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Legal Portfolio Management vs Legal Project Management: clearing up the confusion

This article is the second of a three-part series on Legal Project Management. Read the first and second articles. 

There is a lot to be gained from Legal Project Management (LPM), from reduced stress to improved efficiency and clarity of client outcomes. However, since LPM started to be acknowledged a decade ago there is still relatively little penetration today.

The first article in this series introduced a rationale for LPM and went on to discuss the challenges that law firms face when developing programs to embed LPM into the firm. The second article deep dived into the basic  concepts, creating the awareness and understanding of LPM that is required for lawyers to start the change journey.

Here, we examine the related (and sometimes confused) disciplines of Legal Portfolio Management (LPortMgt) and LPM – to help us better understand and benefit from both.

Legal Portfolio Management IS NOT the same as Legal Project Management

Lawyers often mix up the concepts of LPM and LPortMgt. Indeed, I had a small group of lawyers mostly Partners and sole practitioners come along to my introductory workshops on LPM only to discover that what they really needed to understand was LPortMgt. Some of these attendees were somewhat perplexed and disgruntled when they realised that LPM is very different to LPortMgt. 

Anecdotally, I would say that the primary need is portfolio management in only around 5% to 10% of the attendees. And, so far at least, the attendees have completed the workshops and taken away foundational concepts in LPM.

What is Legal Portfolio Management?

A legal portfolio is a collection of legal projects or matters that are related and will benefit from co-ordinated oversight.  LPortMgt improves the efficient and effective delivery of legal project outcomes across the portfolio. It also enables the clear management of priorities and resources across all matters in the portfolio to ensure that all outcomes and milestones are delivered. 

The primary reason for managing legal projects as part of a portfolio is that more benefits can be achieved by managing the matters as an integrated set, as opposed to managing them individually. The concept of LPortMg is critical in the efficient and effective allocation of resources and juggling of priorities across a suite of legal projects and matters. 

Research from the Project Management Institute in the traditional field of project management indicates that projects undertaken in an organisation with highly effective portfolio management are 36% more likely to deliver on time, 19% per cent more likely to be completed on budget, and 18% more likely to achieve business outcomes and objectives.

Within the context of LPM, Partners and practice leaders typically have oversight of a portfolio of matters that are being worked on by a dedicated team. In-house Counsel and General Counsel typically have oversight of a portfolio of matters being worked on by both their in-house legal teams, as well as matters allocated to external counsel. LPortMgt supports both scenarios.

Drivers and benefits of Legal Portfolio Management

The primary drivers of LPortMgt is different for In-house Counsel, External Counsel and Small Firms or Sole Practitioners.

In-house Counsel need to ensure legal outcomes are aligned to their organisation’s strategy and major programs of work.

The primary driver for In-house Counsel is resource allocation to ensure all priorities and legal outcomes can be achieved to support the overall organisational strategy.

The key benefits are:

  • adequate legal resources are available to meet the delivery timeframes and major milestones for all legal projects or legal work streams
  • the identification of additional resourcing requirements that may be filled on a temporary basis
  • oversight of the allocation and progress of major matters where external counsel are engaged. 

External Counsel, particularly partners in medium to large firms, have quite different drivers and benefits.

The primary driver is to ensure resource allocation enables successful delivery on client and contractual commitments, as well as maintaining overall financial viability of their practice.

The key benefits are:

  • adequate legal resources are available to meet delivery timeframes and major milestones for all legal matters 
  • improved management of client expectations and delivery on client objectives
  • fulfilment of portfolio-based reporting for major clients with significant legal matter portfolios
  • improved workforce planning to predict future demand and hiring.

External Counsel, particularly partners in small firms or sole practitioners, again have different drivers and benefits.

The primary driver is to manage individual effort allocation to ensure delivery on client expectations and milestones, while managing expectations regarding delivery dates and priorities. The need to maintain the viability of their business is also critical.

The key benefits are:

  • the prevention of effort over allocation and slippage of delivery dates
  • visibility of major milestones across all client matters to ensure delivery and prioritisation of work effort 
  • improved management of client expectations
  • delivery on client objectives. 

Legal Portfolio Management capabilities

A basic set of capabilities are required in order to effectively implement LPortMgt. These are: 

  1.  Portfolio Planning – to ensure alignment to strategy, identification of all legal projects and matters, prioritisation across the portfolio, and analysis and reporting.
  2.  Workforce Planning – to ensure the identification and allocation of resources to legal projects and matters, and monitor and balance resource allocation and utilisation.
  3. Legal Project Management – by applying LPM techniques to each matter in the portfolio, correctly scoping, scheduling and costing, and controlling changes and variations.
  4. Practice Management – to manage resources and legal projects as a portfolio, and optimise resource utilisation across practices and the firm or department.
  5. People Management – the adoption of flexible people management approaches, and encouragement of adaptable leadership, leading to improved quality of legal outcomes and individual lawyer performance.
  6. Communication – to manage stakeholder expectations, manage client objectives, and ensure sufficient communication within the team.

It takes some time to understand and embed these disciplines and knowledge areas into legal practices. I’ve observed that the most successful and happy lawyers are the ones that have a degree of ‘natural’ talent in the area of project management. 

You can, of course, develop your talents in these disciplines. I encourage you to purchase my book on Legal Project Management as it maps out the basic LPM Framework above and provides more advanced concepts to transform the way lawyers work.

About Therese Linton, Principal and Founder, Basalt Group

Therese is a global leader in the field of LPM and project management capability building.Her book Legal Project Management can be purchased from LexisNexis and Booktopia. For the past 10 years she has been developing legal project management competency frameworks for major commercial firms, the Law Society of NSW and the College of Law, delivering successful outcomes through face to face training programs and workshops.As part of this work she developed a ground-breaking Legal Project Management Competency Framework. New developments include the upcoming launch of LPM online education and certification programs.

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