Toby Brown, whom I respect greatly, has written about Legal Project Management in an interesting post on 3 Geeks and a Law Blog.
I respect Toby greatly, but with all due respect, I think he has it wrong on three major points in regards to Legal Project Management (LPM).
LPM and Process Improvement
LPM is necessary but not sufficient to drive improvements in law firm productivity. Project management brings discipline to a process, but is not about improving a process over time.
(All extract quotes are from Toby’s post.)
There is a huge difference between effectiveness and efficiency, the difference between doing the right things (effectiveness) and doing things right (efficiency).
It is a failure of leadership and management — project management as well as people management — to attack efficiency before increasing effectiveness. Doing the wrong thing better may provide marginal gains (by removing waste from the system), but it will not provide significant gains.
Legal Project Management, when implemented well, focuses on being effective more than being efficient. It’s actually easy to go into an environment and whip up some short-term efficiencies, which are usually short-lived as well. Even most Six Sigma advocates will admit that there is significant fallback or regression once the champion/change-agent exits the scene, or becomes tiresome and no longer heard. Likewise, anyone can yammer about LPM, stir the pot a little, and see some short-term improvement. However, unless you focus on rethinking ways to be effective rather than merely efficient, the contents of that slightly stirred pot will congeal once again.
An effective LPM program is more than some tricks to build efficiency. It may or may not bring discipline to a process, but a well designed program is specifically about improving overall processes (not a single process) over time — improving them by searching out ways to make them more effective. (Indeed, while LPM can add considerable value without bringing discipline to a given process by swapping out bad processes for better ones, it will usually add discipline to them as well.)
LPM and Productivity Growth
Real productivity growth comes when you change the system, which leads us to process improvement. This is where most businesses gain a competitive edge.
I wholeheartedly agree with the first and last thirds of this statement. Real growth does come from systemic change. That is where most businesses gain a competitive edge.
But real productivity gains rarely come from just improving current processes, especially in non-commoditized markets such as legal. Manufacturing cell phones, for example, was referred to as a race to the bottom, as competitors tried to shave minor productivity gains to preserve shrinking-to-the-microscopic-level profit margins. Apple decided that instead of playing that game, a game at which it couldn’t compete, let alone win, it would change the game entirely, via the iPhone.
Most law firms need to be in the iPhone business rather than the cell-phone-manufacturing business. They’re not doing low-level commodity work. They’re supplying intellectual capital to their clients. (There are some firms, and some departments of AmLaw 100 firms, that are in the commodity legal business. That’s a good thing, filling a serious need, but it’s not where most firms are trying to play, nor is it the only type of legal service that their clients need.)
Obviously, firms and practices will do well to address inefficient processes; removing waste is almost always beneficial. (Don’t confuse waste with slack; removing slack is not always beneficial!) However, most practices need more than waste removal, more than process improvement. They need effectiveness. They need to do the right things and then look at doing those things right.
Legal Project Management covers both of these bases, effectiveness and efficiency. It is not solely an efficiency play.
LPM Is a Technique
…a technique like LPM…
Is Legal Project Management a technique?
Is lawyering a technique? What about playing shortstop?
A shortstop, like a lawyer, has numerous techniques at his or her disposal — how to read a batter’s incipient swing, how to charge a grounder, how to stay balanced even when throwing from an awkward position, how to get the ball out of your glove with your fingers across the seams, how to turn the double play without needing knee surgery afterwards. (Those are shortstop techniques. Except staying balanced and reading an opponent’s swing; attorneys do that too.)
Likewise, a legal project manager has a series of techniques she can bring to bear on the project at hand, and on the environment in which she undertakes those projects. Just like she does as a lawyer. Or maybe a shortstop.
But Legal Project Management is not a (single) technique in itself.
Toby suggests that bigger/faster/cheaper, not LPM, should be the goal. I totally agree that LPM is at best a subgoal, a step on the road to doing a better job for your clients, for your practice, and for the attorneys themselves.
Overall, I don’t disagree with the thrust of Toby’s article about choosing serious goals. However, I disagree with where he places LPM on the spectrum of ways to approach those goals, and on the shortchanging of effectiveness in the name of efficiency.
Go read Toby’s post and see what you think.