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Legal Project Management Training for Lawyers: Part 1 – Identifying Need and Investigating Some Options

At the recent LETR (Legal Education and Training Review) symposium at Manchester (July 10 and 11, 2012) one of the speakers, James Atkin, head of risk and Compliance at Co-operative Legal Services is reported as saying that:

The Legal Landscape has changed and, with the advent of alternative business structures, new project management and consumer-focused skills are required.

At the same event Karl Chapman, Chief Executive of Riverview Law, expressed similar views and has been since reported as saying that he would not employ many lawyers currently available because they do not have the right skills as:

They cannot do what’s required in a customer service environment.

I did not attend the symposium, but followed on Twitter at #LETRSym and read the excellent instant blog summary by Professor Paul Maharg. The instant blog summarises, among other things, the keynote address provided by Professor Richard Susskind, part of which reads:

Susskind quoted the new jobs in legal services: legal knowledge engineer, legal technologist, legal hybrid, legal process analyst, legal project manager, ODR practitioners, legal management consultants, legal risk manager.  Are we training them well for these challenges, he asked?  No: in terms of his Gretsky analogy, we’re travelling to where the puck once was, rather than where the puck will be.

It is fair to say that, given the range and scope of LETR, action as a result of the LETR research and debates is unlikely to be swift and immediate.  Meanwhile, the need for effective project management training for lawyers becomes ever more pressing, being driven by things such as the new ‘business approach’ required of law firms by business investors and, of course, law firm clients.

If lawyers do not adopt skills such as project management, and soon, then the obvious alternative is for non-lawyers to do most of the project management and client communication work, with lawyers performing narrow technical legal tasks such as checking legal documents – which are increasingly likely to have been initially drafted, as a result of process automation, by document assembly software.  Such an alternative model for legal service delivery is already being implemented by some organisations, as also referred to during the LETR symposium (read more about this at Legal Futures).  I will write about differing legal service delivery models another time. The purpose of this post is to consider how today’s practising lawyers can begin to improve their project management skills.

Richard Susskind tells a story whereby every time he hears a lawyer say they are a project manager as they have attended (say) a 3 day project management training course, he asks what they would think of professional project managers who say that after doing a 3 day course in law they could now be considered competent lawyers.  One can see his point.  As Richard says, if we are to take project management seriously then we need to make that part of the skill set we provide to aspiring lawyers.

So where should aspiring lawyer-project managers start?  It is now possible to study project management at undergraduate level at a number of academic institutions in the U.K.  As expected, most of the courses on offer are closely related to the domains of construction and I.T. and none as yet (so far as I can see) to law.  Given that recently an eminent judge has suggested that lawyers would do better to study something other than law at undergraduate level, perhaps we shall in future see project management graduates take postgraduate training in law to become the new breed of (super) project manager-lawyers?  An intriguing possibility, but this does little to meet the immediate needs of today’s lawyers and their clients.

Traditionally most professional project managers have come to the discipline directly as a result of their work.  Organisations appreciate the need for managed projects. Those with relevant aptitudes, skills and interest often begin their career as project managers by focusing on the practical requirements immediately to hand.  Most newly minted project managers soon appreciate that they would benefit from some structured training and professional accreditation and will therefore sign up for courses and programmes offering this.

Quite a lot of academic institutions in the U.K. offer postgraduate courses in project management (considerably more than those offering undergraduate project management courses it seems).  As with the undergraduate courses there is a bias towards the domains of Construction, I.T. and other disciplines such as Environmental Studies where the need for project management skills has long been accepted. There do seem to be a few more generalist postgraduate project management courses but, for the uninitiated, the relevance of such courses to lawyers may be hard to discern.  Moreover all these courses take time to complete, and time is a precious commodity to a lawyer not least because (mistakenly, in my view) most lawyers still seem to think they are primarily selling their time.  Short-term therefore, there is unlikely to be great demand from lawyers for postgraduate level project management courses, especially if the courses do not appear to have direct and obvious relevance to the practice of law.

Many project management professionals seek to build on their experience by joining one (or both) of the leading professional associations for project management, the Association for Project Management (APM) and the Project Management Institute (PMI).  Both these organisations offer professional accreditation to project managers at various stages of their careers, schemes for Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and access to specialist interest expertise within the field of project management.  I am a member of both the APM and PMI, and have found them to be excellent sources of information and ideas.

The professional associations recognise that time is at a premium nowadays and they have gone out of their way to develop assessment and accreditation schemes which are accessible and flexible enough for a busy project professional.  Nevertheless, it may be overly optimistic to believe that lawyers have the time, inclination and background knowledge to become more engaged in professional project management as currently conceived by the professional project management bodies.  For example the APM has a competence based framework for assessing and accrediting project professionals.  In the framework there are 30 technical competence elements, 9 behavioural competence elements and 8 contextual competence elements.  A project manager can be assessed on each element, with the assessment being based on a combination of relevant knowledge and experience.  After assessment, the project professional can be awarded accreditation appropriate to signify  status as either a Project Director, Senior Project Manager, Project Manager with at least three year’s experience or a Project Management Associate.  The PMI has a similar scheme of competence based accreditation.  Either scheme is great for project professionals, but probably less attractive to practising lawyers.  Even leaving aside the time element required to demonstrate project management competence, the sheer number and extent of competencies required can seem rather daunting to a project management newbie.

The PMI has a community of practice devoted to Legal Project Management (‘applying project management to the community of law’).  The driving force behind this community is Paul C. Easton, who has long since maintained a very informative blog site and portal covering legal project management.  (Full disclosure: I have written a guest blog post for Paul’s website).  The PMI LPM community of practice is developing a set of resources aimed at those working in the legal and project management space.  For example, a set of legal project management templates has been created.  This is a truly useful resource – provided users know how to apply the templates.  How many lawyers know whether, how, why and when to apply a ‘Legal Project Stakeholder Analysis and Management Plan’ for example? Without at least some initial training, very few I suspect. I have cited this particular template by way of illustration because applying something like this is sorely needed. Several recent reports and surveys have shown that, generally, the aspect of dealing with lawyers which comes in for most criticism from clients is relatively poor communications (particularly about costs). Doing a straightforward stakeholder analysis and subsequently creating a communications plan would almost certainly benefit an awful lot of lawyers. But lawyers need to understand why, and be shown how, they should be doing this in the context of their daily work.

I am sure that all the courses, professional development programmes and resources referred to above serve their (differing) purpose and target market well.  My point is there seems to be a gap between these resources (whether in scope or delivery) and the more immediate needs of practising lawyers. Recognising that English lawyers, and their clients, could benefit by applying project management techniques to legal service delivery one thing; knowing which techniques to apply given the current and anticipated demands of legal procedure (especially civil litigation), professional regulation, individual practice requirements and the legal services market is another.  It may appear a very steep learning curve for busy lawyers to sift through and incorporate academically sound and professionally rigorous project management techniques as part of their daily work.

How to bridge the gap or make the learning curve less steep?  I have some ideas about this and will explain further in my next blog post.

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