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Chapter 1 – The Distinctions Between Traditional and Legal Project Management

By Tiago Lourenco 12 Jun 2024
Chapter 1 – The Distinctions Between Traditional and Legal Project Management

My loyal reader, I couldn't be more excited to talk about not just one but two elements that I am most passionate about: traditional project management (PM) and legal project management (LPM). They both fall under the same umbrella, intertwined in ways that make every process of this industry the most interesting to those who love PM.

project management illustration

Traditional Project Management Approach  

If you are not a project manager, do not worry; I will try to simplify it as much as possible. When combined, all the nuances and frameworks will develop into PM as we know it. Nearly all our daily routine can be classified as PM when the adequate processes and methodologies are correctly applied i.e. a birthday party, a weekend trip, when looking for a job, cleaning, etc.  

According to PMI1, the basic definition of project management is "the practice of using knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to complete a series of tasks to deliver value and achieve a desired outcome."  

The questions often asked by random people are:  

"What does a project manager do?"  

"It is so broad; what industry are you in?"  

"I always thought that was a made-up role."  

Questions are part of this industry, strangers who don't have the expertise and organisational skills to lead a project with efficiency. Until not too long ago, project management's methodologies and processes were recognised and accredited, which never means we've forgiven you; it is a trendy profession that just works. We tend to apply methodologies and processes to our daily lives and not only our jobs; some might even say we're all part of a cult!  

To begin, a quick reminder that magic stays in Hogwarts. In the project management basic foundation, there are three factors to consider when asking the question whether you have a project or not, this is called Triple Constraint2.

Triple Constraint

A framework for evaluating competing demands. Project managers often talk of a "triple constraint" – project scope, time and cost – in managing competing project requirements.

PMI states that there are more constraints than just the above 3 to take into account, but the most well-known and referenced of all are time, scope, and cost. In conjunction, sources say that most projects fail due to many factors. However, Baratta concluded regarding the triple constraints (2006) by saying, "It is a model that is both wrong and not useful." I will not go into too much detail on this topic because it is enough for another article on its own.  

Delivery Quality Indicators

The next step, once a project is recognised as a project, is to understand the 'areas of control' of a project. We could call them 'delivery quality indicators.' They are:

Scope: It is the embodiment of what constitutes a project. It is the work invested in a project to deliver a service, a product, or a result with certain specific features and functions.  

Time: The duration of a project from the planning phase all the way to completion.  

Quality: It refers to the standards you uphold in the delivery of the project. ISO 9000 has created a separate section under the quality standards umbrella, in this section you will find the ISO 10006 specific standards for projects called "Guidelines for quality management in projects."  

Resources: These are the necessary assets needed to perform a task or complete a project. For example, those can be people, tools, software, a team, finances and time.  

If we look at the Project Management Institute's "A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)" (2008): "The relationship among these factors is such that if any one-factor changes, at least one other factor is likely to be affected. For example, if the schedule is shortened, the budget often needs to be increased to add additional resources to complete the same amount of work in less time. If a budget increase is not possible, the scope or quality may be reduced to deliver a product in less time for the same budget. Project stakeholders may have differing ideas as to which factors are the most important, creating an even greater challenge. Changing the project requirements may create additional risks. The project team must be able to assess the situation and balance the demands in order to deliver a successful project" (p. 7).  

In essence, there are various routes you can take when delivering a project, as well as different methodologies and processes that fit projects perfectly depending on what they are. There are multiple methodologies that will fit different types of projects. For instance, these approaches are Waterfall, Agile, Scrum, PRINCE2, Kanban, Lean and Six Sigma. On top of that, a project has different phases:  

  1. Initiating
  2. Planning
  3. Executing
  4. Monitoring and Controlling
  5. Closing

While the process focuses mainly on plan-driven project management, many of the concepts are similar and are applicable towards agile projects as well. How does it all translate into Legal Project Management (LPM)?   

Legal project management is, in simple words, the application of project management processes and methodologies toward legal matters. It is the art of meticulously translating traditional frameworks, project risks, resource allocation and stakeholder management toward legal matters and specific legal processes.  

In the landscape of legal project management (LPM), as an industry is still relatively new, a positive and notable shift is happening. Law firms are starting to realise that the demand will only increase for legal project professionals: the shift comes from clients' demands for a level of service with quality and professionalism that aligns with the substantial legal fees being charged. After all, there's nothing better than customer satisfaction to ensure a healthy bottom line.  

Very similarly to traditional frameworks, the initial step in LPM is to understand and define scope. Once the scope is defined, the 'quality indicators' will come in to give the project a structure and balance.  

I ask: why is LPM beneficial? Lawyers and other professionals in the legal environment can testify that clients are more aware of the fact that they need to see the quality of service when skipping to the end of the process just to reach a resolution; most times, it can be frustrating and costly. By recognising a legal case as a project, the structure and method will help mould the fabric of law firms in the UK, and applying project management methods can bring certainty that the firm has the client's best interest at heart, but most importantly, it foresees risks, promotes trust and unforeseen charges beforehand allowing the client to think about their next steps wisely. Another positive aspect can be having time to allocate resources and budget, giving an early idea of resource and budget constraints.  

Appreciating the Subtle Differences  

I hear comments like: "Why is the legal sector so special that they can have their own title and other professions don't?" I have a couple of views that I'd like to share. When reading 'Elephant Post: Is It "Legal" Project Management or Just Project Management?' this article has different professionals giving their opinions on the subject:  

Steven B. Levy says: "There absolutely is a difference. Traditional project management is designed for construction, aerospace, manufacturing, and other such areas with horizontal and vertical task stability — you know in advance each of the tasks (vertical), and you know in advance how long each will take within a narrow range of variability (horizontal). Legal does not meet either of these requirements. The profession is getting noticeably better on the vertical axis, with clear identification of all of the tasks along with clear separation of them. However, in legal, as opposed to construction, say, you have a human adversary expending considerable effort to disrupt your plans."  

