Graeme Johnston / 8 September 2023
This article summarises ten one-to-one conversations I had in August and early September 2023 with people involved in LPM (legal project management), LPI (legal process improvement) or both in the context of UK law firms.
The conversations were an attempt to understand and share, in a qualitative way, how people are experiencing these topics at the moment, including successes but also challenges. I wanted to provide an opportunity for some sharing of the realities in a way that can provide some angles different from those which tend to emerge from surveys, group discussions and ‘how to’ / ‘what we do’ pieces.
Who I spoke with
The conversations were held on the basis that I would gather together what I’d been told and publish a thematic summary, taking care to anonymise.
To give an idea of perspectives:
- Most people I spoke with were at the mid to senior range. Everyone had at least three years experience in the field, most had considerably more.
- Most people have experience of such roles at more than one firm – there has been a lot of movement between firms in recent years, though a couple of people told me that this had slowed down.
- Seven of the ten are currently in or (in two cases) have recently been in LPM / LPI roles in large law firms. Of these – two had worked in LPM but not LPI, two the other way round, and three had done at least some work in each or had a managerial role in relation to both.
- Two of the ten provide external services on LPM/LPI to large law firms and others.
- The tenth is a lawyer who has instigated and managed the development of LPI at a smaller law firm over many years, focusing on real estate transactions.
There is an obvious selection bias here – I was speaking with people attracted to at least one of LPM and LPI and involved in delivering one or both. And I didn’t speak on this occasion with (i) lawyers and clients who experience LPM and LPI, (ii) people in related roles in law firms (e.g. innovation / tech / pricing) or (iii) people in in-house corporate or ALSPs*, as opposed to law firms).
*ALSPs: alternative legal services providers – typically focused on using process and tech.
Another point to surface is that I’ve picked up quite a lot of knowledge of the context over the years. Inevitably this affects my interpretation but I’ve tried to make clear in the article the distinction between what people told me and my inferences or comments.
Style of conversation
I started each conversation with some open questions about the person’s work, experiences of LPM, LPI or both and thoughts on value. We then discussed more specific issues, but allowing the conversation to be weighted towards the topics the person I was speaking with found important. Most conversations were about an hour long, a couple were a little shorter and one slightly longer. As such, the discussions were quite high level but that was part of the point.People were very forthcoming and I’m hugely grateful for that.
Looking over my notes and the draft of this article, I suppose the nature of such conversations is that challenges tend to take up more words than things that are going smoothly. So bear that in mind. There are clearly lots of good things going on in this area.
I asked people interested in LPM to tell me what LPM is for, in their own words. I said that I was looking for the things they found most important, not a comprehensive list:
- One person emphasised that the single biggest thing LPM helps with is communication – collecting data, preparing status reports and so forth. This saves time for lawyers, enables a greater focus on profitability, provides reassurance to clients and makes the lawyers look good to their clients. Showing the lawyers that you can take a lot of administrative things off their plate with just a short meeting every week is one way to make the personal benefit clear. To similar effect, another person said that, while the initial proposition had been about improving profitability, the emotional factor was in many ways as powerful. Lawyers who’ve experienced high quality LPM have a sense of control and can project to clients that risk is being well managed. Clients feel closer to what’s going on because of the improved transparency. Better, quicker internal reporting is another benefit, allowing the firm to resource matters more effectively and keeping working hours to a more reasonable level.
- Another person put more weight on the financials, while also articulating the difference between the effect on clients and the internal effects on the firm. For clients, it’s mainly about greater certainty on budget and reassurance that their work is being efficiently managed, with better transparency about what’s going on. Once they’ve experienced it, they often want it every time. Within the firm, the overriding thing is showing a financial return on investment, with LPM involvement demonstrably leading to higher realisation* and margin. A secondary benefit is that lawyers typically like doing law and are usually happy for someone competent to take on the project management.
*realisation: revenue as a percentage of recorded time at standard rates (e.g. if you generate £10k on 100 hours @ £100/hour that’s 100% realisation).
