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What should we expect of legal project managers?

Legal Project Management (LPM) is a well-established discipline and the role of legal project manager is an attractive career option for many people, both those already working in the legal services industry and those looking to enter it.

The continued rise of legal project management is being fuelled by client demand for improved communications, transparency and collaboration (the latter being especially prevalent among corporate clients).  This demand shows no sign of slowing down – quite the reverse.

So, what should we expect of legal project managers? Are our expectations realistic? What competencies should legal project managers have?


Current operational model and practices of legal project management

The legal project management model most often adopted in law firms is to have a relatively small cadre of dedicated legal project managers and then have them develop and promote legal project management practices for their fee earning colleagues.

Of course plenty of legal project managers are also fee earners, either because they are lawyers acting as legal project managers on their matters or, more relevantly to this article, they are full-time legal project managers whose time is charged out to clients whenever appropriate.

Legal project managers are most commonly asked to:

  1. Develop legal project management frameworks for law firm practice areas to follow
  2. Design templates and tools for fee earners and other legal project managers to use
  3. Educate fee earners, senior managers and partners about the benefits of legal project management (although legal project management is an established part of the legal services industry, not everyone understands it or engages with it properly)
  4. Support process improvement initiatives (which often involves some form of process mapping activity)
  5. Co-ordinate training of fellow team members in legal project management and coach their use of legal project management tools, techniques and methods
  6. Use, and /or investigate the further use of, software support for legal project management
  7. Perform hands-on work on live matters themselves by driving through project definition, planning, execution and closing activities
  8. Communicate directly with clients and other third parties concerning operational aspects of matters they manage.

I am sure some legal project managers get involved in other things too but, in essence, this is what most are asked to do today.


What should we expect of legal project managers?

Looking at the list above, the role of legal project manager can be quite broad.  This places a lot of demands on them, not the least of which is the need to master a wide range of skills and competencies.  Arguably this applies to project managers found in all other sectors, not just legal.

I can’t help but feel however the demands placed on legal project managers are sometimes exceptional, if not excessive.  This is compounded by the culture still prevalent in many law firms which makes it very difficult for people to say ‘no’ to more work.

This is not a problem confined to legal project managers.  It will be familiar to practically everyone who has worked in the legal services industry.

I’d suggest however this issue can be acute for legal project managers, and other relatively new roles in operational legal service delivery, because there is often a lack of clarity on the ground about what the role of legal project manager really is and what can be reasonably expected of legal project managers.

Because someone has ‘project manager’ somewhere in their job title it does not necessarily follow that they have the experience, knowledge and capability to perform all the tasks outlined above with distinction.

Just as there are different kinds of lawyers, there are different project managers.  Some legal project managers, especially those with a legal background, will feel more comfortable performing hands-on tasks working alongside their lawyer colleagues than, say, leading a firm-wide process improvement initiative.  For legal project managers who have a broader commercial background outside the legal services industry, the opposite is likely to be true.


IILPM’s Legal Project Management Competence Framework

Almost two years ago the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM) developed its Legal Project Management Competence Framework. 

This began by taking a high-level view recognising that legal project management, as applied in practice, is made up of several elements:

  1. Core project management practices
  2. Process improvements supporting legal service delivery
  3. Technology enablement and
  4. People (team) leadership.

The Framework then went on to list skills and knowledge areas expected of legal project managers and, more specifically, holders of the IILPM’s Legal Project Associate and Legal Project Practitioner certifications.

Further research, looking at legal project management practices across the globe (the IILPM has certified legal project managers in over 30 countries now), will allow the IILPM to update its Competence Framework later this year.

In fact, some research work has already started on this.  Results from a survey about legal project management practices will be fed into the Competence Framework update.  The IILPM also welcomes opportunities to support professional associations, and receive input from professional bodies and legal service providers when updating its LPM Competence Framework.

Meanwhile, a more recent IILPM model of legal project management in practice has been represented in the IILPM’s 4-Phase LPM Framework.


Potential updates to the Competence Framework

Without wishing to prejudice the outcome of the IILPM Competence Framework review and update I would hope to see greater emphasis placed on:

  1. Resource Management: it seems to me the trends of disaggregating legal service delivery, where different aspects of the same legal matter are farmed out to different law firms and lawyers, and the desire by lawyers (especially younger lawyers) to have a much better work-life balance are accelerating. This means there is greater need for human resource management.  Arguably, this will see a move from trying to ‘do more with less’ to ‘achieving more with fluid team structures’.
  2. Agile Project Techniques: By this I don’t just mean flexible working. I mean using a range of techniques which helps teams collaborate more effectively, both internally and externally (i.e. with clients).
  3. Communication Skills: I know this always gets said, ‘excellent communication skills are essential, etc’ but I’d suggest the legal project managers who will thrive will be those who are comfortable using the complete range of communication tools and techniques and who properly engage in two-way dialogue with colleagues (in hierarchical terms up, down and across) and with clients.
  4. Team Leadership: something of a hobby horse of mine, but I think we are at the stage now where more legal project managers should step up and lead projects rather than just manage them.

We are at the stage where the role of legal project manager has become well-established and recognised as a career path for ambitious professionals.

I think what legal project managers now need most is further support to develop their professional expertise and status.  This should be based on widely recognised competency models, ethical behaviour standards and better understanding of their role in legal service delivery.

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