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How project management can help develop lawyers’ leadership skills

I received a thoughtful enquiry about legal project management (LPM) training recently from a young lawyer.  She had done some research into LPM, but could not quite see the relevance of it to her work.

I suspect a lot of lawyers still feel this way, despite the fact that legal project management is now quite well established. I also think that younger lawyers, notwithstanding the recent draft competence statement by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, sometimes have difficulty appreciating how project management skills can help them advance their career.

I think project management skills and techniques can directly help develop lawyers’ leadership skills.  This should be of particular interest to younger lawyers and perhaps a useful reminder to those not so young – after all, there is always room for improvement.

Before explaining how project management can help develop leadership skills, I’d just like to recap on some of the more well known benefits of legal project management to lawyers practising in different environments.


Benefits of applying LPM for commercial lawyers and their clients

The benefits of applying LPM for commercial lawyers are now quite widely accepted and well-rehearsed, such being able to:

  • Estimate costs better
  • Reduce costs
  • Manage risks better
  • Improve realisation rates
  • Increase the predictability of fees and, in particular, help manage alternative fee arrangements (AFA’s)
  • Enjoy more productive relationships with clients

All valid points (and I could recite plenty of others) but perhaps some of them, especially those concerning fees and realization rates, are less relevant to lawyers working for organizations which are not commercial law firms.


Relevance of project management to in-house and governmental lawyers

In all organizations there is a need for inter-workgroup (or departmental) collaboration.  Project management can help here too.

For example, most formal project management methodologies will refer to the need for identifying project stakeholders.  They will then provide tools and techniques for communicating with the stakeholders effectively.  Another example is where project methods encourage the identification of project deliverables, especially where each may be delivered by different parts of organizations.  Defining deliverables in advance (so people will know when a deliverable has been completed successfully) and assigning people to do the work with target delivery dates can do wonders for inter-departmental co-operation.  Everyone knows what to do and when to do it.

(Incidentally, I am shortly running a course on project management for in-house lawyers in association with Lawyers In Business – further details can be found here).


Project management as a means of developing leadership skills

A good project framework should provide a solid foundation for not only managing, but leading, projects effectively.

By way of illustration, let’s quickly take a bird’s eye view of project management in action.  People acting as project managers need to plan the execution of their projects.  They will therefore have a good understanding of what is coming next in the project sequence and they will know which steps to take to get there.  This may require the delegation of executing those tasks by others and it will certainly require continued monitoring of how the tasks are being executed.  Should the monitoring show that tasks are not being progressed swiftly or cost effectively enough then remedial action needs to be taken.

Research shows that the best project managers will assume they have authority to take action and will do whatever is necessary to keep the project on track.  Only in truly exceptional cases, where project tolerances are being breached, do the more successful project managers decide to escalate problems up the management hierarchy for resolution.

Ultimately, projects are about people.  As noted earlier project management methods and techniques help with making sure that people are doing what they are meant to do and when they are meant to do it.  Project managers will usually work with ‘matrix’ teams.  This means that project managers will rarely have direct line management control over delivery teams.  Moreover project managers need to ensure that people in different departments (sometimes in different countries) are all working together in harness on the project.  All this requires the application of ‘soft skills’.  This can be a daunting prospect for some, but these skills do not exist in a vacuum.

Applied within the context of projects, being run according to standard project management frameworks, these skills actually become easier to learn and apply successfully.  How so?  Project management can help take the take personalities out of the equation, as in: ‘we have a method, and as part of that method I am asking you to do [whatever]’.  Following a project management method allows people to have what might otherwise be awkward conversations set against an emotionally neutral background. This means the conversations are much less awkward.  It also means they are much more likely to take place and be more productive when they do.


Continuous improvement

Currently I am engaged in a hands-on role in several projects.  There are similarities between each of these projects, but there are differences too.  So my approach to each project differs slightly.  I know why and how my approach differs.  In particular, in the context of this blog post, there are differences in the way I am driving the projects forward.  Sometimes I will manage in the background, while at other times I will take a higher profile lead.

Having a good understanding of project management methods, including how they can be adapted and applied in any given situation, means I am very comfortable about my role in each project.  Project management methodologies still provide solid foundations and reference points for me, and the time has long since past when I can claim to be a young lawyer!  I’d suggest they can also act as comforting management and ‘how to’ guides for younger less experienced lawyers and especially those wanting to develop their leadership skills.

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