Legal tasks, activities and even matters can be categorized into Simple, Complicated or Complex. Each is distinctly different; however only two of them can be defined, priced and managed.
Simple legal tasks, activities or matters are similar to baking a cake from a mix. You can develop a recipe that is pretty reliable and uses commonly measurements. There are some basic techniques that you need to learn, but after that if you follow the instructions these is a high likelihood of success. Law firm activities that fall into this category are the easiest to price and manage. If I need an estate plan, a SEC filing, or a trademark filed a firm should be in a good position to sell these services at a fixed cost, staff them with less costly people and manage them with checklists. See my blog posting on Checklists.
Complicated is like sending a rocket to the moon, open heart surgery, or building a skyscraper. After a few successful ones the entire process can be broken down into groups of Simple tasks. There isn’t exactly a recipe, but there can be a detailed and well-structured plan. Since there are more people involved and these people may have different areas of expertise, scheduling and communication become much more important. In complicated matters unanticipated issues will arise, they need to be dealt with, but in general, with enough experience the parties involved can handle or at least anticipate these and have additional resources on stand-by. Some of these tasks might require a very high level of skill, like the surgeon performing the open heart operation. The fact remains; these can be structured and therefore forecasted and budgeted within a reasonable range. A firm might look at any form of litigation as Complicated, for the most part it can be broken down into a series of relatively Simple tasks. Complicated matters are where a firm will gain the most with Legal Project Management and offering the client an Alternative Fee component to the engagement.
Complex has been compared to raising a child; we know it can be done with what would be considered successfully results. However, the skills and experiences necessary to raise the first child may not pertain to the second child. The second child may require a completely different approach. Complex brings with it the inability to forecast an outcome and lack of control. What is also unique about Complex is that the tasks to be accomplished, although hard to predict may not rise to the level of expertise as those in Complicated. Budgeting and forecasting Complex is almost impossible, regardless of experience. People handling Complex need to be flexible and not bothered by dealing in an unstructured environment. Matters that are Complex will never easily fit into any sort of fixed fee or real “project management” model.
Law firms can benefit by first understanding their lines of business using the above categories and then by pricing and managing them appropriately.