- Two people mentioned similar factors but added that there was recently more emphasis recently on direct revenue generation from LPM team members – either directly as billed hours, or by factoring their time costs into fixed fees
Some people felt that the meaning and value of LPM were well recognised in their firms now. Others were more doubtful about that. A couple of people made an observation to the effect that LPM teams in their firms had been largely left to find their own way, without much engagement from senior management. There are some ongoing discussions about how to define the scope of LPM and its business model.
Despite agreement from LPM people on clients and lawyers seeing the value once they’ve tried good quality LPM, it was also recognised that uptake is variable. Big complex matters which would benefit from LPM often don’t have it because the relevant matter partner doesn’t want it. And there’s significant variance between practice areas. In so far as there was a pattern, it seemed to be more about whether a practice area had effective LPM champions at partner level, rather than the inherent nature of the work (though a couple of people noted that lawyers who dislike the concept of LPM often justify that by reference to the nature of their work).
Different types and degrees of LPM involvement were mentioned, though emphasis varied:
- Full LPM involvement appears to be mainly on the largest matters, involving large teams, multiple jurisdictions or both. This is time-intensive and therefore quite costly. One person emphasised that what counts at ‘full’ in law firms, in their experience, is lighter than in some other sectors.
- Occasional LPM advice on a matter is a way of providing some benefit while limiting time costs.
- Providing LPM training to lawyers on project management skills is another way of scaling the approach, but there are clearly different levels of interest in this. A variation on this was that one person mentioned a practice they had heard of preparing process-related templates (e.g. Word or Excel trackers) and making them available to lawyers to self-serve on the intranet. This approach was understood to include following up with people who download them, to see if they need help.
A particular problem volunteered by several people was when they are brought in only once the matter has been poorly managed and has already run into serious problems. There’s a limit to what they can do in that situation. There were clearly some battle scars.
Another frustration is when lawyers treat an LPM person as an administrative assistant – some examples given related to mundane billing tasks. My impression from these conversations and others is that the downsizing of administrative support in many firms in recent years and an absence of serious process improvement may have some knock-on effects here in some firms.
Several people mentioned that it had not been common to charge when LPM functions started to build up in major UK law firms around a decade ago, but that there had been a greater tendency to charge in recent years. There appears to be acceptance of this as a direction of travel but some mixed feelings about this:
- One concern was that having to charge time to a file may disincentivise use of LPM as the time cost either has to be charged to the client or written off, affecting profitability. On the other hand, such a requirement can helpfully encourage lawyers to respect LPM time more when it comes to lower value work (see the billing tasks point above). This was important because, as several people recognised, references to ‘LPM’ evidently conjure up different mental images for different lawyers as to what it actually means.
- The hourly rate sought is often around the level of a trainee solicitor – this is clearly frustrating for some as an undervaluing of their experience, but there is also evidently some doubt about whether a higher rate will stick.
- Concerns were expressed by a couple of people about the risk of management being tempted to raise billable hour targets for LPM people’s time, with a risk of losing focus on the larger benefits of managing matters better.
One point which three people raised was whether LPM people should have a legal or project management background. There were no binary views on this in these three conversations, with general acceptance that either can work. Two of those three people actively preferred a mix of backgrounds in a firm’s overall LPM team. One person observed that people with project management experience in other law firms, or at least other professional services firms, seem to become effective more quickly than those with just corporate project management experience, as the contexts are so very different.
LPI is a very different world from LPM, though there is an overlap. An LPI role appears to be mainly about understanding and improving a highly repeatable process and adding rule-based automations to (1) guide people through the process and (2) assemble documents. The technology for this is long-established, though recent versions offer improved usability. A key issue is to find options which are simple to build and maintain, actively simplifying rather than just embedding convoluted ways of doing things.
People mentioned the significant investment of time required to build and maintain such systems. No doubt for that reason, the examples given were focused on high volume such as conveyancing, negotiating/repapering largely standardised contracts with reference to policies or playbooks. As well as rule-based software, some document reviewing software was used by some.
The main incentive to make such investments seems to have been pricing pressure, especially fixed prices per transaction or contract. The potential for process improvement to make such work more profitable, and to reduce the risk of error or poor records, was obvious to the people I spoke with (and to me).
