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Legal Project Managers: a call to arms

Legal project managers should make greater use of their implied authority – they have nothing to lose but their chains.

What follows is not a Marxist analysis of the role legal project managers play in legal service organisations, but it is a call to arms.

Legal project managers should feel empowered to lead projects with authority and clearly demonstrate the value they bring to legal service delivery.

The first step towards success with this is for legal project managers to realise they have a lot of implied authority, which needs to be grasped and used boldly.


Perception of authority

It is not unusual to hear legal project managers bemoan the limits of their authority, and hence their ability to get things done.  Some legal project managers doubt whether they have any authority at all.  It follows they do not really believe they can manage matters properly.  At worst, they see themselves as a powerless cipher whose main function is to oil the wheels and gears which others use to move matters forward.


Authority concerns are not confined to legal

In his book ‘Alpha Project Managers: what the top 2% know that everyone else does not’ Andy Crowe shows how this view is sometimes shared by project managers in other industries.  In contrast, the top 2% of project managers (‘the Alphas’) did believe they had sufficient authority to manage projects properly.

Here is the really interesting thing: senior managers of both the Alphas and non-Alphas believed that all their project managers had sufficient authority to manage projects properly.

Because the Alpha project managers believed (correctly) they had sufficient authority, they acted upon it.  As a result Alpha project managers are much more willing to exert control, resolve issues and drive projects forward.

Another point of difference is that Alpha project managers genuinely believed that, in their role as project manager, they could make a positive difference to individual projects and their wider organisation.  Non-Alphas by contrast were more likely to view project management as an administrative overhead or, in some cases as being unnecessary.  Which begs the question: if they have so little belief in what they are doing, why bother doing it at all?  Incidentally, this lack of belief is quickly picked-up by others, which in turn means that others start to doubt and downgrade the value of project management.


Inhibiting effect of law firm culture

Ah yes, you may be saying, but legal service delivery is different, especially when the legal services are delivered by law firms.  Law firm cultural issues often have a inhibiting effect on the exercise of authority by legal project managers.

There is some truth in this.  Let’s take the most obvious example by way of illustration.

Partners are usually very jealous of their client relationships, especially client communications.  Client relationship partners may delegate some of their client communication authority downwards to junior partners or associates who have day to day control of matters.  In turn this secondary tier may delegate some of their inherited client communications authority down to the next tier and so on.

In commercial law firms communicating directly with clients is a signifier of power.  Lawyers have long since known that being ‘good with clients’ is the surest route to partnership.  But how do lawyers learn to become ‘good with clients’?  They are given authority to communicate to them by more senior partners, ultimately the client relationship partner.


Where does this leave the project manager?

Where does all of this leave the legal project manager?  Too often I fear, their explicit authority to communicate directly with clients may be heavily circumscribed.  At worst, they may have no explicit authority to communicate directly with clients at all.

One of the main functions of project managers is to promote and ensure effective project communications.  Project managers, including legal project managers, need to be able to communicate clearly, concisely and consistently to all key stakeholders – including clients.  If legal project managers feel they can’t do this in the absence of explicit delegated authority, then they are effectively being prevented from doing their job properly.

Another related issue is that even if explicit authority has been given, legal project managers can become very wary of transgressing its boundaries.  This in turn can mean their communications become very conservative.  For example rather than providing a true project status update, legal project managers may self-edit to manage internal expectations to avoid any possibility of rocking the boat.  Taken to extremes this can lead to project status updates which are so vague and insubstantial they become meaningless.  Ultimately this does not help anyone, especially the client.


Building trust

Law firms which allow their legal project managers to engage in client communications are quick to see the improvement they usually bring to this vital aspect of legal service delivery.  When client partners start to see the benefits, then gradually more authority is vested in the legal project managers to become ever more involved in client communications.

In many instances once a law firm’s senior management have trust in the legal project manager(s) to deliver, then the need for continued explicit authorisation starts to fall away.

Legal project managers should then become more comfortable working with implicit authority.

If legal project managers understand fully what they are doing, why they are doing it and what the consequences are likely to be, then they should go ahead and take whatever action is required to manage their projects properly.  So long as they act ethically and professionally they should be OK.


Taking the sword from the stone

This post was in part inspired by a recent blog post from Jordan Furlong.

In his post ‘Don’t Fear The Rainmaker’ Jordan noted that most power within law firms seems to be held by the rainmakers – the salespeople.  Moreover the power they wield is a rather negative one.  However, as Jordan notes, this is not real power:

Real power in a business or organisation is…the power to act, to build, to accomplish…like the sword in the stone it belongs to anyone who is willing to grasp it and try to wield it.

I suggest that legal project managers have this real power.  They are – or should be – in position to lead teams which can accomplish great things.  These may be delivering superior client solutions (not just client services) in one or a cluster of matters; transforming aspects of operational support or perhaps enabling billing based on value (readily appreciated by clients) rather than the billable hour.

Whatever the objective is, I would urge legal project managers to be braver and be prepared to pluck the sword (named Implied Authority rather than Excalibur) out of the stone.  Their projects will benefit and they will be on the way to becoming Alpha legal project managers.

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