As noted in my last post, many practising lawyers are wary of ceding operational control…
In this post I highlight 10 developments and trends in legal project management which have occurred over the last 10 years.
This year marks the 10th year I have been providing training and consultancy services in legal project management (LPM) and legal process improvement (LPI).
What developments have I seen over the last 10 years and what trends are likely to endure?
1. Legal Project Management is here to stay
Starting with the most obvious: legal project management is a well established feature of legal services, and it is here to stay.
This was not so obvious ten years ago. I remember back then I nearly always had to explain to lawyers what LPM is and how it can benefit them and their clients.
There is much less need for me to do this basic level of explanation now.
Everyone working in legal services has heard of legal project management and far fewer lawyers need to be convinced about the benefits of LPM.
More lawyers than ever before have either experienced the benefits of LPM directly, or they have seen what their colleagues, and sometimes competitor firms, have been able to achieve with LPM.
Nowadays initial discussions about LPM usually revolve around questions such as:
- How can we best make a start with LPM?
- How can we develop our existing LPM capability?
- How can we improve the legal project management skills of our staff?
- How can I become a legal project manager?
2. Legal Project Managers are also here to stay
This follows on from the point above but, again, this was not so obvious 10 or even 7 years ago.
It soon became apparent in early adopter firms (which were mostly very large law firms) that LPM was benefitting them and their clients. But how could they best propagate and grow it?
One school of thought was to have all lawyers trained on LPM.
Another was to employ legal project managers, embed them in legal practice departments and then have the legal project managers work alongside their practising lawyer colleagues helping to manage matters and develop LPM maturity.
The latter approach gained in popularity. It is now probably the default approach in the larger law firms.
Generally, smaller law firms still prefer to train a core group of lawyers and develop their firm-wide LPM capability by having these lawyers act as legal project managers, with part of their remit to help promote LPM further throughout the firm.
Whichever way it is done, there are now far more law firms than there were 10 years ago where employees either have the job title of legal project manager or have the role of legal project manager.
3. Legal Project Manager role and career path
As legal project management was being developed in the early years there was a lack of clarity concerning what the role of legal project manager should involve.
It was not uncommon to find newly appointed legal project managers being asked to help project manage live matters, run process improvement projects, train colleagues about legal project management, and help present to prospective clients.
Besides being a lot of work, this also requires a very broad range of skills and experience to do properly. Because LPM was so new, there were few people with the requisite experience in the role to do all this work properly, even if they had the time to do it (which they didn’t).
Over the last few years as legal project management maturity has developed, people have a clearer understanding of what legal project managers should be doing and what, realistically, they can be expected to achieve.
Large law firms now have groups of legal project managers, with titles such as
- Trainee Legal Project Managers,
- Legal Project Co-ordinators,
- Junior Legal Project Managers and
- Senior Legal Project Managers.
There is now a clearer career path for legal project managers to follow and a lot of thought, time and effort now goes into the professional development of legal project management teams.
4. Rise of Legal Operations
More recently larger law firms have created legal operations departments made up of legal project managers, legal process improvement specialists and front-office legal technologists.
This makes sense, as developing effective and efficient delivery of legal services to clients is a team game requiring a range of skills and experience.
The term Legal Operations has been most often associated with in-house legal teams, but it’s not confined to this area of legal practice.
5. Pressure on legal project manager resourcing
In the largest law firms, including those which have invested heavily in LPM, there is an approximate ratio of one legal project manager for every hundred practising lawyers at the firm.
This illustrates the challenge facing heads of legal project management departments as demand for their teams’ services grows.
There are three ways of trying to meet this demand, none of which are mutually exclusive:
- Recruit and / or develop internally more legal project managers
- Pivot back more towards training more practising lawyers about LPM
- Look for ways to distribute and scale up the knowledge and skills of legal project managers, such as by deploying LPM templates, supporting software and promoting a degree of self-service.
Each approach comes with its own opportunities and challenges.
In practice we are now seeing a blend of all three approaches being applied. The net result is that law firms of all sizes (see below) are becoming more clearly defined and recognised as project driven organisations.
6. Legal Project Management is not for large law firms only
The largest law firms have been early adopters and have been able to put most resources into LPM, but LPM is just as relevant to firms of all sizes.
I have a slight concern that people acting as legal project managers at smaller law firms may need to go through the pain barrier of being asked to do too much, as happened earlier with legal project managers at larger law firms some years ago.
This may be especially so where practising lawyers are also being asked to help develop and promote legal project management in addition to their ‘day job’.
However, in what I think is the most important single development in legal project management over the last few years, there is a legal project management community now, where legal project managers can turn to for help (see below).
