What attributes should firms look for in a legal project manager? This question was posed recently on the Legal Support Network’s (LSN) forum on LinkedIn. It generated a lot of interesting discussion. I regularly get asked similar questions by people thinking of becoming legal project managers. In this post I will summarise the advice I usually give. I will also explain why I believe it’s much preferable for legal project managers to have a background in law.
What are the core abilities, skills and attributes of project managers?
Let’s leave aside the legal aspect for a moment and begin by examining what makes a successful project managers per se. Project managers need to have:
- Technical Ability – this covers things like planning, scope management, scheduling, resource management and risk management. This short list is not exhaustive, but indicates the typical duties project managers are expected to perform. Project summary reports, RAID logs and Gantt charts are basic outputs from these duties. This is the kind of technical documentation people expect project managers to produce as evidence that a project is being managed properly.
- Skills – acquiring a basic understanding of the technical aspects of project management is relatively straightforward. Closely following project methods and completing various project templates is often the way most people start in project management. But it takes time and experience to develop the skills which make the application of technical tasks really effective. For example, project managers need to develop good influencing and negotiating skills in order to build successful project teams. They need to negotiate with line managers about access to staff and they need to be good influencers to help make sure the project team stays focused. Influencing and negotiating skills cannot be learned relatively easily or quickly in a classroom unlike, say, how to create a basic Gantt chart.
- Personal Attributes – most of the discussion in the LSN group centred on this aspect. For me the personal attribute which stands out the most is integrity. Honesty when dealing with others – the project team and other stakeholders – is absolutely vital. It is also important that project managers are seen to act consistently for the good of the project and sponsoring organisation. In extreme cases this can mean recommending aborting a project before completion. (Paradoxically an aborted project can be a sign of good, rather than poor, project management).
What makes the most successful project managers?
I have written previously about research which shows that high performing project managers distinguish themselves from averagely performing project managers as they:
- Are more effective communicators
- Spend twice as much time on planning
- Appreciate the value of – and exploit – domain knowledge (more on this later)
- Display greater readiness to assume authority
- Show stronger leadership capability
- Are better at managing conflict
I suggest that most of these traits, as with the skills referred to earlier, are acquired through experience.
Legal project managers: is legal experience a requirement or desirable?
It is now beyond doubt that lawyers themselves have to display good project management skills if they are to demonstrate competence as lawyers. However the LSN LinkedIn discussion was really about project manager specialists who work alongside lawyers. This has become a hot topic recently, after articles in The Lawyer (registration required to view content) and The Law Society’s Gazette drew attention to the fact that many of the larger law firms based in the City of London now employ legal project managers. (Although in fact this trend has not been confined to City based law firms).
The consensus in the LSN discussion was that although an understanding of lawyers and the legal process is not necessarily an essential requirement of legal project managers, it is highly desirable.
I know of people employed as legal project managers in large law firms and they do not have a legal background in the sense that they are former practitioners or have studied law as an academic discipline. Yet they do make an valuable contribution to the progress of legal matters when working alongside practising lawyers.
Over time project managers without a legal background do become familiar with some of the legal terminology and processes used by lawyers. They also become familiar with the culture of the department and firm they are working for. Inevitably all this takes time to acquire. Ideally therefore, in order to become effective soonest, legal project managers should have a mix of legal and project management knowledge and experience.
Well I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Being a former practising solicitor with project management skills acquired during a working lifetime spent in the legal sector you might expect me to place a lot of emphasis on legal knowledge. However, this view is not a result my cognitive bias alone. It is also based on recent experience.
Recently I have been acting as project manager outside the legal profession. This has been my first time ever working outside the legal industry. I have found that:
- Core project management skills and experience transfer well – the essentials of project management are indeed common across many industries.
- I have had to become familiar with new domain specific jargon and terminology in connection with some specialist aspects of the project concerned. This can be learned, but does take time to pick up and become comfortable with.
- It takes time to understand the culture of a specific industry sector. Shared assumptions (ie what goes unsaid) and how people communicate to each other does differ from industry to industry.
- Although I have a fairly detailed plan (represented by a Gantt chart of over 200 tasks) I must confess that sometimes I have been slow to fully appreciate where resources, time and effort can best be applied in some specialist areas of the project I have been running. Critical path scheduling and risk logs etc help, but they are no match for experience.
To the uninitiated the best project managers seem have an intuitive feel for prioritising tasks and focusing on what should be worked on with just the right level of resources. This is not intuition. That feel is the result of experience. It is the application of expertise that has been built up over many years. This is an intangible which goes beyond the Gantt chart. It is more than applying project management processes mechanically and by rote.
Project managers who can make their project fly, by applying project management techniques successfully, are good project managers. Those who can make their projects soar, by the additional application of domain knowledge and experience, are better.