Should senior legal project managers have parity in terms of pay and status with senior associates?
Many legal project managers think so. I agree. Do you?
I think there is room for a wide variety of skills and experience in the legal services supply chain and yes, I think senior legal project managers should be considered equivalent to senior associates.
In this article I look at the work that lawyers and legal project managers do and explain why I think requests for parity are reasonable. My starting point is the IILPM 2020 survey of legal project managers.
IILPM 2020 survey of legal project managers
In my previous post I summarised the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM) 2020 survey of legal project managers. The survey was conducted before the consequences of Covid-19 affected us all in so many ways.
In my summary I reported on the key operational challenges facing legal project managers and outlined the day to day tasks they perform.
Survey respondents were also asked to explain in their own words what aspect of the legal project manager role they would change. This was a completely open question, with no ‘cues’ for respondents and all answers were completely free text.
Answers showed a new theme emerged this year: senior legal project managers consider themselves as professional equals to practising lawyers and they would like both recognition and remuneration to reflect this.
Some of the free text answers received in this regard were:
I would try to equate the role of senior project managers to senior lawyers, the role of project manager should be as important or even more important
To be treated like a lawyer and not a business services professional
Recognition/value given to the role
Pay equity with Senior Associates for highly experienced LPMs
Putting parity in context
Given the economic and public health situation we are faced with currently, it is tempting to dismiss such sentiments as being rather self-obsessive if not irrelevant. After all, many people in the legal services industry and beyond are still on furlough and for some of those furlough is likely to represent ‘deferred redundancy’ – a chilling phrase indeed.
But let’s not get too cynical and dismissive.
Respondents are simply saying that being a legal project manager is a demanding role, requiring a range of hard and soft skills which are comparable to the skills exercised by practising lawyers.
Moreover, respondent’s clearly feel they deliver value to their firm and its client’s and this should be recognised appropriately.
It is not unusual now to see senior operations staff, who do not practice law, being made partners in law firms (in the U.K at least). Becoming successful in legal operations, including legal project management, requires a lot of hard work with the right mix of technical ability and soft skills applied together to get things done.
Looked at this way, it seems reasonable to equate senior legal project managers with senior associates.
But lets examine the request for parity between legal project managers and lawyers a little further by looking at what they do and discussing the value of what they do.
What do lawyers do?
The starting point here is to say they provide legal advice to their clients.
OK, but what is that and how do they provide it? To put in context, let’s zoom out a little.
Lawyers go to University and law school to learn about the law.
During their professional stage of their training, they learn how to apply the law to help their clients.
So for example, a senior associate working in litigation will know the fundamentals of Torts and Contracts without needing to consciously think about them. When working on individual matters they may need to do some further research on the law if the client’s situation raises an unusual and / or novel legal point.
But I’d suggest the time spent by practising lawyers on researching novel legal points of law is actually quite small. Very broadly, they spend far more time following procedures and processes designed to help advance their clients interest. Outputs of these procedures and processes is nearly always documents of various kinds.
Practising lawyers also spend a significant amount of time on administrative tasks, such as recording their time, filing, billing and other aspects of office administration. According to Clio, the online practice management supplier, U.S lawyers spend up to 48% of their time on administrative tasks and spend just 2.3 hours of their time each day on billable activity.
Lawyers and project management skills
When running matters lawyers are engaged in lots of project management tasks. They may not appreciate or acknowledge this, but its true. Indeed, this has been recognised in England and Wales by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in its Competence Statement for Solicitors.
Take for example matter communications. In any given matter lawyers must communicate effectively and regularly with various stakeholders: clients, lawyers on the other side, outside counsel, other professional advisors of various kinds and so on. For this to be done efficiently the communications need to be managed properly. This in turn means that all standard communications need to be planned, scheduled and executed in accordance with the plan.
For professional project managers, project (matter) communication planning is an essential element of project planning. In my experience, this is not so for practising lawyers.
Generally practising lawyers do not to receive any formal training about project management. They are expected to learn and apply project management skills and competencies by observing how more senior lawyers manage their matters. Unfortunately the more senior lawyers are unlikely to have been trained in project management either. The net result is this perpetuates and rewards the approach of ‘muddling through’ or putting in lots of (often unnecessary) working hours because working practices are inefficient.
To help bridge the gap in project delivery efficiency, larger law firms started to employ people with the title ‘legal project manager’. Smaller firms and in-house legal departments now also do the same.
