Some lawyers still resist legal project management (LPM). An earlier generation thought they could ignore e-mail. I view LPM like e-mail: inevitable for both inside and outside counsel. In this post, I discuss an intriguing LPM tool.

At Legal Tech last week, I met with executives of ERM Legal Solutions (“ERM LS”), which offers an intriguing LPM tool. The company focuses on the legal market now but has roots in and serves multiple markets. The horizontal focus is good. While lawyers need customized interfaces, which ERM LS offers, they can benefit from and apply project management techniques honed elsewhere.

The company’s software uses either a template or custom-built project plan. To custom-build a plan, lawyers write one using an outline metaphor via an on-screen yellow pad. For each element of the plan, the project manager must specify the appropriate resource (type of timekeeper), estimate the hours required, and spell out the sequence of work. Once that is defined, the system presents each timekeeper with a list of his or her tasks – from that new project as well as from others – in priority order. It also has a dashboard so that the lawyer in charge or project manager can monitor overall progress, including budget versus actual.

Patented algorithms drive resource allocation. As timekeepers indicate they have finished a task and report their hours for it, the system dynamically updates the overall plan. For example, an associate may see several pending tasks from multiple projects on her list. The system shows tasks in priority order and which are ready for action. As other timekeepers finish their work, the priority order of tasks in one or many projects may change.

As important, the system generates alerts for project managers and lawyers in charge to highlight which tasks may be over budget or at risk for going over budget. It also provides an overview of organization-wide resource allocation which is constantly re-prioritized in real time. And finally, law firms can share selected aspects of the plan with their clients through a web based portal.

I am not a professional project manager and I spent only one hour with ERM LS, so the most I can say is that company offers a promising approach. Two large firms – Perkins Coie and Baker Donelson – are considering piloting the software. Additionally, ERM LS tells me that their LegalTech demonstrations have yielded three other large firms eager to explore piloting the software.

Legal project management is not just for law firms. I hope that in-house counsel, who need LPM just as much as law firms do, also consider it. Corporate legal departments can leverage efficiencies with all their outside law firms with this tool.

I have two reservations to share. First, some screens seem too busy, though I suspect that lawyers will either adapt or ERM LS can simplify, consistent with each firm’s preferred user view. And second, lawyers may resist the idea that “the computer tells me what to do” in that the software presents tasks in a suggested order. That, however, is a human problem and one likely true of any good LPM tool. Proper project management means letting the project plan inform lawyers what to do. The system appears to have the flexibility to allow lawyers to change priorities though doing so will ripple through the project plan and all other project plans – as well it should.

LPM is much more a mindset and approach than it is software. But for those with the right mindset and approach, effective software eases the effort. For large law firms and law departments, the market does not offer that many LPM software choices. I am glad to see a promising new one. Comments from anyone who has evaluated it in more detail are, of course welcome.

[Updated (9 Feb 2011): For another review of ERM LS, see Toby Brown’s post 9 Feb 2011 post, A New LPM / AFA Tool on the Market.]