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Here are the key challenges facing legal project managers

What are the key challenges facing legal project managers?  How do these challenges impact on their day-to-day working practices?  What aspects of their role would legal project managers change?

These are some of the questions asked during my short survey of legal project managers, a survey supported by the International Institute of Legal Project Management.

I have yet to complete detailed analysis of the survey responses, but preliminary analysis soon highlights the key challenges facing legal project managers today.


What is the number one challenge legal project managers face?

Respondents were given several potential challenges to choose from and asked to rank them in order of importance.

‘Educating fee earners about the benefits which legal project management can bring’ was voted as the number one challenge.

Although not precisely defined in the survey (my oversight) I take ‘fee earners’ as referring primarily to practising lawyers, including law firm partners.

The need to educate fee earners about the benefits of legal project management became a theme apparent in answers to other questions too.  There were variations on this theme, but it was clearly there nonetheless.


If you could change just one aspect of the legal project manager role, what would it be?

I asked this question with no pre-conceptions about what the range of possible answers could be.  Respondents could reply with free text answers.

Overall what respondents really want is for greater ‘buy-in’ to, and understanding of, legal project management by their firms

The route to getting buy-in, or fee earner (especially partner) acceptance, can be a long one.  As one respondent put it in a considered reply to this question

Better understanding of the legal project manager role.  A lot of partners are still apprehensive about “letting you in”, so quite often the first few times you work with them it is only on financials or billing, their understanding of what legal project managers can / should do takes time to build.


Earlier involvement required

The survey also highlighted some consequences of fee earner apprehensiveness about ‘letting in’ legal project managers.

Survey respondents felt that often, legal project managers are not involved early enough in matters to help as much as they would like with matter definition and planning.

This is such a missed opportunity.  Facilitating the matter definition and planning exercises are (or should be) core skills of legal project managers.  Fee earners should not fear being locked out of these exercises.  On the contrary, they must remain at the heart of them.

What legal project managers can do is nurture matter definition and planning through structured processes.  As a result, the legal service team should have confidence their plans are realistic and robust.


Promoting cultural change

Anyone involved in legal project management surely appreciates that it is not a ‘quick-fix’.  Implementing legal project management properly takes time and effort.

A large part of this effort still needs to be spent on promoting cultural change.  In this context the change being fee earner acceptance that other professionals have a positive and valued role to play in legal service delivery.

This change becomes easier to promote and sustain when fee earners can readily see the value of legal project management.


How to demonstrate the value of legal project management?

At the recent event I co-hosted with Rebecca Fox, Head of Commercial at the Association for Project Management (APM), the ‘value demonstration’ point was one of the issues discussed.

A legal project manager at a leading City of London law firm explained that she is confident she can help reduce matter costs.  Moreover she and her colleagues are able to show partners data which substantiates this assertion.

This firm’s legal project management team has gathered and analysed data comparing similar matters which have, and have not, had legal project managers on board.  The data shows a direct correlation between a legal project manager working on a matter resulting in reduced costs compared to similar matters where legal project managers have not been engaged.

I think this is great.  You can’t seriously argue against facts and data (although sadly, too many of our politicians now try to do this as a matter of routine).

Another approach for demonstrating value is to gather success stories from clients and publicise them.  This should be relatively easy to do where, for example, legal project managers have been able to improve the quality and regularity of client communications.  Clients appreciate improved communications and won’t mind saying so.


Continued education of fee earners a priority

Law firms and in-house legal departments are investing in legal project managers and other kinds of legal operations staff.  I believe this investment will continue as the benefits of applying a more structured approach to legal service delivery become more well-known.

Continued education of fee earners about legal project management must be a priority.  If lawyers do not understand what legal project managers do, they will quite naturally be rather wary of ‘letting them in’.

Legal project managers are not a threat to lawyers.  Much of the work legal project managers do frees up lawyers’ time so they can focus on providing better quality, and more commercially appropriate, legal advice to their clients.  What’s wrong with that?

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