Big Law Firms Are Turning To Project Managers In Response To New Competitive Threats
Big law firms are facing big challenges these days. With the rise of artificial intelligence and data analytics, new low-cost outsourcers are automating routine, high-volume legal work—and raiding established firms’ client lists. The upshot? Big organizations are feeling major downward price pressures and ramping up their pursuit of new efficiencies. Two-thirds of U.S. law firms say increasing efficiency is the primary effort they’re making to be more competitive, according to an August 2017 Exterro Inc. survey. About half of firms said they’re now “much more focused” on project management principles and technology than they were five years ago.
“There is a growing role for project managers at law firms,” says Nadine Miles, PMP. She was hired in July as a legal project manager at the multinational firm Hogan Lovells LLP in Washington, D.C., USA.
The firm has used project managers for decades in operations and information technology, but hired project managers focused on legal matters three years ago to train its global workforce of lawyers on project management techniques for the first time. After seeing the program’s success, in 2016 the firm began hiring project management specialists like Ms. Miles to work directly within its practice groups around the world.
“It shifts case management to project management practitioners so that lawyers can spend their time assessing substantive legal questions,” Ms. Miles says.
“There is a growing role for project managers at law firms.”
—Nadine Miles, PMP, Hogan Lovells LLP, Washington, D.C., USA
CLARENCE HOLMES PHOTOGRAPHY / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
While this practice is increasingly common at bigger law firms, it’s far from widespread, according to Susan Lambreth, chair and founder of the Legal Project Management (LPM) Institute and a principal at LawVision Group. The U.S. firms leading in the realm of LPM have only been able to implement it on a small percentage of total firm matters, with a very small group of them reaching 40 percent of activities, she wrote in an article on the legal content site JD Supra in October. “What will it take to have a sustainable, scaled LPM program across a firm? That is the big question as more and more firms are implementing LPM.”
Only 29 percent of U.S.-based firms have structured project practices in place, with 15 percent of organizations saying their project management maturity level is high, according to the Exterro survey. Adoption appears to be even slower in other parts of the world; a 2017 study by the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association found 19 percent of firms in Australasia (which is mainly made up of Australia and New Zealand) use project management software.
But the rise of project management in the legal world is likely to continue—and not only because firms know they need to control costs. Clients sometimes demand that project managers be placed on their cases, Ms. Miles says.
Plus, project professionals add value in a variety of ways, she says. They can work with lawyers to ensure they employ efficient processes on cases and use the most appropriate staff for tasks. They can also help with project initiation and planning, budget estimates and tracking, process improvements, after-action reviews and assessments of software and other technologies.
Project management is a good fit in the legal environment, Ms. Miles says—but ultimately implementing project management principles is an exercise in change management. As with any industry, change inevitably presents challenges.
“Implementing new systems, no matter how much more efficient they may be, comes at the cost of losing familiarity. Like any industry, changing organizational habits can be challenging.” —Ambreen Ali