The 'Fuzzy' Difference Between Case Management & Legal Project Management

I sat in yesterday on an event hosted by LexisNexis on the webinar/virtual panel entitled "The Discipline and Benefits of Project Management." The two panelist were Bruce MacEwan, Founder, Adam Smith Esq., and Tom Birsic, Partner and Litigation Practice Leader, K&L Gates, and both had a lot to say about the current state of Legal Project Management (LPM) for in-house and outside counsel. It was interesting to hear both MacEwan and Birsic discuss how LPM is basically still in its infancy and that currently there is a 'fuzzy' distinction between what lawyers consider case management, and what lawyers need to change in order to accomplish Legal Project Management. Subtle though it might seem on paper, MacEwan went on to say that the law firms that figure out that distinction and are the first to act and explain the value of LPM will be at a serious competitive advantage over their peer firms.

I'll list some of my notes that I took while listening in below, but wanted to reprint the overview of the discussion first, as I think it lays out a good overview of LPM and what the panelists were focused on discussing.  Note: It was actually a video panel - vpanel - but the video was quite disappointing because it tended to freeze and make the panelists look like they were in the middle of a painful medical procedure. Apologies to Kevin, Tom and Bruce for posting this snapshot of the vpanel... but the video was pretty bad...

Overview of Panel:

Project management is nothing more than rationally supervising the process of 

  1. deploying resources 
  2. which have associated costs 
  3. against tasks 
  4. to accomplish specified objectives. 
Viewed this way, disputed matters and transactions are simply types of projects, albeit sophisticated ones. Learn more about how project management can help make alternative billing models more predictable, transparent, and effective, including:

  • Why your firm needs to focus on continually improving project management skills
  • Developing ways to more readily provide budget updates to clients
  • Ensuring that lawyers are skilled at clarifying and communicating expectations and guiding the engagement process

  • Implementing processes to review performance at the end of an assignment, or sooner, if need (“Lessons Learned”)
  • Applying the appropriate staffing model that provides the needed skills at an acceptable value.

My Notes:

Project Managers - Should it be current lawyers or should firms bring in actual project managers?
I was surprised right off the bat when Birsic mentioned that he thinks that firms that try to convert one of its existing lawyers into a Project Manager is not as effective as bringing in a "real" Project Manager. This made me wonder if this is one of those situations where this is a 'factually correct statement', but one that if you attempted to implement would fail due to firm culture? Kind of like the fact that cars with mid-engine, front-wheel drive chassis are the most efficient... but no one mass produces this type of model because no one buys them? 

Key to LPM is to have a process for rigorous "early case assessment"
Partners that establish procedures for creating early case assessment documents are working in the right direction for implementing LPM processes. The early case assessment document should be initiated within the first 45 days of the matter, and should be viewed as a 'living document' that will change over the life of the matter. This reminded me of Jeff Carr's talk at the Texas Bar Association meeting where he said that he wouldn't even talk with outside counsel unless they presented him with an early case assessment document that explained how the firm was going to handle this matter, and what the lawyers anticipated were going to be the overall goals and objectives for this matter over time.

Electronic Billing is one of the greatest tools of case management
MacEwan mentioned that the implementation of electronic billing is one of the best tools ever for managing cases. I've also heard this statement before when the issue of LPM is discussed. Why is electronic billing so important?? Most likely for two reasons. 1) It creates another logical process that shows the tasks, and the costs that those task create. 2) It is a de facto communication between the client and firm. Clients get a chance to see costs as they are created, and perhaps the ability to question those costs.

Are there trade offs between the quality of work and cost controls when it comes to LPM?
This is a question that is asked a lot when firms think about LPM. If costs are cut, doesn't that essentially mean that quality will suffer? Birsic said that quality is not compromised when LPM strategies are used because your improving the efficiency, not reducing the quality of work performed. He did throw out the caveat of reducing quality at the Request for Proposal (RFP) stage by the client. If the client is pressing for price over quality of firm, then there might be a trade off at that point. However, Birsic specifically mentioned that LPM does not increase the overall costs for the client. If it does, then the client has either hired the wrong firm, or the wrong in-house counsel.

LPM is not stressed during the RFP stage -- unless the RFP is asking for Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs)   
Birsic mentioned that he doesn't really use LPM as a selling point for most RFPs. That changes if there is a request for AFAs, however, because the firm and client need to understand the overall process and costs of matters when deciding the fee structure on AFAs. Firms that have structured LPM processes in place are better equipped to handle AFA negotiations successfully, and to structure the metrics needed to evaluate how well the firm does in handling AFAs (did we lose money, break even, make money, make too much??) Birsic also noted that in-house counsel are very bad at these types of metrics in trying to determine how well firms have handled AFAs for them. 

LPM is here to stay... learn it, practice it, live it, or get left behind
Both MacEwan and Birsic didn't hesitate to say that LPM is not a 'favor of the month' idea. LPM is here to stay and those in-house and outside counsel that understand and require/perform LPM practices will have a significant competitive advantage over those that pretend that the status quo is "good enough". Just as with any other skill, the more you practice your LPM procedures, the better you will get at it.

Legal matters are expensive... LPM will help somewhat, but not make it cheap
MacEwan mentioned that sometimes outside counsel need to be realistic with clients when it comes to the cost of litigation or other legal issues. He mentioned that clients complain that outside counsel don't understand the pressures that they are under to cut legal costs from the corporate hierarchy. Sometimes outside counsel need to frank with their clients and remind them that legal issues are expensive.

Case Management is not Legal Practice Management... but the differences are 'fuzzy'
Birsic discussed the belief that most attorneys believe that they are conducting 'case management' on all of their matters, and that most attorneys believe that they are excellent case managers, thus do not need to do any LPM processes. MacEwan chimed in that the difference between case management and LPM is fuzzy, but that the firms that distinguish the difference, implement the processes, and act first will have a serious advantage in the marketplace.

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Kevin said...

Greg, no worries on the snapshot. Good write up. I appreciate your post and am glad you found value in the discussion. As you know, a great deal of attention was directed at cost control and its connection to eDiscovery. This case study might help litigation teams understand options to reduce costs as it relates to this challenge.


steve isaacs said...

As a former engineer, database systems analyst, project manager, and now personal injury attorney, I agree with the overall summary. Most lawyers are not project managers and mistakenly believe the case management software will handle case management for their firms. If it did, then they would be better able to manage their time and not have to spend so much time in the office at night.

I also note that I have actively used six case management software programs, each of which I found had certain limitations, and all of which did not adequately handle case management nor legal case project management.


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