7. Development of the legal project management community
One of the most pleasing aspects to me of LPM growth is that groups of legal project managers meet regularly to discuss common issues – chiefly, how best to develop and promote legal project management.
What comes across in the groups I have the pleasure of participating in is the shared enthusiasm and passion for legal project management. Yes, legal project management can become a passion!
What is also apparent is how willing people are to share experiences and offer suggestions and advice. (I’m pleased to say that I find this on my training courses too, where everyone participates in the workshop exercises and discuss preferred approaches to the issues raised).
So with regard to the concern aired in the section above: because of the developing maturity of legal project management and increased number of legal project managers, there is plenty of opportunity for people tasked with developing or boot-strapping their firms legal project management practice to learn from more experienced LPM practitioners. There is also the added comfort of engaging with people and organisations at a similar stage of LPM development.
I run my own bi-monthly catch-up sessions for Alumni of my certification training courses and I also attend other informal meetings of legal project managers.
The Association for Project Management (APM) has hosted meetings of legal project managers at the Law Society in Chancery Lane, London. These face to face events, convened by Rebecca Fox of the APM appear suspended since the pandemic, but I do hope they will resume soon.
There are also lots of groups on LinkedIn for legal project managers on LinkedIn such as:
- International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM)
- Legal Project Management (LPM)
- The Legal Project Management Network
- Legal Pricing and Project Management
All of this is great. We are seeing the development of a multi-layered, inter-linked legal project management community as the maturity of legal project management advances.
8. Hybrid approach to LPM
I am still sometimes asked whether there is one definitive, universal, and perhaps even prescriptive, method for managing legal matters.
After training LPM for 10 years and applying LPM even before that (although we did not call it LPM back then) my answer is ‘no’.
This should be unsurprising. Managing matters from different practice areas requires different LPM approaches. Indeed often, managing complex matters from within the same practice area will require different LPM approaches.
However, I do think it helps enormously to have a project management framework as a baseline starting point. Frameworks, such as the IILPM’s 4-Phase LPM Framework, help provide high level guidance and often include, or point to, more specific tools and techniques which legal project managers can draw upon as and when needed from matter to matter.
Hybrid project management, where techniques from the more traditional ‘predictive’ approach are mixed and matched with techniques from a more recent ‘adaptive’ approach (think Agile project management) works well in LPM.
A hybrid approach encourages legal project managers to define, scope and sequence project activity at inception, while providing tools to help with pivoting quickly and injecting energy into the delivery effort as the legal matter progresses.
9. Working from home / distributed teams
Covid-19 has obviously had a hugely disruptive effect on all our lives.
It’s fair to say the daily commute and working 9 – 5 every day in the office has gone for good.
Hybrid working (not to be confused with hybrid project management), where people spend some of their time working from home and some of their time working from an office looks set to become the norm.
This may appear a parochial viewpoint, but I’d suggest Hybrid working and distributed team management presents great opportunities for legal project managers. There needs to be a lot of co-ordination within hybrid / distributed legal service teams to make sure client services run smoothly.
Law firms must also look at their production processes to see if they are fit for the new hybrid / distributed world of work (often they are not).
Legal project managers are well placed to help with both these developments, and others, which have arisen during the last two years.
10. Independent legal project managers
In other industry sectors, especially those with high project management maturity, it is common to see independent, or freelance, project managers at work, moving from project to project, client to client. This is not the predominant model, organisations employing project managers full-time remains the default, but it is a significant part of some other sectorial approaches to project management.
So far there has been relatively little growth in the numbers of independent legal project managers, taking on different projects from different law firms.
I appreciate the concerns law firms would have engaging legal project managers on matters when the legal project managers concerned may have previously worked for other law firms and other clients – although in practice this is what happens when a legal project manager moves full-time from one law firm to another.
I appreciate too that law firms want to make sure their legal project managers are fully immersed in the culture of the firm and build relationships with the firm’s practising lawyers.
Nevertheless, I think we will see more independent legal project managers in time. If one accepts there will never be enough legal project managers to meet demand, then logically this suggests that experienced legal project managers will have some leverage whereby they have greater freedom to shape their careers than they would otherwise have as full-time employees.
Give yourself a pat on the back
If you work in legal operations and especially as a legal project manager, I think you should take a minute and give yourself a pat on the back.
Changes in legal service delivery over the last 10 years compared to the previous 10 have been enormous. Legal project managers have played a significant part in these changes, which should be a source of satisfaction to everyone involved in legal project management.
There is still much work to be done and legal project management is still far from being applied universally.
However we can all be confident that legal project management practice will continuously improve during the next 10 years to help fashion the future shape of legal service delivery.