable milestones, list every action, and be upfront about the price.
  3. Conduct your legal case – This is the part where you crack on. And, if you do it right, then this phase should look very similar to the previous one. When things arise that you weren’t anticipating (as they always do), deal with them expeditiously and communicate appropriately.
  4. Review the process and outcome – There’s no point sticking to a process if it isn’t working. Look back at the previous three phases and ask yourself what went right, what went wrong, and how you could improve. If you do this properly and keep accurate records throughout, then you’ll be rewarded with fewer surprises in the future. Don’t forget to give feedback to your team to share the learning.

How to get started with LPM

It might be a harsh reality check, but you should start by addressing the phases where you’re failing first. You don’t need to enlist an expensive consultancy firm to do this; just be honest, look at what you can improve easily, and start improving it. Don’t worry – it’s easier than you think.

What you’ll find is that most law firms are pretty good at managing the first three phases of LPM, but most frequently fall down in phase four: review processes and outcome. Think about it. When was the last time you had an honest debrief? Really dug into the data to understand why costs ran away from you or delays happened. Focus your time and energy here, and you’ve won half the battle.

Which LPM technology do you need?

There are definitely some essentials which you’ll need sooner rather than later:

  • Project plan checklist/templates – Search for them online, find something you like and make it work for you. Better yet, look at the technology you already use – are there any tools that you’re not taking advantage of?
  • Milestone calendar with tasks – Ensure you have a place where you can track all the key dates you need to hit, and a workflow so your team has a process to follow.
  • Monthly reporting – Keep a clear audit trail and review how effectively you’re meeting client expectations on a regular basis.
  • Multiple communications channels – Communicate with clients via the method which is most convenient for them.
  • Debrief protocols – Make the review phase, and the learnings which come with it, compulsory.

The easiest way to do all of that? Using an effective legal practice software solution (like Quill) to streamline the process. Having an all-in-one system which your team can use to flag issues, manage documents and record time (among other things) will make managing projects smarter, not harder.

In short, introducing LPM into your law firm – no matter how large or small – is about taking iterative steps, being honest about where you can improve your processes, tapping the technology that you have available, and communicating early and often with your clients.

Our ‘What is legal project management and why should you care?’ guidance is adapted from our ‘Pet projects’ article written by Catrin Macleod, Quill’s business analyst and a former solicitor. It was originally published on the Law Society website in August 2023.

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