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Project management key to survival

|Written By Michael McKiernan

With the heady days of the economic boom long gone, McCarthy Tétrault LLP has turned to a discipline more associated with architects and engineers than lawyers by placing project management at the heart of its approach to legal matters.

Project management is ‘gaining popularity but only very recently,’ says Barbara Boake.

While large law firms once could name their price and dictate their approach to clients, the recent downturn has forced a change in the legal marketplace.

And in their new book, Project Management for Lawyers, McCarthys’ Barbara Boake and Rick Kathuria warn the new dynamic is permanent. The economic crisis, they write, was “merely the catalyst” for an “inevitable shift in the balance of power from seller to buyer” of legal services.

The book draws on the firm’s experience developing its in-house Dialogue Project Management program. According to Boake, a partner in McCarthys’ bankruptcy and restructuring practice group, the foundations were laid almost four years ago during her stint on the firm’s executive committee.

“It was in that capacity that I recognized a real demand for some kind of project management training or component to legal practice,” she says. “Clients are looking for better value and more cost predictability.

They want to see systems that encourage efficiencies in legal work, and project management is really a response to that.”

Kathuria, who is a certified project management professional in addition to his role as director of information technology development at McCarthys, says defined budgets for outside counsel are a relatively new development in business.

“Many of our clients run their own organizations and they ask for each of their departments to give budgets for how much things are going to cost,” he notes.

“Lawyers from legal departments within companies have never really had to do that in the past, but we’re seeing that happen more and more often. We’re trying to help them meet that need.”

Jim Hassett, the founder of Boston-based consultancy LegalBizDev, which helps law firms improve their project management and business development practices, agrees that client expectations have changed and show no signs of going back.

“If you want to survive in the coming years, you’re going to have to become more efficient because that’s what clients are asking for,” he says.

“People in other businesses have been doing that for a long time through project management, and what’s happening is people at McCarthys and some other firms are figuring out which pieces of that matter to law firms and which pieces don’t.”

Boake says the team at McCarthys built the foundation of its Dialogue Project Management program on established project management principles and tweaked them for the legal environment. It also used a custom-built suite of tools based on Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.

Under the program, lead lawyers on matters are tasked with guiding each project to completion through a process involving four steps: define, plan, monitor, and evaluate. “It’s based on project management theory but it’s very much a custom-designed program for use by lawyers,” says Boake.

“We really took only what we thought would be useful from project management theory. Lawyers don’t get any training in project management or budgeting in law school, so understandably those are the skills that require some work. We wanted to make it as simple as possible and very much directed to lawyers.”

Templates based on the most common types of work the firm does have been developed to help lawyers break down cases into phases and even specific tasks that will need to be completed. But Kathuria says litigation projects are particularly challenging to manage.

“You don’t know what the other party is going to do in a legal matter,” he says. “That adds a lot more risk or uncertainty in a legal project than you find in an engineering project.”

In the early stages of a project, McCarthys’ lawyers can provide a quote by virtually assigning professionals from a firm-wide database of partners, associates, and paralegals based on time estimates for each predicted task and known hourly rates.

Clients are sometimes shocked by the size of an estimate, according to one example cited in the book, but the system lends credibility to it. In this case, the firm won the contract despite delivering a higher quote than some competitors because the client trusted it and was willing to place a premium on predictability.

As time passes, the firm refines its existing templates and develops new ones based on feedback from lawyers, all of whom have now been trained in the system.

Boake notes McCarthys built its own program in part because the relative youth of the legal project management field left it with few other options. Still, she says going in-house also helped lawyers buy into the concept.

“The legal profession has been fairly slow to embrace project management,” she says. “It’s gaining popularity but only very recently. People here are embracing it. There’s lots of opportunity for collaboration and participation by a lot of people, and I think that contributes to the success of it.”

Hassett notes McCarthys has established a name for itself as a pioneer of legal project management along with international giants Dechert LLP and Eversheds LLP, both of which developed their own programs. “At McCarthys, they are taking it very seriously, and I’m a huge fan of what they’ve done,” he says.

However, Hassett says the structured and top-down approach favoured by those firms isn’t the only way to implement project management. Many other firms, he says, are dabbling with project management on a smaller scale led by key lawyers who spread the practice more gradually among colleagues.

“There are hundreds of law firms where you get a kind of entrepreneurial experimentation where people are given the freedom to meet their clients’ needs however they want and then picking up the best practices.”

Hassett’s firm offers workshops and continuing education on project management for law firms across the continent, including at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP. He notes he has been particularly struck by the interest shown by large Canadian firms.

“If you ask my opinion, Canadian firms are more involved in this and doing more things to make this happen than U.S. firms on average right now [to an extent that’s] completely out of proportion to the size of the marketplace.”

This is the third in Law Times’ summer series on innovation in the legal profession.

For other stories in the series, see "Pioneering judge now advising lawyers on technology" and "Risk averse lawyers move slowly on outsourcing."

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