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Who is best placed to act as legal project manager?
This is a question I get asked a lot when discussing legal project management with practising lawyers.
In this post I will put the question in context and answer it.
A Revealing Question
The question is revealing.
It can suggest that practising lawyers in firms which employ legal project managers are unsure about how best to work alongside them. This substantiates one of the main findings of the IILPM 2019 snap survey of legal project managers.
An increasing number of law firms now ask their Professional Support Lawyers (PSL’s) or Costs Lawyers to act as legal project managers, while keeping their primary job title. Here too, I think there is sometimes a lack of clarity about the resources and skill-sets firms make available to practising lawyers trying to manage their matters better.
Getting Comfortable with Delegation
Ultimately it is for the practising lawyer (solicitor in the U.K) who ‘owns’ the matter who must ensure the matter is managed properly, from both a commercial and regulatory point of view.
Obviously, lawyers know this. What they really mean when they ask the question above is they don’t feel they have enough time or knowledge to manage matters from an operational point of view to the standard they would like.
So who else could do more of the operational management on their behalf?
When answering this question, lawyers need to feel more comfortable delegating operational management to others. A first step towards feeling more comfortable is understanding who these others are and what qualifications and skills they have.
Typical Legal Project Manager Background
Most of the large commercial law firms in the U.K, now employ legal project managers.
Please bear in mind there are exceptions to practically everything I say in this article, but most people who have the job title of legal project manager appear to have more of a project management background than a legal one.
My impression, after eight years of training and talking with legal project managers, is that most legal project managers are not former practising lawyers.
Although non-practising, many legal project managers do hold law degrees and some have completed the post-graduate stage of training towards becoming practitioners. This means they are familiar with legal concepts and procedures, if not the detail, of legal practice.
In contrast, I know some legal project managers without any background in law at all and they are very good at what they do. The people I am thinking of take time to find out about any legal practice area they are asked to support, and develop a clear understanding of the work practising lawyers do.
Typical Legal Project Manager Qualifications and Experience
Most people holding the job title of legal project manager seem to have a generic qualification or certification in project management. I am glad to say a growing number hold more legally focused project management certification from the International Institute of Legal Project Management.
When law firms were first building up their cadre of legal project managers, they looked for candidates with project management experience in a professional services background.
As demand for legal project managers has increased, law firms have cast their net wider to find the right talent. Law firms now look both more closely at home to develop legal project management skills from within and also look beyond professional services for project managers who may successfully transition into the legal sector.
Legal Project Manager Job Specification
I have written previously that law firms employing legal project managers appear unsure about how best to deploy them. One result of this is that the legal project manager role can become an ill-defined and accorded lower status than it deserves.
In the largest law firms, especially those which are developing a degree of organisational project maturity, this is changing. These firms now have sophisticated legal operations teams where legal project managers work alongside process improvement specialists, pricing specialists and I.T specialists. In these firms legal project management is itself seen as a specialism, albeit one which is capable of straddling other disciplines too.
As with project managers found in other sectors, legal project managers spend most of their time engaged in communications of various sorts (research shows that project managers spend between 70% – 90% of their time on communications). Dramatically improving the quality, content and consistency of client communications is still one of the most often cited benefits of engaging legal project managers to assist with matter management.
Legal project managers can help in lots of other ways too, most notably with scoping, estimating, planning, and monitoring work in progress.
Legal Project Managers – A Scarce Resource
Despite the increased pace of legal project manager recruitment over the past 18 months or so (both in the U.K and elsewhere) there are not enough legal project managers to go around. Earlier this year Baker McKenzie’s London office was said to have about 3 legal project managers per one hundred lawyers. Baker McKenzie were one of the first firms to invest in legal project management and if anything its investment in this area is picking up pace.
Even so, with ratios such as this it is obvious that in the short and medium term there will not be enough legal project managers to help manage every single matter, even in the largest law firms.
To meet this resource challenge legal project managers spend quite a lot of time helping their legal practitioner colleagues help themselves, by making available templates, checklists and perhaps software whenever appropriate.
It’s down to each firm to determine its own criteria, considering things such as matter complexity, value and possible reputational risk, when deciding how best to deploy its resources (i.e legal project managers).
Enhancing Project Management Skills of Others
As mentioned in the introduction many law firms are enhancing the skill-set of other staff such as Professional Support Lawyers (PSLs) and Costs Lawyers, so they can act as legal project managers with confidence, whilst retaining their core job title.
Professional Support Lawyers (PSLs)
Many PSLs are no longer limited to providing research papers about developments in their specialist practice area. For example, PSLs help run targeted process improvement initiatives, the ultimate success of which depends on good project management skills to ensure succesful implementation.
The best way PSLs have of making sure any new processes and procedures do in fact work well is to help run live matters through the new processes and procedures. In this way PSLs act as de facto legal project managers if they have enough legal project management skills and knowledge to do so.
Most PSLs are also former practising lawyers. Hence, they are familiar with the detailed law, practice and procedure in relation to the practice areas they support. Having chosen to take a step away from providing front-line legal advice, PSLs should be very well placed to perform the legal project manager role if they want to.
Similarly, in the field of civil litigation, costs lawyers already have an excellent understanding of litigation procedure and cost budgeting, particularly in connection with Precedent Form H. Every costs lawyer I have met has ideas about how litigators should be managing their case budgets more effectively.
As with PSLs some costs lawyers have sought to deliberately extend their skill-set to include knowledge about more formal project management methods and techniques.
Personally, I am constantly surprised that litigators do not make more use of legal project manager costs lawyers. In fact, given their core skill-set I am surprised that legal project manager costs lawyers are not used more by lawyers in other practice areas too.
Most practising lawyers dislike working with numbers and budgets, whereas costs lawyers love doing this. By adding some knowledge about things such as stakeholder engagement, project communications and Agile techniques means that costs lawyers should also be really well placed to become effective legal project managers.
Senior Associates in Large and Mid-Sized firms
It should be remembered that the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s Competence Statement for Solicitors requires all practicing solicitors to be competent in a range of project management tasks such as those set out in Section D of the Statement. As noted above, solicitors having conduct of files can delegate these tasks but ultimately they remain responsible for their overall execution.
In large and mid-size law firms it is usually senior associates who are expected to be primarily responsible for matter management, including making sure the legal service team is working effectively. Hence in the absence of anyone else able and available to act as legal project manager, it will fall to the senior associates to take on this role.
Often the best way of preparing senior associates for this is to train them about legal project management before they become senior. Often the day-to-day demands of their role have the effect of increasing senior associate resistance to change – simply because it’s hard to change when you are very busy.
Ideally therefore, legal project management skills should be acquired by lawyers at an earlier stage of their professional development. This way young lawyers can start practicing legal project management techniques earlier so increasing the likelihood they become an integral part of their overall skill-set
Practising Lawyers In Smaller Law Firms
According to the most recent statistics from the Law Society of England and Wales there are just under 9500 law firms in England and Wales with almost 94,000 solicitors holding practising certificates. 86% of those solicitors work in small law firms, which have four or less partners.
It is fair to assume that small law firms will not have the financial capacity to employ legal project managers, professional support lawyers and costs lawyers. Moreover, practising solicitors in these firms are also obliged to acquire competence in key project management tasks as set out in Section D of the Solicitors Statement.
My advice to practising solicitors in these firms – and indeed to solicitors anywhere – is to at least consider the place of legal project management skills when you next consider your strengths and weaknesses as part of your professional development review.
To help you with this I have produced a self-assessment questionnaire. The questionnaire is based on specimen format supplied by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, adapted to focus on legal project management skills. You can download the self-assessment questionnaire here.