The evolution of project managers in law

Evolution Project Managers In Law

Professor Richard Susskind will be delivering the 25th Annual Lecture of the Society for Computers in Law in London on 6th October.  Richard will be assessing predictions made in his book The Future of Law, published 20 years ago.  He will also be making some further predictions about the future of law and IT.

I will be going to the lecture, as it is always interesting to hear what Richard has to say.  News of the lecture prompted me to pull down my copy of the Future of Law from my bookshelf, to remind myself what it said about project management.

The Future of Law briefly touched upon the role of project management when delivering legal IT systems (see p235).  After listing some key project management principles (budgeting, planning and resource management) Richard called for legal IT projects to be led by project managers.  He stated that although this appeared to be rather obvious, many organisations were not doing this at that time.  The impression given is that back then many legal IT projects were either not managed properly or not managed at all as discrete projects.

The quick re-read of The Future of Law got me thinking.  I have been a project manager in law for over 20 years.  What, if anything, do I think has changed during that time?

 

 1. The principle of applying project management to legal IT is now accepted

Strange to think that 20 years ago it was not uncommon to find law firms attempting to implement significant IT systems (whether new systems or upgrades) without the help of project managers.  Nowadays law firms which do not employ full-time project managers buy-in project management expertise for the duration of their IT project.  The risk and consequences of project failure are now too well known and too great to do otherwise.

The Association for Project Management (APM) has a strategic aim for ‘a world in which all projects succeed’.  It is an understatement to say we are still quite some way off achieving this, especially in connection with IT projects.  Nevertheless, it is fair to say that IT projects are generally much better managed, and implemented more successfully as a result, than they were 20 years ago.

 

2. Core technical skills required of project managers remain the same

Scoping, budgeting, planning, risk management, resource management, monitoring progress and reporting.  These were the core skills and tasks asked of project managers 20 years ago. While the basic requirements remain the same, much more is now demanded of project managers if their projects are to be successful.

I highlight below what I think are the three most important attributes of today’s successful legal IT project managers.  Collectively these attributes amount to greater commercial awareness and a willingness to take the initiative at problem solving.

 

3. Three attributes of successful legal IT project managers today

Domain knowledge

The debate between the merits of generalist project managers compared to project managers with domain knowledge is an ever recurring one.  As a non-practising solicitor with experience of legal software development and project management I am bound to be biased.  I think it helps enormously if project managers understand how lawyers go about their work and how various legal IT systems can help them and their clients.  Project managers with domain knowledge can quickly establish empathy with, and acquire the trust of, key stakeholders.  They can also quickly grasp the prevailing culture, which can differ between firms and indeed between different departments within firms.  All this can then be used from an early stage in the project to help shape change management activity designed to promote acceptance of new systems and procedures.

Interestingly at p236 of the Future of Law Richard talks about ‘hybrid managers’.  He was talking about the need for senior IT managers to be able to understand both the technology and the businesses they are supporting.  This is another concept which has become accepted since.  Indeed, I think it is now applied more widely affecting expectations of project managers as well as IT directors.

 

Solution delivery

I think 20 years ago it was much more acceptable for project managers to plan and schedule project tasks and then escalate most project issues up the management hierarchy.  No longer.  Project planning alone does not suffice.  Project managers are required to at least propose and cost alternate solutions to project issues.  More often they are also expected to take the initiative and solve project problems within the limits of their authority.  It is worth noting as an aside that, in the absence of authorisation limits recorded in the project mandate, senior management tend to believe project managers have greater authority to act than the project managers do!

 

Communication skills

This probably deserves a complete blog post by itself, but for now I will provide just a few examples of how I think expectations have changed in the last 20 years or so.

Sending a regular project status report around to all key stakeholders by project managers is seen as an important and valued task, just as it was 20 years ago.  A status report will usually summarise: work completed to date compared to work planned, project costs to date compared to costs planned, top risks and issues along with a quick heads-up about future project activity.  All good stuff – except it is often no longer enough.  For example, not all key stakeholders will open the weekly email from a project manager and read the attached status report.  There is little to be gained by blaming stakeholders for this.  Hence the onus is on project managers to adapt or change the way project status information is delivered or presented if the communication is to be effective.  This could mean changing content, format or mode of delivery.  Believe me it’s not easy to monitor, review and change modes of communication during a project when time is short and stress levels are high.  Nevertheless, this is what needs to happen to ensure all key stakeholders remain fully engaged with the project.

Project managers have always had to be the bearers of bad news concerning project problems.  A frequent occurrence nowadays is to see project managers mediating between stakeholders, including suppliers and purchasers.  Project managers can, and should, take the initiative regards ‘difficult’ project conversations.  In the present context project managers who have credibility with lawyers, law firm managers and suppliers are particularly well placed to initiate these conversations.  Ultimately it is for senior stakeholders to arrive at decisions which have significant commercial consequences, but project managers can help by scouting out the options and promoting solutions most likely to get widespread acceptance.

 

What does the future hold?

In business, as in life generally, the pace of change is speeding up.  Hence I think all organisations, including law firms, need to become more Agile as a result.  I have blogged about this previously, but suffice to say here I think an agile mindset and an appreciation of agile principles is becoming more important to project managers in the short-medium term.

Although this blog post and The Future of Law are largely concerned with legal IT, it is worth noting that Richard has also been a strong advocate of applying project management principles to the delivery of legal services (see previous posts here and here).  Now that every law firm relies on IT to such a fundamental degree, the line between IT ‘support’ systems and legal service delivery itself is becoming ever more blurred.  Given the increasing applicability of A.I systems in law this blurring is likely to increase in future.

In his latest book, The Future of The Professions (co-authored with his son Daniel), Richard suggests how specialist legal expertise may be made available more widely:

It will be down to others (for example a new breed of project manager) to integrate expert output with, say, that of para professionals or online services

Perhaps Richard will expand upon this during his lecture?

In any event it seems there will be a continued, and probably increasing, role for people with project management skills in the development of legal service delivery.

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