This was so obvious, in fact, that we discussed possible reasons for fairly low levels of effective LPI in some firms or parts of firm. Reasons suggested included that:
- Firms sometimes preferred to drop such work when profitability became challenging, and focus on more bespoke matters.
- Many clients choose lawyers by word of mouth, care mainly about the outcome and (especially if paying for it themselves) the price. They often have no way of knowing what a better approach looks like, especially if the improvements are in the background (within the law firms) and their interface with the firm continues to be via meetings, calls and emails.
- People acquire habits which can be difficult to change. Strong influencing skills to help them build up new habits were identified as a must by several people. The point was also made that some lawyers flatly refuse to consider any change, or can’t stick with it, and that this just has to be accepted.
- Effective process improvement isn’t easy – it requires ongoing effort from a skilled team and management support. It’s not just a matter of buying software and doing it once. Some people in large law firms I spoke with were frustrated by lack of understanding or help from senior managers in winning engagement from lawyers.
- A frustration expressed by two LPI specialists was that they don’t have adequate software and are unable to address this because their IT / legal tech teams have other priorities.
Several people observed that properly implemented LPI can improve quality of life for lawyers by reducing tedious tasks, long hours and the fear of mistakes. One person whose firm has a well-developed LPI approach told me about a colleague who had returned there (after trying out some more freewheeling environments) because they liked the LPI-focused technology and related support.
The expectation for the future impact of rule-based / LPI approaches in law firms was incremental rather than radical from those who expressed a view on that issue. A couple of people who regularly speak with people in other firms about it told me that they think progress is quite slow in most places.
One person told me in detail about a failed effort to make progress in a particular practice area with major financial challenges. This kept hitting a wall as partners would not make time, or cancel meetings at short notice. Or refuse to make an associate available to work with the LPI team even for a short period (e.g. 2 or 3 days) to address a particular process. The tendency to prioritise the urgent over the strategic was quite frustrating. This was odd because the same practice area had been prepared to invest time in legal documentation (e.g. agreement templates and guidance notes) but didn’t really value process improvement despite what seemed (to the person I spoke with) some obvious opportunities for great benefit.
One LPI specialist had recently been given chargeable hour targets which signalled to them that the firm’s managers did not get the real, system-level value of their work.
LPM and LPI considered together
My impression from a number of conversations, admittedly taking into account some background knowledge as well, is that LPM and LPI often aren’t very joined up.
By those who expressed a view, there was a general recognition that the impact of both approaches was, so far, only limited.
- LPM’s impact was mainly on very large matters, though there were efforts to make it relevant more widely by finding light ways of engagement on smaller matters, and via training of lawyers. That said, philosophies evidently varied on where to put the emphasis.
- LPI’s impact was mainly on specialist areas of high volume legal work with intricate but repeatable procedures and fairly standard documents and forms. There was also incremental progress on some ancillary issues (e.g. cost reporting) affecting a wider range of work. A couple of people in a position to know drew a contrast between the great progress made on automation in business services within their firm over the last decade and the limited progress made on it in legal work.
- In the large firms, both appear to have a relatively low impact, so far, on the day-to-day process of most lawyers in large firms.
Several people expressed a desire to join up the perspectives of people working “in the flow” (LPM) with those looking at systems (LPI).
Some people clearly had a strong attraction to one of LPM or LPI and doubts about the other. I suspect this is coloured by a mixture of factors, including particular experiences of working with particular individuals or teams. But it was still noticeable. Some examples:
- One LPI person who had previously had an LPM job, albeit at the junior end, had an impression of that firm’s approach to LPM as dull and repetitive: “managing spreadsheet trackers, gathering information, making reports, organising meetings.” LPI in contrast was, they found, more creative, energising and potentially impactful.
- Another person focused on LPI was clearly doubtful about the value of LPM.
- As a contrasting example, one LPM person with a deep background in legal work doubted whether their LPI colleagues, lacking such background, properly understood the nature of processes which they engaged with.
