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Why practising lawyers should cede more operational control to legal project managers

The recent survey conducted by the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM) confirms that practising lawyers are wary of ceding more operational control to legal project managers.

A degree of caution is understandable.  After all the lead lawyer on a matter is ultimately responsible for legal service delivery and client satisfaction.

There is a problem however should caution turn into something more.  Hindering legal project managers from fulfilling their role properly is not good for anyone.

To adopt project terminology,  it is not good for each of the key stakeholders concerned: practising lawyers, legal project managers, law firms and, most importantly, their clients.

Here’s why, from each stakeholder’s point of view, practising lawyers should cede more operational control to legal project managers.


Practising Lawyers

Diving into detail

If legal project managers are assigned to assist directly with matter management, the matters are invariably large and complex.

As is well-known, lawyers love to dive into detail.  Which is fair enough.  I for one would not want a lawyer running my matter who was not interested in its legal detail.

The problem is that on large and complex matters there is a lot of detail concerning both legal and operational issues.  Trying to master all of this is a herculean task, placing enormous demands on individuals who try it.

Becoming consistently and continuously involved in too much project detail is a recipe for stress.  Too much stress is likely to lead to poor workplace performance and much else besides.

The role of legal project manager

Full-time legal project managers do not provide legal advice. This means they are one step away from execution of the work.  This in turn makes them ideally placed to plan, manage and report progress on the work done because, unlike the subject matter experts (practising lawyers), they have the time and space to see the wood from the trees.

Reducing lawyer work-load

Allowing dedicated legal project managers to assume operational control of large and complex cases helps practising lawyers.  Avoiding becoming too concerned with operational detail reduces their workload.

Reduced workload has two obvious benefits for lawyers.  First, they have more time to consider legal issues and focus on providing the right kind of advice to their clients.  Secondly, reduced workload lessens the likelihood of suffering from stress.  Providing accurate and timely legal advice to clients is stressful in any event – why take on yet more work and increase stress?


Legal Project Managers

Frustrated with constraints

Another theme which emerged from the IILPM survey was that some legal project managers become somewhat frustrated with constraints placed around their role.

When asked if they could change just one aspect of their role, some legal project managers replied (using free text answers) they would like to have

Enough visibility and authority to plan ahead

Early engagement of legal project managers in all high value matters

To be able to have more control over matters.

Although in contrast to the last comment, one respondent noted with some disappointment that in their role of legal project manager they were

perceived as being a controller instead of a helpful resource.

This feeling of frustration is unsurprising if legal project managers are not trusted to do their job as fully as they would like.

Team leadership

Lawyers with overall responsibility for matter delivery are team leaders.  Great team leaders inspire their team members to do great work.  They also empower their team to develop and grow.  Hence team leaders need to delegate tasks and be able to apply light touch monitoring to ensure the tasks are performed properly.

As part of this delegation process lawyers acting as overall team leaders should readily work alongside operational team leaders (legal project managers), assuming responsibility for operational aspects of legal service delivery.

One of the main tasks for legal project managers is to help the delivery team work well together and become as productive as possible.  This is going to be a much harder task to fulfil if legal project managers themselves are suffering low morale because of constraints placed around their role.


Law Firms

Investment in legal project managers

It is great to see so many law firms investing in legal project managers.  Most legal project managers are found in the larger law firms, but this is changing.  Smaller law firms, especially those in niche practice areas and with national reputations, are also employing them.

It is not unusual to see recruitment advertisements for legal project managers at City of London firms with a salary range of £75,000 – £85,000.  Factor in recruitment costs, employer pension contributions and employer tax liabilities and the total cost of legal project managers in this salary band soon exceed £100,000 per year each.

Return on investment

This is a lot of money.  Under utilising legal project managers is a waste of some of that money.  Potentially, the sums wasted are likely to be significant.

To ensure law firm return on investment in legal project managers, practising lawyers must let them perform their role fully.

(I am assuming for the moment that everyone concerned knows and understands the role of legal project managers.  In reality I know this not to be the case.  There is more work to be done here and I will explain further in my next post).


Law Firm Clients

Client tenders

The most important reason for deploying legal project managers properly is client demand.

Well-established practice when running tenders is for commercial clients to ask questions about their prospective law firm’s matter management capability.

Increasingly as part of the tender process prospective clients want to talk to law firm operational staff, including legal project managers.  Sophisticated purchasers of legal services are past the stage of expecting prospective lawyers to talk a good game of legal project management.  They want to see the evidence of good legal project management in practice.

What client’s want

Surveys of law firm commercial clients consistently show how much they value clear communications and operational transparency.

For example, in its Bellweather survey report of 2016 Lexis Nexis identified what clients want from their law firms:

  1. Understanding of client needs
  2. Efficient operational delivery of legal services, including
    1. Keeping to a timetable during matters
    2. Keeping clients informed during matters
    3. Keeping to fee estimates during matters.

In its Bellweather survey report the following year, Lexis-Nexis identified 3 main causes of what it called lawyer-client disconnect:

  1. Service Offering – lawyers supplying technical legal advice whereas clients want solutions to business problems
  2. Service Quality – clients would, more often enough, be happy with legal and commercial advice which is ‘good enough’ rather than ‘gold plated’
  3. Service Visibility – clients frequently reported they have poor visibility into the work done by their law firms (especially costs and timelines).

Legal project managers can help with all of the above, especially in the areas of scoping, progress monitoring and client communications.


Understood the why about ceding operational control, but not sure how?

To be fair many lawyers do appreciate why they should work with legal project managers, and their other professional support colleagues, more effectively. Unfortunately they are unclear how to go about this.

Lawyers do not receive formal training in project management as part of their professional development.  Hence project management methods, processes and people are likely to appear quite alien to them.  Looked at this way, it’s unsurprising that legal project mangers are not used as fully as they could be.

I will discuss some ideas to remedy this in my next post.

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