Legal Project Management (LPM) is a discipline recognised widely in the legal services sector. All of the large law firms in the City of London, along with some of the larger regional firms, now employ legal project managers.
What is legal project management? What do legal project managers do? What, if anything, differentiates legal project managers from professional project managers active in other industry sectors? Given that some City law firms offer between £60k and £90k for senior legal project managers, knowing the answer to these questions may be more than of passing interest!
What is Legal Project Management?
I define LPM, and its rationale, as:
The application of project management principles to the delivery of legal services. LPM helps law firms run projects (including live client matters) more productively. This helps increase client satisfaction and maintain law firm profitability.
In other words, legal work of all kinds – whether it be litigation or non-contentious work – is (or should be) project managed properly, from start to finish.
In large law firms, legal project managers work alongside lawyers and other professionals to help deliver legal services more effectively. The model most often adopted is for a legal project manager to become embedded within a legal team doing particular kinds of legal work such as banking and finance, mergers & acquisitions, commercial property or certain types of complex commercial litigation such as construction disputes.
Interestingly, and perhaps at odds with the standard model outlined above, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) also expects individual solicitors to be able to demonstrate competence in project management.
The SRA’s Statement of Solicitor’s Competence refers to all solicitors being able to demonstrate competence in things such as matter scoping, resource management, budget management, planning, monitoring and change control.
Why the ‘Legal’?
In the early days of LPM, plenty of people queried the need for the ‘legal’ prefix. What’s so special about law and lawyers that a prefix is required for what, after all, is just another application of project management in an industry sector?
While core practice will be familiar to project managers outside the legal sector, some skills and attributes expected of legal project managers reflect the requirements of the sector.
There is still some misunderstanding about what legal project managers actually do and what value they add but, compared to when I first started my consultancy practice just over five years ago, people are now much more aware of legal project management.
Second, the legal services industry is such a distinct branch of commerce, with lawyers using particular procedures, processes and terminology, that the ‘legal’ suffix is entirely justified.
By way of comparison, no-one (to my knowledge) has ever sought to query the phrase ‘legal IT’. It has always been accepted that legal IT is somewhat different from mainstream commercial IT. Something similar can be said for legal project management.
While core practice will be familiar to professional project managers outside the legal sector, some of the skills and attributes expected of legal project managers reflect the particular requirements of the legal sector.
What Do You Need To Be A Great Legal Project Manager?
So, what abilities, skills and attributes are required of legal project managers?
1. Project Management Skills
Familiarity with a range of project management methods and techniques and experience of applying them – obviously, this is the most basic pre-requisite.
2. Communication Skills
Again, communication skills are a core feature of project management and as such project managers in any sector must have excellent communication skills if they are to be successful.
Legal project managers find effective communications a lot easier if they truly understand what lawyers are trying achieve and how they go about achieving it. Even more importantly, legal project managers need to have great client facing communication skills. Often, it is the legal project managers who shape the lawyer-client engagement. Legal project managers need to understand what clients really value and then design the delivery project to make sure that value is delivered.
3. Commercial Awareness
Lawyers can survive only if the cost of the work they do is less than the price they charge for it. This statement of the blindingly obvious masks the fact that, slowly but surely, how lawyers price their work has become more sophisticated and complex.
Legal project managers will often have a say in how individual matters are priced. In some firms, they work alongside legal service pricing specialists to do this. The point is that legal project managers are often asked not merely to manage matters, but to play a significant commercial role ensuring matter (and lawyer) profitability.
4. IT Skills
In today’s world it is difficult to see how project managers in any sector can get by without well-honed IT skills. Considering their responsibilities for pricing and scoping matters, good IT skills are another fundamental pre-requisite for legal project managers.
The use of data analytics is now common and this allows legal project managers to do things such as review and assess previous matters and then estimate how future matters are likely to turn out in terms of time and cost to complete.
Legal project managers also need to be familiar with legal practice management systems, legal workflow systems and a range of other software tools (such as contract management systems) all designed to help produce legal work more efficiently.
It should also be noted that there are also some dedicated legal project management systems available. These systems interface with law firms’ practice management systems and they allow legal project managers and lawyers (in practice, usually the former) to plan and manage matters with varying degrees of detail.
Compared to other industry sectors, legal project management is still in its relative infancy. This means that, there is as yet an absence of a settled and widely followed legal project management methodology. Hence legal project managers need to be adaptable and be willing to change approach quickly if circumstances dictate.
Legal project managers are also usually asked to become involved with – or take the lead in creating – process improvement initiatives of various kinds. To do this successfully, flexibility is key.
6. Strategic Thinking
Even for those law firms which have been leading the way in legal project management, their journey along the road of (legal) project management maturity has barely started when compared to organisations in other sectors. Legal project managers are also expected to in play a leading role in developing a firm’s legal project maturity and service delivery capability. This requires strategic thinking, setting realistic goals and persistently working to achieve those goals over time.
As I am sure you appreciate, all this is easier said than done.
Is Legal Experience Essential?
There are legal project managers who have entered the law from other sectors. Sometimes law firms will clearly state that they are looking for project managers who have learned their skills in other sectors, most commonly in consulting or other professional service sectors.
Clearly, it is possible for project managers to move between industry sectors on a regular basis. One thing I have observed about the legal sector (and this is not confined to project managers) is that professionals who come into the legal services industry from other industries tend to stay in legal services for quite a considerable time thereafter. I suspect this is because after having built up knowledge about lawyers, legal processes and legal terminology further opportunities within the industry open up.
I am biased, and how could I not be? I have spent a working lifetime in law either as a solicitor (now non-practising), legal IT developer and project manager. It seems obvious to me that if you have a background in law you will be able to hit the ground running as a legal project manager and become effective more quickly than someone who is having to learn about the legal services industry on the job.
But that’s only my opinion, and the debate about whether it is better to have ‘domain specialist’ or ‘generalist’ project managers is probably as old as project management itself. One thing is for sure though: Legal Project Management is a growth area for those with the right skills, abilities and attributes.