Lawyers do not make projects

One of the concepts that causes most damage, when trying to implement a legal services management system, is the idea that lawyers make projects. Defining the work of a lawyer as a “project” creates a set of false assumptions, although difficult to identify at first, which generates a snowball effect around which only problems appear.

Some of the initial proposals for Legal Project Management focus all their efforts on stablishing an equivalence between the practices of the engineering world and the legal world. Even highly praised books, such as “Legal Project Management in One Hour for Lawyers” by Pamela Holdow, fall into this error.

To understand the problem, you must understand what the engineers and technicians who defined methods and frameworks such as PMBoK or PRINCE2 tried to achieve. In case you are not familiar with them, PMBoK is a process guide for project management, produced by the Project Management Institute, the largest professional association of project managers in the world; PRINCE2 is a project management standard of the British government.

A project, according to PMBoK, is “an effort, limited in time, to build a unique outcome”. This definition may seem to fit some of the work that is done in a law firm, but if you look closely, you will see that this is not the case.

The first part seems clear: a project is an effort limited in time. A lawsuit is an effort limited in time. The resolution of a divorce is a time-limited effort. The liquidation of assets in a bankruptcy proceeding is a time-limited effort. All of these scenarios are executed by lawyers and have a defined time frame: they start on one date and end on another.

The problem lies in understanding the difference between the concept of a time frame for an engineering project, such as those managed with the PMBoK or PRINCE2, and the time frame of a legal “project”, as faced by a lawyer. In an engineering project, the investors or sponsors want to achieve a specific result within a time frame, with a fixed budget. Their main concern is that there are no surprises or deviations, so the techniques applied by the project manager are designed to reduce uncertainty: uncertainty with suppliers, with costs, with deadlines or with the understanding of requirements.

To this end, PMBoK places great emphasis on the planning phase. The approach is that, if the requirements are well taken and a robust plan is made around consolidated engineering practices and reliable suppliers, it will be possible to build the proposed work within a specific time frame, with a predictable budget and a result that confirms the initial specifications. This is what an engineering “project” means, which has nothing to do with the reality of the “legal project”.

When a divorce action is filed, for example, the lawyer does not know exactly what the plaintiff wants, which may be to protect his/her patrimony, the stability of his/her children, his/her financial future or simply to get revenge on the person who has betrayed him/her emotionally. Nor do we know what the opposing party will do. There is no way to define the defendant as a stakeholder with understandable guidelines, motivations and objectives. To begin with, because you are rarely going to have his/her collaboration to understand them, write them down and make them compatible with the interests of the plaintiff you represent as a lawyer.

When a civil lawsuit is filed, we do not know the dates the court will set the oral hearing for the parties, what the opposing party’s arguments will be, or what the judge or jury’s decision will be. We do not know what the cost of expert witnesses or expert reports will be. We do not know if it will be necessary to go to the appeal in the second instance, to raise a question of constitutionality or to file a final appeal to the Supreme Court.

In short, the lawyer cannot compromise a result in any way and the lawyer who says he can guarantee the result of a lawsuit to his client is misleading him and practicing with a notable lack of business and professional ethics.

What the lawyer can offer is his best advice and experience for every challenge his client may present, whether it is a divorce suit, the formalization of a contract or the defense in a criminal trial. All these scenarios have a concrete and unique objective: the defense of the client’s interests. But this objective cannot be parameterized in terms of pages or interventions, but in terms of guidelines and claims.

Therefore, any attempt to treat a “legal project” as a “project”, with the process planning and monitoring techniques of PMBoK or other similar frameworks, is doomed to failure from the outset.

The lawyer’s job is to provide legal advice to his client, which may be accompanied by the execution of tasks resulting in a deliverable, in the form of a business agreement, contract or judgment. But that document is not something that is built, like a ship or a house, but the emerging result of a process of negotiation, argumentation and analysis of compliance with the legal framework.

Although initially people with less training in this area may convince you that you have a “project” on your hands, as the work progresses you will see that all the effort to mitigate the risks as if you were building bridges or ships generates more and more problems. Reality will prevail over the forecasts and you will end up discarding all the initial investment in favor of a “fireman’s” job, extingishing the fires that arise.

As a result, the lawyer’s work is carried out, with few exceptions that I will comment on in another article, in an environment of extreme uncertainty that must be managed with techniques appropriate to that reality. Legal Scrum does so by starting with a task oriented work management framework, using Kanban boards as outlined in the guide Kanban for lawyers. A kanban board allows for the monitoring and follow-up of continuous work around a process, normally conditioned by procedural or administrative laws.