As the project maturity of the legal sector continues to grow, I think we will inevitably see a greater number of freelance legal project managers.
After all, freelance project managers are quite common in industry sectors which have greater project management maturity than the legal services sector, such as construction and software development.
I generate most of my revenue from legal project management training, but I also get asked to do some hands-on legal project management as a freelance contractor. So I thought I’d mix some experience with speculation and discuss the role of freelance legal project manager: its development, the opportunities it affords and how to begin pricing services of freelance legal project managers.
Who engages freelance legal project managers?
In my experience, it has been both law firms and clients of law firms. I have been approached more often by law firms than purchasers of legal services, but the latter do look to engage freelance legal project managers when faced with legal projects which are relatively large, complex and outside their usual resource capability to manage and deliver properly.
Why engage freelance legal project managers?
The primary short-term driver is to fill gaps in existing skills and experience. Law firms and their clients need specific tasks done and employing a freelance legal project manager is one way of making sure those tasks are indeed undertaken and completed.
There is of course the potential for saving costs too. Engaging freelancers of any kind for a fixed duration can be more cost effective than re-deploying full-time staff (assuming that skilled and experienced staff are available).
What do freelance legal project managers do?
Obviously, what freelance legal project managers do will depend on the project concerned. I have done things such as helping to identify and implement new legal I.T systems, developing improved supporting processes and working with teams on live matters.
The more hands-on live matter work can include liaising between clients and their legal advisors, making sure that information and documentation is flowing between each side and helping the whole team work well as an effective unit.
What skills and experience are required of freelance legal project managers?
If you are serious about offering your services as a freelance legal project manager, please bear in mind that your clients will not be paying you to learn on the job. They are paying you to do the job. They need you to fill a gap for them which they have identified, given their current resourcing and expertise.
Leaving aside specific skills and experience in the areas above for a moment, I think freelance legal project managers need to be able to demonstrate an understanding of how legal services are delivered, knowing what lawyers do and feeling comfortable operating in an industry sector which has a discernible culture (and being realistic, not all of this culture is good all of the time).
You will of course be expected to have to have an excellent understanding of project management knowledge, tools and techniques, and the confidence to depart from a textbook approach when needed. The bottom line is that you will need to be able to get things done effectively and efficiently.
As with project management generally, good communication skills are really important for freelance legal project managers. As a freelancer you will not have the luxury of time, so you will need to be able to ‘read the room’ (and now ‘read the Zoom’) quickly, make connections and move events forward.
Opportunities to add value
As a freelance legal project manager, you should be able to readily take an objective and dispassionate view of the project you find yourself managing or assisting with. You will need to be aware of project and organisational politics, but there is no need to be sucked into them. Compared to being a full-time employee this can be quite liberating. It also presents opportunities.
If you can see where things are not working as well as they should be then you should say so. Even more if you have ideas about how to put things right. While this should be true of legal project managers employed full-time, often it’s not. Full-time employees sometimes find it more difficult to see where problems are, raise concerns openly and promote solutions. Freelancers on the other hand, coming in with a fresh eye and no pre-set agenda, should feel much more able to speak ‘truth unto power’ as it were.
This also highlights a big benefit of being a freelancer. You can afford to focus much more on the project and tasks at hand rather than having to deal with all the background noise and distraction associated with being a full-time employee.
How to price freelance services?
Personally, I try to steer away from the idea of ‘standard rates’.
Having a clear understanding of the skills, experience and solutions you can bring alongside the need of your potential clients (whether a law firm or another entity) to get the work done in a timely and effective manner should inform your pricing.
No two clients or legal projects are exactly the same, so it seems perfectly reasonable to me to vary pricing from engagement to engagement.
I also contend that legal project management is a specialist role and as such it should demand something of a premium, whether in the context of full-time employee or freelance legal project managers.
Accelerated development of freelance legal project managers?
I noted at the beginning of this post it seems to me inevitable that, as project maturity in the legal services industry catches up with other sectors, we will see growth in the numbers of freelance legal project managers.
Arguably, economic shifts in response to the pandemic will accelerate this growth. As organisations strive to become more responsive, flexible resourcing becomes a more attractive option. Indeed, the market in flexible resourcing of practising lawyers has been growing for a while now in any event, even before the pandemic arrived.
Increased flexible resourcing of legal operations professionals, including legal project managers, is bound to happen. The questions now are how quickly and how widespread this will become and how can you position yourself to take advantage of it?