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Posted In: Legal Process Improvement, Legal Project Management

Still Asking Which Comes First – Project Management or Process Improvement?

Two years ago I wrote a blog addressing “which comes first, legal project management (LPM) or legal process improvement (LPI)?”  At the time, there was a lot of confusion about the two terms.  They were used interchangeably and the concepts of both were included in defining one or the other.  Now, two years later, there’s more clarity around the definitions, but the question of which should come first still remains.

As we predicted several years ago, if you use LPM techniques, you inevitably identify ways to improve some aspects of the project (i.e., process) as you manage work more carefully and with more tools than in the past.  The difference is in the level of scrutiny of the steps in the process.  The resulting change from LPI is a more efficient process.  LPM results in a project that is well managed and completed on time and on budget.  Ideally, the firm would pursue both, but given the pressures most firms are under, it is usually better to do something well than to try to do too much at once.

The truth is the two methodologies support each other.  Often, when developing project plans (as done in LPM), one identifies ways to do things more efficiently (i.e., one finds some process improvement opportunities).  Further, LPM skills are essential in order to manage to the new, more efficient processes that are developed, if you want those new processes to be successful.  Both methodologies provide opportunities for improved performance.  Today, a few firms are not only improving performance with LPM, but are recognizing the need to analyze the steps in some matter types more closely and identify where there are short-term and longer-term opportunities to streamline those steps and those types of matters.

Two years ago, that blog closed with “in a perfect world” law firms would embark upon LPI first and then use LPM to manage those processes effectively.  Ultimately, the legal arena decided, for the most part, that LPM comes first.  The question is how quickly anyone will take the step to improve processes across more matter types and potentially dramatically increase efficiency and effectiveness and, ultimately, profitability.  We’ll explore what’s inhibiting broad acceptance of LPI in future blogs.

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  1. Your observation that “ultimately the legal arena decided . . . that LPM comes first”  is interesting but largely irrelevant.  LPI is about designing a process — LPM is about operating it.  It’s tough to operate a process that hasn’t been designed, and inefficient to design one while trying to operate it. So, I agree that in the perfect world, LPI comes first.  I submit that many firms focused on LPM first because it’s easier and — to be very cynical — consistent with the inefficient cost-plus business model that has prevailed for so long.  At the end of the day, while the  LPI/LPM order is optimal, it doesn’t really matter so long as at the conclusion of the LPM cycle, the focus on LPI actually occurs.  My experience is that dedicated and disciplined lesson learned to improve just completed processes doesn’t happen all that often.  Perhaps the best way to think of this is as a three step holistic and continuous cycle:  (1) plan/organize; (2) execute flawlessly; and (3) assess/improve.  Since it’s a continuous circle, it doesn’t really matter where you enter.    

    1. Carla Landry

      I agree with your assessment about the relationship between LPM and LPI, although if one manages to “execute flawlessly” there’s even less likelihood that one would think there’s any need for the lesson learned discipline or exercise. Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s rare anything is executed flawlessly, so there should often be opportunities to improve any process. I think there are many factors that contribute to the fact that most firms have pursued LPM before LPI, including your suggestion. Nonetheless, most firms did choose to pursue LPM first and many of those firms are still not looking at improving processes. I also agree that it is, or should be, a continuous cycle and you can jump in anywhere. As I mentioned in a blog last fall, “the point is to get started somewhere….”

  2. Catherine Alman MacDonagh, JD

    Great article, Carla, thanks. I just posted and tweeted. I agree with you and also have this to add: what makes learning and implementing PI and PM much easier is 1) do so in the context of what works in professional services and 2) do that while delivering a project. Exponential!

    1. Carla Landry

      Thanks Catherine! You’re right, it’s much easier to implement when delivering a
      project. …and to do so in the context of whatever industry you’re in makes it much more applicable.

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