Let’s Not Confuse Project Management With project management

The likelihood of confusion in legal services delivery tools

Ken Grady
Ken Grady
Feb 12 · 9 min read

Project Management has become one of those sexy marketing things law firms use to convince clients they are on top of the New Law movement. It has become commonplace for law firms to respond to RFPs, tout at conferences, and otherwise shout from the rooftops that they, too, have joined the modern ages with Project Management. But what do they mean, and what do we mean in the legal industry, when we say “Project Management”?

What Is Project Management?

When we talk about Project Management or project management in law we are not specific. Our ideas of Project Management range from formal, to informal, to pricing assistance, to simply getting a legal matter from start to finish.

Imagine building the Hoover Dam using the type of project management lawyers bring to matters. What will happen when all of the steps are in the lawyer’s head and changes occur rapidly? Imagine what coordination is like when team members learn what to do next when the lawyer decides to share. Changes are made to the project based on the lawyer’s experience and gut feel. Metrics do not exist.

“Wait, wait,” cry lawyers. “We are not that sloppy. When the project is complicated (as was building the Hoover Dam) we add more structure to what we do.” Yes and no.

Lawyers may create checklists and tracking charts. They may list all the things that need to be done to close the deal, who is responsible for each task, and the status of the task. They may keep the charts up to date through periodic meetings or calls. This is more organization, but it still is not Project Management.

The Project Management Institute is the global organization for project managers. It defines Project Management as:

the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.

Going a bit further, it defines Project Management processes as falling into five groups:

Initiating
Planning
Executing
Monitoring and Controlling
Closing

Finally, Project Management knowledge draws from ten areas:

Integration
Scope
Time
Cost
Quality
Procurement
Human resources
Communications
Risk management
Stakeholder management

To equate the type of project management most lawyers provide with Project Management, is to equate building a Lego® tower with building a modern skyscraper. They both start with pieces and end with a structure built by humans, but there is a vast difference between the two.

What Is Meant By Project Management In Legal Services Delivery?

This question evoked a bit of discussion on Twitter the other day. Everyone seemed to agree that there were two major categories of Project Management relevant to legal services delivery. The first we know as “Waterfall” and the second as “Agile”.

Waterfall is traditional Project Management. It is the one most people know and many have encountered at some point in their career. Put simply, it involves a series of steps that take one from a starting point to a goal. Each step must be completed before the next step starts (at least in the rigid implementation of Waterfall). When drawn, the stair-steps of the style evoke the image of a waterfall (the box names change, depending on what is being managed).

Source: http://www.agile-scrum-master-training.com/agile-project-management/

Scant time was spent on Twitter discussing Waterfall Project Management. It has its places in legal services delivery, but not many and certain pre-conditions should be met before one attempts to use it. For example, Waterfall Project Management works best when all aspects of a matter are within the control the organization implementing the project. If third parties are involved (e.g., a court, an opposing party), then Waterfall Project Management runs into difficulties.

The majority of the discussion focused on Agile Project Management. Agile describes a category of Project Management methodologies. This is where things can get a bit confusing. If you look for a list of the Agile methodologies, you will find the following:

  • Scrum

Some lists include “lean” as an Agile methodology. For purposes of the legal community (excluding those involved in software development), we can simplify. For legal services delivery, Agile Project Management typically means Scrum or Kanban. Kanban really comes from lean thinking and grows out of process management and improvement. It was intended as a workflow control tool, not as a Project Management tool although it can be used for “Project Management lite”.

That leaves us with Scrum Project Management, a popular alternative in legal services delivery to Waterfall Project Management. Scrum works well for many legal services delivery situations because it is flexible, iterative, efficient, and collaborative. Legal services delivery often happens in rapidly changing situations. Litigation, corporate deals, complex contract negotiations, and other legal matters involve multiple parties each working to their own agenda. Scrum accommodates those situations with barely a flinch.

So, when we talk about Project Management in legal services delivery, we typically mean Waterfall or Scrum. We also mean something with structure, metrics, and some formality. But what about legal services delivery without Project Management? Is it consigned to chaos?

What About project management?

Near the end of the Twitter conversation, one person chimed in with a new thought. He opined that most lawyers “instinctively” do Project Management. What they miss, he suggested, was a formal system for what they do and empathy for the client. His comment reflects a common misunderstanding held by many in the legal industry.

What I believe he meant is the all lawyers engage in “project management”not “Project Management” . In the lower case sense, he is correct. But we can quickly expand what he said to “all people engage in project management”. His statement that we do so “instinctively” takes us back to the “nature vs. nurture” debate. I think it is fair to say we are all taught project management as we grow up and what lawyers do is an extension of that training. That is not what we mean we say Project Management.

