What skills and attributes are most sought after of legal project managers given current market trends?
Legal project manager roles are much more plentiful than when I started my consultancy and this blog site in 2012.
By way of illustration, when preparing this article I searched for legal project manager vacancies on LinkedIn: the initial search result showed 10 vacancies, all with law firms based in London.
LinkedIn returns local search results first and I know from my IILPM (International Institute of Legal Project Management) colleagues that the demand for legal project managers is global.
After reviewing recently advertised vacancies, cross-referencing with the IILPM Competency Framework and discussing the role of legal project manager with a number of practitioners I have come up with ten of the most sought after skills and attributes of legal project managers.
Before going through the list please bear in mind it is not exhaustive. This is interesting in itself as there is clearly still a wide variation about what, exactly, is expected of legal project managers. This variability is narrowing down though, as the role of legal project manager becomes more common.
Knowledge of project management methods, tools and techniques
This is the most obvious place to start. Law firms expect legal project managers to have a good understanding of project management methods, tools and techniques. They also expect they can adapt and apply them to help manage legal matters.
I think we are also seeing a move towards ‘hybrid’ legal project management. By this I mean that successful legal project managers pick and mix the most appropriate tools and techniques to use given the legal project at hand.
For example this might involve using more traditional project management methods to define projects at the outset and construct a project framework for matter management, but once the project is in-flight tools and techniques from the Agile world are used to help drive performance.
The IILPM’s 4-Phase LPM Framework caters for this approach. At its core the framework is composed of traditional project elements (define, plan, deliver and close) but it also recognizes that a variety of techniques such as Agile and Legal Design can also be used within the framework.
The importance of effective communications cannot be overstated. According to the PMI’s Body of Knowledge, between 75% and 90% of a project manager’s time is spent on communications in some form.
Its easy to say communication skills are important, but what do these skills look like in practice? A quick reminder.
Communication is a two-way process, which starts with listening. In order to listen properly the listener needs to give the speaker time and space to think to impart the information they want to impart. Then the listener needs to acknowledge the information flowing to them and, most importantly, be prepared to moderate their own thinking or behaviour in some way after considering the information which is being conveyed to them.
Information can be sent and received by innumerable means: face to face meeting, group presentation, group meeting, status report, emails and so on. Legal project managers need to be competent at using any mode of communication and they need to know which mode to use when and how to deploy it most effectively.
Prospective legal project managers should feel confident communicating effectively with their team members, other colleagues working at broadly the same level of seniority as them, senior operations management staff, partners and clients.
You will never see assertiveness listed in any of the advertisements for legal project managers. This is a pity because I think this is an attribute which is needed along with its cousin, tact.
Becoming an unquestioning servant to law firm partners and clients does not necessarily help anyone in the long term. Sometimes legal project managers need to push back to manage expectations properly. This requires assertiveness.
A healthy amount of assertiveness also helps hard-pressed legal project managers from taking on too much work (as current market trends show, there are not enough legal project managers to meet demand), and help them take steps to properly lead delivery teams.
Data Analysis / Budgeting and Numeracy
Legal project managers need to know how to analyse data and make predictions about likely project outcomes based on the data.
More specifically legal project managers need to be able to demonstrate they have good budgeting and numeracy skills. From feedback I have received recently, I think the market is placing more importance on these skills than it once did.
Costs Lawyers are very well placed in this regard. As a body costs lawyers are obviously already competent at drawing up litigation cost budgets and checking the financial pulse of matters in-flight. Presenting their costs expertise in context of project management helps makes costs lawyers even more valuable.
Being a legal project manager is not a solitary occupation.
Legal project managers need to be able to liaise with and work alongside, a wide range of professionals both internally and externally.
When collaborating with other legal service professionals legal project managers must appear credible. In this regard, having a legal background helps, although it is not essential.
Legal project managers can build up their store of credibility by bringing something positive to the collaborative effort.
The easiest way to do this is to provide operational detail about the matter(s) at hand. This in turn means they must be able to acquire the confidence of their team so they can easily collect key performance data and be trusted to use it wisely. This last point is also important: legal project managers need to develop the trust of their colleagues.
There are plenty of ways to develop trust. One way is to become a good facilitator.
Facilitators encourage and support groups to achieve their objectives. Indeed, facilitators can help groups identify and articulate their objectives.
Facilitator’s do this by creating environments and more detailed structures which help turn groups of individuals into teams which work together effectively.
The increasing use of Agile project management or, hybrid project management means the art of facilitation is becoming ever more important.
Team Building skills
I referred to creating teams above in the context of facilitation, but I want to emphasise it here. I think team-building is an under-rated and under-used aspect of legal service delivery.
Too often legal service teams are teams in name only. In practice most legal service teams are a collection of individual legal practitioners who are happiest when working on technical legal and procedural issues in their specialist area. This is fine so far as it goes, but from a client’s perspective the sum of the team’s parts can fall short of its collective potential.
Delays and misunderstandings within teams are primarily caused by poor inter-team communications (see above) and these often arise because the teams do not have a set of shared values, behaviours and project vision.
It does take time and effort to create an effective working team but, especially when working on large and complex matters, it is time well spent.
This is another aspect of communication skills, but a specialist one.
Project managers need to be adept at presenting to small and medium sized groups if they are to build effective teams and communicate project aims, progress and revised planning.
When sitting through your next poor presentation bear in mind that the fault, such as it is, is not wholly the presenter’s. It seems relatively few people have the opportunity to attend presentation skills training and fewer still get chances to practice the skills they have learned.
I. T skills
Given the prevalence of Information Technology (I.T) now in all walks of life, basic I.T understanding and competence is expected of legal project managers.
Competence with Microsoft Office applications is the minimal requirement.
Legal project managers also need to have a working knowledge of legal I.T software.
By this I mean they should know what kind of application is most suited to resolve different problems, how the application is likely to work and how (in a non-technical sense) any new application will integrate with others in use.
Specialist advice from I.T department colleagues should be sought and welcomed. But its never wise for anyone to view I.T in purely technical terms and abdicate responsibility for successful implementation to I.T staff. As with other business areas, legal project managers need to establish and maintain a degree of ownership over any potential I.T solutions they propose.
Change Management skills
Legal project managers also need to have good change management skills. Organisational and behavioural changes are invariably required if legal project management is to work properly and be applied for the good of all concerned.
As part of their change management skill-set legal project managers need to know about techniques used to identify inefficiencies, such as process mapping and legal design.
More importantly, they need to know how to manage change projects properly and make sure initial enthusiasm for change represented in the process maps and design boards are carried through to real-world implementation.
Getting legal service professionals to change the way they work is not easy. This is the challenge presented to legal project managers with regularity. I’d suggest that success in the role ultimately depends on the extent to which a legal project manager can implement change successfully.
This is a great time to be a legal project manager. The roles are available, they pay well and the work is interesting and varied.
Developing the skills and attributes outlined above will help develop your career as a legal project manager.
All these skills can be learned (I cover them in my legal project management courses) and they should be refreshed as part of your continuing professional development.