From Construction to the Law

What the legal industry can learn from construction – a series of short proposals

The parallels jump out at once: Both the construction industry and big litigation are tasked with delivering complex, expensive projects for clients. Managers in both industries need to balance time, cost and quality. But whereas the construction industry has mature, sophisticated methods to manage all three factors, litigators can often only manage one – quality. The reputation, however unfairly it may be applied, is that litigators often fail at time and cost management. (Or at the very least they aren’t very good at communicating their successes.)

That deficit can be bridged by borrowing structure, tools and processes from the construction industry. In my first post, here, I focus on structure – ie. how a client engaging a law firm to run litigation might do so in the same way a property developer might engage a contractor to build an apartment complex. In future posts I will explore certain processes and the management tools that could also be migrated from construction to the law.

On the whole my suggestions are not for the adoption of new technology. They are for straightforward reforms to process, planning and communication. Where technology is suggested it is rudimentary. (For instance the Gantt chart, a visual method of communicating process and resourcing, is over 100 years old.) For all the speed that technology is advancing, it must be coupled with the relatively mundane reforms to create wide reaching and robust change.

I also do appreciate that just because an idea is sensible or simplistic, it doesn’t mean that it is easy to implement, especially in the notoriously inert legal system. The legal and construction industries are not exactly akin. For one, the lawyer-client relationship does make us somewhat special. We cannot draw direct parallels between the very commercial, arms length contract relations in construction, and the fiduciary, personal relationships between lawyers and clients. Practical issues of confidentiality and privilege also complicate some of the multi-party structures and division of speciality tasks.

Nonetheless, in large litigation there is obviously a significant commercial element which does overlap with construction projects. I am not the first to point out that lawyers typically don’t have great project management skills, or that clients are often very frustrated that they did not feel in control, or that the process was more expensive and took longer than they had anticipated. I believe there is a more successful middle ground which is closer to the contracting models in construction than where the legal industry currently sits. The push towards value-pricing in some firms is an early sign of that shift. I think a combination of new business models, legal technologies, regulatory reform and legal design will continue to push the industry towards more client-friendly, client-focused models. The construction industry, for all its rough edges and dark corners, provides a useful guide on which to base some of those changes.

3 Replies to “From Construction to the Law”

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