This reminds me of an old story about a trademark case. The case involved the trademark issue of likelihood of confusion. Put simply, would a lay person likely confuse two marks? If so, then one of the marks may be infringing on the second. The case involved Standard Oil of Ohio and Esso, which today is a trading name from ExxonMobil. Standard Oil of Ohio was often referred to as S.O. After a decision in the district court, the case was being argued in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The first lawyer argued there was a likelihood of confusion between the marks. The second lawyer argued there was no likelihood of confusion. When he finished, one of the judges thanked him and said he had only one quesion: “When you said essoh in your argument, did you mean essoh or essoh?”

The question is: When we say project management, do we mean Project Management or project management?

When you were growing up, your parents taught you project management. You learned how to get ready for and go to school, how to keep your room picked up, and how to do basic chores. Each of these required knowledge of how to do various tasks and how to sequence them. For example, you learned to bathe first and then put on your clothes. You also learned that if you wanted to play with your friends, you had to pick up your room first. To get ready for and go to school, you had to complete many tasks and some required specific sequencing. You were learning throughout how to manage a project.

As you grew up, some projects you confronted were more complicated, such as going through college. You had to take certain courses and many required sequencing. You managed assignments and reading for several classes at a time. Upon graduation, you managed the job search project. For each project, you picked up some skills and you learned some skills from others. Some schools mandate that students use planners to keep track of what they need to do and when. Other schools have training sessions during which they give students tips on how to stay organized. Any way you look at it, by the time you received your law degree and started practicing, you had extensive experience in project management.

That training carries over to what you must do as a lawyer. You are not “instinctively” doing project management, you are applying years of training to a new (to you at least) area. That training and years of skill building experience kick in and you start managing the many projects that are part of your practice. This is project management, but it is not Project Management.

Project management is informal. Each person’s training varies depending on many factors. It is seldom driven by metrics (though each of us may say we do things a certain way because it is faster), but often backed by hunches, gut feel, or “experience”. It does not include components designed to enhance performance among teams (e.g., communication tools, tracking charts, feedback loops). It can be, and usually is, randomly changed from project to project. It also can fool both lawyer and client into thinking they are managing the project when, in fact, the project is managing them.

There is a fine line to walk between perfect and good enough. Project management, especially if it is coupled with a strong process improvement program, can be good enough for some legal matters. It is not good enough for many others.

Should All Lawyers Become Project Managers?

As I noted, in one sense all lawyers are project managers. But should all lawyers become formally trained in Project Management? Should all law schools add a course or at least somehow incorporate training in Project Management? Neither route would turn law students into Project Managers (or even qualify them to take the test for the Project Management Professional certification). But, perhaps it would help lawyers up their project management game.

This is not a call to action for all lawyers to run out and become certified Project Management Professionals. For most simple legal services projects, a lawyer’s training in project management will suffice. Liam Brown, founder and executive chairman of Elevate Services, calls this “just enough” project management. If a lawyer wants to improve his or her skills, training in Project Management will help (learning something about the ten knowledge areas, for example).

Lawyers should not be defensive about their lack of skills in Project Management, nor should they attempt to defend what they do as the equivalent of Project Management. Understanding the distinctions is part of the process of moving from lone wolf lawyers to team players, from inexperienced managers to sophisticated leaders.

It is for the larger or more complicated projects that expertise in Project Management becomes valuable. Deals, many lawsuits, portfolio work, reductions in force, and other similar matters all benefit from professional Project Management. A skilled Project Manager can help the legal services delivery team bring a project in below budget and ahead of time, while maintaining applicable standards.

Corporate clients recognized the benefits of Project Management long ago. They hire and deploy Project Managers throughout their organizations. Some functional areas have full-time embedded Project Managers, while others draw from a Project Manager pool as needed. Either way, corporations recognize that having amateurs engage in project management often is the root cause for initiatives going over budget or failing.

The Future

Legal services delivery is becoming a more complicated area. The number and range of options for delivering services grows each year. Mastering those options so that the solution for a client on a matter is efficient, cost effective, high quality, and timely is challenging. Project Management (or in some cases project management) is a critical part of legal services delivery. Understanding the options — and being able to creatively adapt them as part of a design thinking program — places you ahead of the competition. It also places you directly where your clients want you to be — managing the project rather than letting the project manage you.


Ken is an author writing about innovation, leadership, and the future of people, processes, and technology in the legal industry. He has been featured as a Top Writer on Medium in Artificial Intelligence, Innovation, and Leadership. He is an Adjunct Professor and Research Fellow at Michigan State University College of Law; and on the Advisory Boards for Elevate Services, MDR Lab and LARI, Ltd.You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, and follow him on Facebook.

The Algorithmic Society

Bridging digital, human, operational realms

Ken Grady

Written by

Ken Grady

Writing & innovating at X of people, processes, & tech. Adjunct Prof & Research Fellow MSU Law, @LeanLawStrategy; https://medium.com/the-algorithmic-society.

The Algorithmic Society

Bridging digital, human, operational realms

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