- Another LPM person gave me an example of an LPI colleague of similar (middling) seniority who held lots of workshops for lawyers to look at various processes, but didn’t actually deliver effective process improvements and lost credibility.
My instinct is that incidents like that are probably symptomatic of coordination and higher-up leadership issues which, if I were managing the organisations in question, I’d want to dig into and address.
Purpose, organisation and links with other disciplines
It’s clear that LPM and LPI have different origins in different firms. One big difference seems to have been whether or not the origin was in a highly specific, serious finance-related challenge to solve (e.g. fixed pricing or low margins). My impression is that a specific challenge may have been helpful in providing focus and motivation, though it is clearly neither necessary nor sufficient.
It’s also noticeable that there are different ways of organising: for example, each practice area having separate LPM teams. And whether LPM, LPI and related functions are managed together.
Several people had frustrations with their internal tech or IT functions. This sounded like mainly a matter of management and budget priorities. People who had their own specialist tech resources within LPM/LPI or a positive relationship with the tech team sounded very happy about it.
Coordination with pricing functions was mentioned by several people as an important topic, but with widely different experiences as to its effectiveness. This was seen by some as at least partly an organisational issue, e.g. do pricing teams sit within practice areas, and are they tightly coordinated with LPM, or do they sit within a central finance function? Distance between LPM and pricing was seen as a negative but a couple of people who’d seen different approaches made the point that strong individual relationships between pricing and LPM people can make things work, ensuring that relevant dimensions of matters were understood by the pricing team so that they could offer something more useful than just input on hourly rates. A couple of people mentioned that a strong relationship between LPM and pricing was also useful as a way for LPM people to identify early on matters which will benefit from LPM help – as pricing is typically upstream of LPM in finding out about new work.
Two people mentioned steps they are taking to gather and analyse more sophisticated data about complex matters for use in future pricing and possibly process improvement. This is work in progress, with different approaches and priorities in different parts of their firms.
Two people mentioned the investment which their firms, and some other UK firms, are making in training up a new generation of legal operations specialists in partnership with the University of Law. They saw this as very positive. The people on these schemes rotate between different parts of the firm (e.g. LPM, LPI, pricing, tech) before taking on a particular job in the longer term. This is helping to improve coordination and tackle the silo problem.
One person told me about their firm’s very organised and systematic approach to gathering client feedback at the end of every matter and feeding back summaries of this internally. This has been very helpful not only in improving the offering but in building an understanding of the benefits of LPM internally. This person shared that it had been a struggle initially to get permission to do this, as partners and business development people were very protective of the relationships, but everyone was now supportive.
Others I spoke with appeared not to be doing this so systematically.
From what people told me it seems clear that, although progress is being made, and firms evidently differ, there are in many places significant issues on points such as
- definitions of what LPM comprises and what it’s for
- the scope of LPI
- whether / how to scale out – whether LPM and LPI will have major impact in specific areas, or more widely
- focus – what things to do more or less of
- balancing directly chargeable and other contributions
- practical support from senior management and other people in leadership positions
- showing return on investment and making a case for more (one person observed that investment had slowed during the covid 2020-22 period but that there were some signs of increase; a couple of others were more doubtful)
- coordination between LPM, LPI, pricing and tech
- systematic feedback and engagement from clients
- engaging with lawyers – some people mentioned colocation in an office as relevant to this, as they found informal relationship building to be stronger that way
There’s clearly a lot of variance among organisations in these areas – it’s still early, some things are going well, some not so well, some ongoing experimentation.
I want to resist the temptation to offer too many conclusions, as the number of conversations was quite small, and there are some selection biases. But I certainly found it interesting and useful to have these conversations, and I hope you’ll also find it useful. I wish to repeat my gratitude to the people who spoke so clearly, candidly and, on occasion, passionately about these important topics.
If you work in the field and see major gaps, or perspectives which differ from yours and would be interested in speaking about any of that for a follow-up article, please feel free to get in touch. I’m also thinking about doing one or more follow-ups which seek perspectives other than those based on UK law firms.
Photo credit: Griffin Keller on Unsplash. I picked it because to me it suggests calm in vastness.