What do legal project managers do?
Good legal project managers drive matter scoping, planning, communications, performance monitoring and reporting. The IILPM 2020 survey also shows they are increasingly the primary point of contact for all operational issues concerning matters.
As practising lawyers know the fundamentals of law almost without thinking, so legal project managers will know the fundamentals of good project management.
To take a simple example by way of illustration. Good legal project managers won’t need to think consciously in terms of high level project phases (such as Define, Plan, Deliver and Close). Rest assured they will definitely know about these phases, where their matters are within the phases and the work they do will be set in the context of deliverables and milestones required of each phase.
In addition to having knowledge about project management methods and techniques, successful legal project managers are also skilled in inter-personal communications and are good facilitators and team builders. They are also comfortable working with I.T systems and understand how to apply data analytics to help improve matter delivery.
What do clients value?
Clients approach lawyers – often as a last resort – because they need legal advice to help them.
Research shows that clients, both consumer and commercial, expect lawyers to know the black letter law and the legal processes by which the law is applied.
Research also shows that clients of all kinds want their lawyers to scope and price matters accurately, take measures to keep costs under control and communicate effectively with them when matters are underway.
In short, clients value both the legal advice and the matter management competence.
Note this is not an either / or. It is both.
This means there is plenty of room in legal services for a wide range of skills: knowing what the black letter law is and how to apply it and knowing how to manage matters efficiently (including knowing how to develop and sustain effective supporting processes).
Requests for parity: outlandish or reasonable?
Looking at the work that lawyers and project managers do, I’d suggest that requests for parity between the two are reasonable.
Generally, in the ‘alternative’ legal services market (which now includes many established law firms with their own ‘alternative’ offering) there is much less distinction between lawyers and other professionals. Everyone on the delivery team is valued for the skills and expertise they bring. Little wonder that ‘alternative’ legal service suppliers are looked on favourably by legal operations staff, including legal project managers.
As more law firms are realising, if they want to attract the best talent across a wide range of disciplines, they can no longer afford to perpetuate distinctions between lawyers and other professionals which clearly privilege the former at the expense of the latter.
As we all know, historically change has occurred rather slowly in the legal services industry. Until very recently that is, where lots of things have had to change fast in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Perhaps one result of the changes we have all experienced recently is that the distinctions between lawyers and other professionals in the legal services industry will become blurred and dissolve at an increasing rate.
Looking ahead perhaps it will also become more common for people to move between roles: for example, from practising lawyer to legal operations specialist and back again. From a personal professional development standpoint, it is hard to argue against the idea of acquiring multiple skills and qualifications as careers progress in legal services.
Finding your place in the future of law
This sub-heading is appropriated from Mike Whelan’s book, ‘Lawyer Forward: finding your place in the future of law’. If you have not read the book yet, I’d recommend you do.
Mike talks about the ‘legal supply chain’ and how people with differing skills and aptitudes can find their place in it. Mike writes about his experience as a solo lawyer looking to escape ‘the churn’ of running lots of cases, but that is just the starting point. The book is really intended to get people thinking about how they can best help deliver legal services using the skills they currently have and new skills they could acquire. For example, he discusses at some length the concept of ‘legal supply chain managers’ and how they might work.
The book resonated with me because I have been lucky enough to have an interesting and varied career in legal services. I have been a legal post-graduate researcher, practising lawyer, legal software developer, legal software project manager, product manager and a few other things besides. Much of this was not planned in advance. I just had opportunities to learn and apply newly acquired skills and knowledge in the legal services industry.
Looking back, project management has always been an integral part of my work even if I did not fully appreciate it at the time. I found the management of whatever objective I was working towards became easier by taking a basic project-based approach. Even just thinking in terms of high-level phases with end of phase deliverables and delivery dates helped. As my career developed, and I was given matters and other ‘projects’ to run I applied project management techniques more explicitly and comprehensively.
Online introduction to legal project management
If you would like to find out more about what lawyers and legal project managers do, what clients value and how you can develop your legal project management skills then you may like to sign up for my free online course which covers these topics and more.
The course is an introduction to legal project management. It should take about an hour to work through, although you do not need to complete it all in one sitting.
You could say the course is another step along my journey in the legal supply chain: new skills learned and applied (i.e. online course development) with the aim of helping you supplement your skills and finding your place in the legal supply chain too.
This short course is not an IILPM certification course, but you may like to note that I am also creating online versions of my IILPM certification courses too.