Can a small firm take advantage of the same practice management efficiencies adopted by large firms that have greater resources to invest in innovative technologies and methods?
When established clients started to make for the door, six law firms started to innovate according to Law Technology News. To find more efficient ways to do their work, author Alan Cohen writes that the six firms have taken the lead in developing the techniques of "legal project management."
If legal project management were to be described in a single sentence, it might be: A great deal of data is generated (often from billing records already maintained) and analyzed to develop expected time and resource requirements for legal matters and tasks; The data are collected and analyzed to develop a resource budget and plan (often conforming to pre-determined process maps) for a given legal matter which is then monitored (often with sophisticated software tools) for variances from the plan. Generally, a large firm has completed dozens, if not hundreds, of similar matters in a relatively short period of time. Thus, the data, if usefully analyzed and understood, provide reasonable guidance for developing standard time, resource and process requirements, budgets and "maps" for future matters of the same type.
Clearly, this is what the LTN article was describing when highlighting the six leaders in legal project management. Lessons learned included "tie it to the data," create 'springboard maps'" (documentation of standard processes), "look to [software] tools you have," and "debrief and debug."
A small firm, however: (a) may not have enough data, (b) what data it has may be locked in a system that is relatively inflexible for analytical purposes, (c) the "resources" for any given matter may consist of a fraction of the working time of one attorney and one assistant, (d) there may not be time to develop process maps, and (e) there may not be anyone to debrief except oneself.
So, is there anything to learn from the project management innovations of larger firms? I think there is.
First, the single lawyer or small firm often does take on larger or more complex cases which call for the coordination of resources (and often the resources are from outside the firm: co-counsel, contract attorneys, independent paralegals, consultants, experts, printers). Moreover, the small firm may have more at stake in a given matter because there is more of a "make or break" factor when resources are limited and the matter is complex. Pressure to cap fees or use alternative fee arrangements may be even greater on a small firm (or a preference for the practitioner). And, the ability to anticipate timing and resource requirements may better allow the smaller firm to make a competitive assessment and bid to actually be engaged for a complex matter, especially if it calls for some sort of alternative billing.
Or, looking at it another way, project management concepts and techniques may present opportunities to the small firm that would be impractical using casual practice management methods.
Second, although data may be limited, the small firm has another resource that is actually an advantage: the direct experience of the principals with each matter. Where the larger firm has more abstract statistical data, the small firm practitioner may have more of the back story as to what the data really means. Moreover, too much data may be overkill. The time-honored yogic principle is "enough is necessary."
Third, software tools, for analysis or monitoring, do not necessarily have to be expensive, sophisticated or difficult to learn. The right tool for the right job has always been an applicable principle since before the industrial age, let alone the information age.
Fourth, certain issues just will not arise. In a small firm, the project or matter will always be managed and monitored by a principal. There is no question of "what level" should be assigned project management tasks. The small firm is almost by definition decidedly flat in organization structure.
Although, project management techniques may have to be adapted and carefully thought through for the smaller firm, that is not necessarily a unique requirement. The LTN article makes clear (and common sense confirms) that each of the larger firms had to carefully adapt and think through its techniques to account for its own organization, culture and practice.
Mu conclusion: both for defensive reasons (survival) and to exploit opportunities, legal project management is a concept worth the effort to research, learn and adapt for a firm of any size. Comments, even expressions of a contrary opinion, are welcome.
Image: Wikimedia Commons, Copied under GNU Free Documentation License, Author: Alpahmu57.