On the contrary, Jeffrey Brandt counterargues: "There is absolutely no such thing as 'legal project management.' Project management is project management. To label it with the industry it is being used in hyperbole. Good project management adapts to the project at hand. How much and what kinds of project management tools you use are as varied as the nature of the projects themselves. Legal has nothing unique in it that would require a special prefix on project management. While project management may have had its start in heavy industry and manufacturing, progressive service industries have also engaged and used it. Have you ever heard of a small company called PricewaterhouseCooper? What about another small company called Bank of America? Of course you have. Have you ever heard of FPM or financial project management? What about BPM or banking project management? I doubt you have. I certainly haven't. PwC and BoA have been using PM for ages on their projects. Is it the exact same kind of PM that law firms use or that NASA uses to build the next-generation space shuttle? No. Does that mean they need to prefix PM in order to make it relevant? No. The basic processes and benefits of project management are solid without being dressed up."  

I have a hybrid opinion on the subject. Anywhere project management methodology and processes are applied can be considered project management. This idea gives us the notion that, indeed, the 'legal' in legal project management is simply a stunt, a hyperbole.

RACI and LACI Matrix

Now, I'd be crazy to say that there aren't differences in the process of project management within a law firm. For example, in resource assignment, instead of using a RACI Matrix, law firms use a LACI Matrix:  

RACI Matrix 

R - Responsible for one person only

A - Accountable  

C - Consulted   

I - Informed  

LACI Matrix  

L - Leading one person only

A - Assisting  

C - Consulted  

I – Informed  

The first and second letters change their functions in the LACI Matrix. The assumption is that responsibility and accountability are attributes already embedded in each professional; those are expected. Instead, leading and assisting have more defined roles within a team and bring better clarity to those assigned to them.   

Another minor difference between PM and LPM involves the kick-off meeting where a product manager is appointed. You might ask: why isn't the actual project manager appointed as the project manager? It is very simple: the job title of LPM is so new, and the sector is so niche that a lawyer would generally take the role of PM. Only law firms of big names and means enough to come up with the role and ensure it is part of their yearly budget. Or perhaps smaller firms that have a more forward-thinking culture would implement the role and have an LPM in their team.  

In addition to my last point, law firms will only have one LPM and no team behind them for assistance. Those who are comfortable with the Scrum framework would raise their concerns, and a Scrum Master would probably squirm at the thought. In traditional PM, more so the Scrum Framework, there are a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 9 people, including the product owner (PO) and Scrum Master, working on the same project. These are professionals who are adept at delivering projects and experts enough that no external support is necessary (for the most part) and that protects the budget and keeps projects clear from undesired scope creeps. In LPM, the remaining roles of the PM would be filled by others in the legal team. A LACI Matrix would be essential to identify who those are and what they'd do within the project at hand.  

Now, as mentioned earlier in the article, law firms tend to neglect the initiation and planning phases of the project. It's a critical step; however, instead, they tend to focus on budgets and timelines. This is the switch in mentality needed; it's the reason why traditional project managers can be the answer to so many problems and be allowed into the legal sector to fix the cracks in the processes and re-mould the culture from within. Clients won't stand for missed opportunities from not having a phased process where their legal matter is looked after properly with no costly surprises. Think of it as a "legal matter process dialysis" where the redundant processes are discarded and all the PM phases and methodologies are implemented for efficiency.   

I had the privilege of speaking to Anna Marra, who was an important figure in the structural engineering of LPM, about the topic in question. She's based in Madrid, Spain, where she works as a 'Deputy Chair of the International Institute of Legal project Management and Trainer & Consultant on LPM & LPI'.  

She mentioned the difficulty of infiltrating the legal industry if you're from a different background. However, despite this difficulty, change has occurred, and we have multidisciplinary legal issues, especially in large law firms and legal departments. It touches again upon the idea that a PM should be considered to help mould the fabric of legal matter processes.  

Another point of discussion was how each firm has its own processes, so it is important to understand that adaptability is key to making sure you have a successful project delivery and acceptance from colleagues. She emphasises my above point regarding the number of legal project professionals in some firms. She says, "Being conscious that large law firms can count with teams of 60-80 legal project managers, 93% of law firms in Spain and other European countries are made up of one person only." In addition, big lawyers in renowned law firms have too much on their hands dealing with the legal aspect of cases to worry about the PM side. So, we need to see how to train them in basic project management and set up productive communication channels with the LPM Team on both sides. She went on to say, "When projects have a huge scope, you need people with much more experience with project management than lawyers have, but collaboration between LPM and lawyers should be key for success. In smaller projects, every lawyer should be able to be the project manager of his own project. This is also true for small law firms, where lawyers have no other choice than becoming legal Project managers."  


In conclusion, it's evident that the legal sector is currently stable and functioning adequately. However, embracing a growth mindset prompts us to recognise the value of continuous improvement. Aligning legal matters with organised project management methodologies is crucial for upward thinking and relevance in today's dynamic markets. Evolution is not just beneficial but necessary for staying competitive in the ever-changing landscape of the legal industry.  

Reference Literature:

1. PMI. 2006. "The triple constraint."

2. Motion. 2024. "Everything You Need to Know About Legal Project Management."