What questions could – or should – be asked during interviews for legal project managers? How should interviewees begin to answer them?
The list of potential questions any interviewer may ask is infinite. I can’t do infinity, but I have come up with five questions which I think could be used for productive legal project manager interviews.
I hope these five questions, along with their rationale and suggested answers, provide some food for thought for everyone interested in legal project management.
Question 1: What do you think are the most interesting developments going on right now in the legal services industry?
Rationale behind the question: to gauge the candidates’ level of interest in, and enthusiasm for, in the legal service industry.
Some will say that you don’t necessarily need to be interested in the industry to land a legal project manager role and perform that role adequately. Perhaps. But surely its much better to work in an industry you are interested in, and in a role you love, rather than just turning up for work and doing a job?
Besides, the legal services industry really is interesting. I have spent a working lifetime in it and I’m still fascinated by seeing how its evolving.
There is no ‘right’ answer to this question but the thread I would start to weave starts with the realisation across the industry that great client service requires much more than being quick and reactive (although obviously, quick service is always appreciated).
Leaving aside the hype around ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ of legal service delivery there is a lot of good work going on with the aim of improving the client experience. There are lots of ways of trying to achieve this, whether by process mapping, legal service design, I.T systems for lawyers and their clients and, of course, by the application of legal project management.
If I were to answer this question I would briefly explain what each of the above are and how they can all be brought together and used to develop great client experience for users of legal services.
Question 2: Different project methods, whether predictive (‘traditional’ project management) or adaptive (newer Agile techniques) are used, and sometimes blended, for different projects. Can you provide some examples of formal methods you have followed and how you have adapted them?
Rationale behind this question: to check that the candidate knows something about formal methods and techniques. This may sound glaringly obvious, but in the early days of legal project management I met people in legal project manager roles who did not have a background in either project management or law. I remain astonished at this and can only conclude that they must have found the role hard going.
An experienced and busy project manager will not deliver projects successfully by the equivalent of painting by numbers. Slavishly following a method gleaned from a textbook or, dare I say it, a training course, will rarely produce great results. Knowing about legal project management frameworks and methodologies provides a good baseline starting point, but the key to success is having the confidence to adapt project methods and tools sufficiently to achieve successful project outcomes.
For the record, this is something I stress during my training courses and I explain about how best to adapt well-known methods and techniques to different kinds of projects found in the legal services industry.
Question 3: Can you give me some examples of where you successfully managed client expectations on projects? What did you do?
Rationale behind this question: I have always believed that a successful project is one where the client (or project sponsor if an internal project) has been taken on a journey and is happy with the outcome at the end of it. Being able to understand, set and manage client expectation is crucial to this.
Answering this question I would start with the approach I take during project inception, focusing on project scoping. I would make it clear that I am assuming that as a legal project manager I would be involved early enough in the project (see below) to assist with the scoping effort.
I would then outline the steps I follow and some of the questions I ask to understand what the client or sponsors initial view is. I try to understand the context about why the client has sought legal advice (or, if an internal project, the process improvement project): what has driven the client or internal project sponsor to this point and what is their hoped-for outcome?
Usually it’s at this stage the project manager must inject a dose of realism and explain to clients and sponsors the constraints (operational and legal) everyone will be working under and how these are likely to impact on timescales and outcomes. This is the start of expectation management. It is vital to get this right and it is also important not to appear overly negative while doing so.
Question 4: What do you think are the general problems you are most likely to face as a legal project manager?
Rationale behind this question: despite the increased development of legal project management during the last few years, it is still an emerging discipline. As such, it is rarely plain sailing in practice. I’d feel much better about candidates who are entering the role with their eyes wide open.
Answering this, I’d start with the key findings from the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM) 2019 survey of legal project managers (please watch out for the 2020 survey which will run shortly).
This survey found the main general issues facing legal project managers are:
- The need to educate fee earners about the benefits of applying legal project management.
It follows therefore that most people in legal project manager roles must be prepared to take part in educating fee earners about legal project management, either formally or informally.
- Not being involved early enough in matters to be able to help with project scoping.
It is still quite common for partners to present legal project managers with a project which has to be done by a specific date and within given cost and resource constraints, without any realistic scoping being done yet.
- Demonstrating the value of legal project managers.
Some law firms which have been applying legal project management for quite some time have been able to collect comparative data which shows the value of using a legal project manager on matters. If the potential employer already has similar data then great; if not, you may have talked yourself into your first internal project at your new employer (which is good!).
Question 5: Can you give some examples where some of your projects have not gone as well as you had hoped? What lessons did you learn from them?
Rationale behind this question: in part, this is designed to test the candidate’s honesty and integrity. No-one is perfect and we have all either made outright mistakes or wished we had done some things better. We should be honest about this, just as we should be honest during project delivery about what is really going on.
Also, it is a fundamental aspect of project management that ‘lessons learned’ exercises are conducted after (and sometimes during) projects. If we take the lessons learned on board, we can all improve.
If I were to answer this question, I would discuss project communications. This is because the majority of adverse project issues I have been involved with have been the result of miscommunication somewhere. It can’t be stressed enough that project communications of all kinds need to be clear, easy to understand and frequent.
Although a rather basic insight, this can be a difficult lesson to apply well. Now I constantly ask myself: am I listening attentively? Do I understand what is being said? Am I communicating to people in ways which work best for them? I am the first to admit that I still need to improve in this area and its probably in this context the phrase ‘the need for continuous improvement’ is most meaningful to me.
As I said at the beginning, I hope these questions and suggested answers for legal project manager interviews provide some food for thought, especially to those of you contemplating a career change during 2020.
If you would like to improve your legal project management skills and legal industry awareness, why not sign-up for one of my legal project management training courses? I’d love to see you there.