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How to become an adaptive project professional in legal services

The Association for Project Management (APM) has released a short report called The Adaptive Project Professional.  This report, which is the final report of the APM’s ‘big conversation’ with project professionals over the past year, is certainly timely.

We are all having to adapt to the changing circumstances the Covid-19 pandemic continues to generate.  Adaptability is going to be a key, if not essential, attribute for us all over the next few years as the pandemic and its after effects play out.  This applies to the population at large, but perhaps even more so to project professionals.

Legal service organisations are looking to their project staff to help drive and implement a wide range of changes as they seek to navigate a path through the post-pandemic landscape.

Implementing changes in these uncertain times requires project staff to be adaptable. But how to become an adaptive project professional in legal services?

The APM’s report makes some high level recommendations about how to become an adaptive project professional. Its report is not directed at any one industry sector.  In this article I will highlight the the APM recommendations, and discuss them in the context of the legal services sector.


Three ideas to help shape the future of project professionals

The report is quite short and its approach is to ask questions, suggest ideas and prompt project professionals to think about how they can advance both their projects and careers over the next few years.

I want to focus on the first three of eight ideas the APM sets out to help guide the future development of project management and project professionals (if you would like to learn about the other five ideas then simply download a copy of the APM’s report – its well worth reading).

The first three ideas are:

  1. Project Management is, by its nature, an adaptive profession and as such project professionals should consciously try and develop their adaptive ability
  2. More work needs to be done to build pipelines for new entrants into the project management profession
  3. We need to strengthen the culture of project professionalism, including the promotion of continuous learning.


Adaptive project professionals in legal services

The report suggests that project professionals build an ‘adaptive mindset’.  One way of doing this is to develop

meta-competencies – over arching skills which are separate from, but supportive of, the specific skills to do the job.

I have written before about some specific skills required of legal project managers, and I do like the APM’s reference to ‘meta-competencies’, such as resilience and anticipating and creating change.

Meta-competencies can sound a bit nebulous, so lets try and give the idea some substance.  Take resilience as an example.  It is an under rated but essential attribute of good project managers.  Frankly, it can be a real slog to get projects completed as there are inevitably set-backs from project inception to completion.  Hence successful project completion requires a lot of resilience from project managers.

Resilience is something which we can build up and draw on over time.  Each of us can build up our reserves of resilience  by doing things such as taking time out to reflect on the effectiveness of what we do (phase and end of project review meetings are ideal for this), and taking steps to manage our physical and mental well being.

Personally I enjoy taking regular exercise (running, gym work and golf) and I watch what I eat (I am a vegetarian).  I find running especially helps me think clearly, feel well and ready to take on the slings and arrows life, including projects, throws at us.


Development of pipelines for legal project professionals

The APM is, quite rightly, promoting the idea of building career pipelines for people who want to become project managers.  The talent pipelines need to vary.  Some will need to accommodate young entrants at the start of their working lives while other must cater for ‘more mature mid-career switchers’.

Focusing on legal project management, I am pleased to see law firms taking steps to attract and develop aspiring legal project managers.  For example, Linklaters offers trainee legal operations management roles (including legal project management), and Clifford Chance runs a legal project manager apprenticeship scheme.

I also know of law firms which have recruited professional project managers from outside the legal services industry into legal project manager roles and firms which have developed legal project managers from within by providing training and experience to, say, some of its Professional Support Lawyers (PSLs).

So the good news is there are career pipelines into legal project management and it is reasonable to expect that over time they will become more numerous and more developed.


Strengthening the culture of project professionalism

The APM report also talks about improving support for professionals to ‘train, retrain and keep learning throughout their careers’.

The APM suggests two skill areas which it believes will be critical over the next 5 – 10 years:

  1. New Technology
  2. Leadership and People Skills.

I am assuming the APM is itself assuming that most readers of its report will already have core project management skills.  The APM’s assumption does not, in my view, apply to the legal services sector.

Generally the sector has relatively low levels of project maturity compared to other sectors.  Lawyers do not to receive any formal training about project management during the academic or professional stage of their training.

This means the legal sector has been rather slow to appreciate the benefits the project management discipline can bring. Which means it has been slow to apply project methods consistently and effectively, especially regarding matter management.

Awareness of legal project management has risen a lot over the last 5 years or so.  However there is still a long way to go before the legal services sector applies project methods in ways comparable to, say, the software development sector.

Clearly project professionals need to keep abreast of new technology.  For legal project managers this does not necessarily mean knowing the operational detail of particular software packages.  Rather it means we need to understand what different classes of software (such as data analytics and workflow software) can do and how each may be applied to best effect in different practice areas or matters.

Leadership and people skills are also essential, and its clear to me that more legal project managers are assuming higher profile leadership roles.


Growing professionalism and recognition of legal project managers

Arguably in the early days of legal project management, legal project managers were seen as primarily meeting (or diary) organisers and collectors of data to format into status update reports.  Organising and running effective meetings and producing timely project status reports are still important tasks, but the role of legal project manager has now expanded significantly beyond this.

The past two annual surveys of legal project managers by the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM) has shown that legal project managers now assume greater responsibility than they once did.  For example, more legal project managers are involved early in matter scoping so they can help shape the scoping exercise and its outcome.

Some law firms, such as Pinsent Masons, not only deploy legal project managers on their own matters, but offer them as a chargeable resource for hire to third parties.  Clearly the law firms concerned can see the value in their legal project managers and are confident of being able to sell that value to prospective buyers.

Another illustration of the growing professionalism and value of legal project managers is that many senior legal project managers believe they should be afforded the same levels of pay and recognition as senior associates (see the the IILPM 2020 survey of legal project managers).  Senior legal project managers contend the work they do is just as complex and just as valuable to their law firms and clients as the work done by their senior associate colleagues.


The value of IILPM certifications

Given the emphasis placed in the APM report on continued learning, it would be remiss of me not to point out a few things about IILPM training and certifications.

IILPM accredited trainers (of which I am one) have trained and certified legal project managers in over 45 countries to date.  The IILPM’s 4-Phase Legal Project Management Framework and Competency Model for Legal Project Managers forms the basis for our training and certification.  This is supplemented by IILPM industry surveys and best practice guides.

On my legal project management certification courses I cover legal technology, team management and leadership skills.  I do this after explaining trends in the legal services industry and demonstrating how core project management concepts can be applied to matter management.

I am often asked whether an IILPM certification in legal project management will help secure a role as a legal project manager.  What I say in response is that I know for certain some people I have trained have gone on to secure legal project manager roles after acquiring IILPM certification.  Some were professional project managers who transitioned into the legal services industry and some were already working within legal services but not as legal project managers.  The rider I always give is that there cannot be any guarantees as it does not always follow all IILPM graduates are able, or want to, become legal project managers.

Some heads of legal project management have said to me the fact that someone has taken time to do a legal project management certification course marks them out as wanting to make a career in the field.  As such they are naturally of interest as potential candidates for legal project manager roles.

Being able to demonstrate commitment to continued learning and adaptability is more than a cliché it seems.  It can have a positive effect on your personal career development.

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