Susan Lambreth is a founding Principal at LawVision and the Founder of the LPM Institute. She is nationally recognized as one of the top leadership, practice group and project management consultants for law firms. For over 25 years, she has helped law firms of all sizes improve their profitability and enhance their lawyers’ leadership and management skills. She is also the author or co-author of six leading books on practice group management and legal project management.
What was the impetus behind your interest in legal project management?
I have worked for over 25 30 years in consulting to law firms on various aspects of change management/lawyer behavior change. From the early 90s on, it was helping about half of the AmLaw 200 implement practice group management structures as firms moved from managing at the firm management or office level to managing at the practice level. This involved helping firms get buy in from partners to “being managed” as David Maister called it — to new ways of operating in groups and teams at the practice level instead of more of an individual lawyer orientation so they could achieve the benefits of teams, collaboration and critical mass. In the mid- to late 2000s, as legal project management became a topic talked about by in-house counsel and pressures for increased efficiency became greater, I saw this as the next evolution from managing at the practice level to also managing down at the matter or project level. And, it had the same challenges I had helped firms with in getting lawyers to change their ways of operating to managing more proactively and less autonomously at the matter level. It has been very rewarding helping individual lawyers, firms and legal departments achieve the benefits of LPM — financially and in terms of better morale and teamwork and enhanced client satisfaction. Additionally, my LawVision colleague, Carla Landry, began her career in the Big 4 environment where project management was just the approach you used to manage your projects. They didn’t even call it project management; they just utilized the approaches without putting a label on it. To her, project management was a natural way to plan and execute on matters. Working with her, it became even more obvious how project management techniques made sense in any industry.
What do lawyers currently “get” and not “get” when it comes to implement legal project management strategies and principles?
I wouldn’t put it in terms of “get” and “not get” but there are some common misperceptions about LPM. One is that it is somehow complex and doesn’t apply to legal work. As the CLOC LPM Initiative documented in its “business case” slides, “LPM is what lawyers already do, just more systematically and using the language of business.” I tell every firm I work with that every successful lawyer has been doing some aspects of LPM and that LPM is not “rocket science”. It is a simple process of defining a matter upfront, planning the matter at various points, managing the matter proactively and evaluating/reviewing the matter at the end. It is a more proactive approach to matters than some lawyers have taken historically and it consists of simple “tools” or approaches to enhance communication with the matter team and the client and to clarify and manage expectations. Again, I also draw from Carla’s experience here – utilizing project management techniques does not complicate a matter, but rather it streamlines it. She often helps coach matter teams to improve their effectiveness using LPM and LPI approaches. Everyone knows what they should be doing and how their work fits into the matter overall. This not only helps to keep everyone engaged in the bigger picture, but also allows more time for the higher value advice.
How do you see technology fitting into the broader legal project management puzzle?
Technology tools can facilitate LPM and be very helpful for capturing information and mining data. But, as some firms found out the hard way, it is not the “magic bullet”. It can complement the simple LPM approaches like scoping work carefully and develop work plans/project plans, but it does not take the place of them. LPM itself is really a program for relationship management and communication.
What is the biggest lesson law firms and legal departments should draw from legal project management?
LPM is not primarily about applying technology. It is a way of managing matters that enhances communication within matter teams and with clients — internal or external ones. It can improve law firm profitability significantly by reducing write-offs and improving client satisfaction. For in-house lawyers, it can help manage legal risk and spend more effectively and ensure compliance. For both kinds of organizations, it can enhance teamwork and morale of matter teams and improve professional development for junior lawyers.
What has most surprised you as you have gone about implementing LPM principles?
What has surprised me most is that simple techniques that are widely used in the corporate world — with law firm clients — and that can improve relationships and profitability and enhance risk management, are resisted by some lawyers who see it as just a fad or something threatening to their practice. On the other hand, I have also been surprised in a handful of firms (that have implemented with strong leadership support, good training and tech tools to support) how quickly LPM has become a way of operating throughout the organization and the ROI they have achieved.