A recent post from Eric Elfman got me thinking about the ROI of process improvements versus project management for lawyers. Much attention is being given to legal project management (LPM) these days as the savior for attaining efficiency in a legal practice.
Eric’s point is that process improvement will bring more value to lawyers. In his words:
“Most of these (legal) processes are manual, paper intensive and cumbersome but they are effective on the margins. But why couldn’t they be better with technology?”
In one of those odd coincidences, on the heels of Eric’s post I read the updated intro to Susskind’s paperback version of his End of Lawyers? book. He suggests lawyers employ a “legal process manager” with two duties; “legal process analyst and legal project manager. He lists the ‘process’ role as primary, lining up with Eric’s suggestion.
My old rule kicked in: Hear it once – it’s interesting. Hear it twice – pay attention.
At the risk of upsetting the LPM crowd, I am going to side with Eric and push the envelope a bit. Two points:
1) Lawyers already project manage, just not with discipline and to a budget.
2) Within these ‘projects’ there are numerous repeatable processes that are highly manual.
Admittedly improved project management will bring value. But I see this as doing things the same way only better. Marginal efficiencies will be gained.
Whereas process improvement and automation will drive changes to the way things are done. By definition, process improvement means change. I will concede that at some point the ROI on process automation levels out, but there is a lot more air in this bag than the project management one.
My advice: If you’re in KM or IT, watch for process automation opportunities. One example we have already mentioned here at 3 Geeks is the KIIAC product from Kingsley Martin. This is one example of how dramatic a process change can be.
I look forward to more dialog on this subject.
  • As someone with a long background in both process improvement (next book) and Legal Project Management (current book), I beg to differ with both you and Eric (who's a friend).

    Process improvement is about doing what you already do but doing it better. It's about efficiency.

    Project management is about doing different things than you do today. It's about effectiveness.

    Doing an inefficient process better can lead to improvement… as long as it's the "right" process (whatever "right" means in a given context). Doing the wrong process better… well, I'm not sure what that gets you.

    One of the reasons I capitalize Legal Project Management when I write about it is to distinguish it from both traditional PM and lower-case, generic PM for legal. Capital Legal Project Management includes both project and process improvement.

    If you're convinced your processes are already on the right track, by all means start with process improvement. However, be aware that (a) the road to process improvement is harder than that to improved project management, (b) that road is more subject to three-steps-up-and-two-steps-back, and (c) for many areas of (corporate-client) law it may not correspond to the changes your clients are seeking.

    The best road, I believe, is one that incorporates selective process improvement with project management designed for the legal world.

  • Toby, good post. I felt obligated to add that I don't think that legal project and process management should be different; they are two sides of the same coin.

    As we have talked to General Counsels about project management we have come to the conclusion that much of what they need revolves around process, but not to the exclusion of sound project management.

    It should be noted that I didn't really talk about process improvement in my original post, rather I talked about process "management." Now to Steven's point, I certainly would not promote taking a fundamentally flawed process and simply make it more efficient. Improvement (or optimization) of process is certainly part of the job when applying project and process improvement to a legal department.

    Finally, I would add that my notion of process management is much more suited to corporate legal departments than law firms. Law firms are much more adaptive to their client's needs but a legal department has to standardize the risk management function across their entire organization.

  • I agree with Eric that greater structural parallelism within a corporate legal team might help them derive more immediate value from a process improvement initiative than many law firms.

    Certainly I don't mean to suggest that all process improvement is the same as driving faster in the wrong direction. LIke Eric, I see PI and PM as having considerable overlap. A good project management approach will include improved processes, and cleaner processes make project management easier even in the absence of formal PM.

  • Yes, lawyers do project manage. But the issue is most of them do it badly.

    I agree PM and PI are two sides of the same coin and I'm a big fan of both [and as an aside, isn't project management itself a process – its just that its a new process for many!].

    But both PM and PI are really techniques to help us improve how we do things. By themselves, they are not a way of deciding what we should improve.

    The real transformational change comes when you start looking deeper at things like measuring profit/risk/efficiency and deciding strategically what it is that should change. In some areas that might be automating (or even just documenting) processes, in others it will be better budgeting/planning and in others still it might be deciding to outsource that type of work.

    Simply – before you decide on the tool (PM or PI) you need to understand the current state and know what you want to change.

  • The post reminds me of an email Michael Mills recently sent to me, in which he quoted an article about Gary Kasparov and chess playing computers.

    "Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process."

  • Adding fuel to the fire, and a third reference to legal process, I submit the following:

    "Your tool has to meet my process. My process doesn't have to fit your tool."

    The director of operations for Aon made this his "edict" for process improvement, while he merged two legal departments. He goes on to say, "The key to designing a solution like this is not just focusing on solving existing problems, but contemplating problems three to five years down the road."

    For me project management is not about redesigning all of the processes, it's about managing them well. I'm not saying LPM doesn't have value, I'm just contemplating the long-term value of process innovation over LPM. The quoted article goes to that point.