For decades, the term “project management” invoked images of construction workers and engineers huddled around a set of blueprints, scheming to raise a building from the ground up. It was rarely, if ever, applied in the legal setting.
In recent years, however, the legal profession has embraced the concept of project management. In fact, the American Bar Association has become quite focused on the topic, even offering a four-day seminar and scores of reference materials on legal project management (LPM).
How does LPM enhance the legal profession? What are some of the skill sets needed to become an effective project manager? And what does project management mean within the legal context?
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What is legal project management?
According to one ABA publication, project management is “a proactive, disciplined approach to managing legal work that involves defining, planning, budgeting, executing, and evaluating a legal matter.” Importantly, it can (and perhaps should) be deployed in a broad range of engagements, from mergers & acquisitions to litigation.
Given the comprehensive reach of LPM, management plans should begin to form the day a law firm accepts a new engagement. Ultimately, the partner responsible for the matter will be the overall project manager, though she may work on LPM in tandem with a more management-focused, non-attorney member of the legal team (the “Project Manager”). Indeed, there are several LPM certification programs that are specially designed to train non-attorney professionals to manage legal matters.
How does project management enhance the legal profession?
While many lawyers have been hesitant to embrace project management, there are many reasons why LPM can enhance a legal practice. Chief among them, perhaps, is that LPM is beneficial to firm clients. Well-executed LPM can help clients understand the nature, scope, and anticipated costs of the engagement. By removing some of the surprise elements that have traditionally frustrated clients, the client becomes more supportive of the legal team (and, hopefully, less reticent to pay legal fees as the engagement plays out).
LPM can also enhance the experience of the team itself. Well-defined task roles, for instance, will not only remove some of the uncertainty about who is responsible for what, but can lessen costly mistakes, help avoid duplicative work, and assist the team in functioning as a team, instead of a group of competing individuals. All of which also serve to further engender trust and confidence in clients.
What skills are needed to become an effective Project Manager?
Project management is not a job for the faint of heart. Above everything else, Project Managers need to be effective leaders, great communicators, and experienced professionals. While other skills – technical competence and conflict management among them – are certainly important, these three attributes are non-negotiable.
The Project Manager must be a respected leader within the firm. This means the person is comfortable delegating, making unpopular decisions, and enforcing deadlines. Confidence is critical, but arrogance is fatal. Like any good leader, the Project Manager must also be optimistic by nature and have unshakeable integrity. These traits are so ingrained in an effective leader that as you’re reading this, you have probably already identified who on your current team possesses these key attributes.
The ability to communicate across multiple audiences is also an imperative trait. The Project Manager will be required to effectively convey ideas to her superiors within the firm, to clients, and to those who work underneath her. Additionally, she will need to communicate a variety of messages – from clear directions about task assignments to requests for status updates; from reprimands for sub-par performance to kudos for a job well done. And, like other great legal professionals, she will need to be able to communicate complicated ideas in simple ways.
Notwithstanding the availability and popularity of LPM certification programs, the Project Manager role must be assumed by a seasoned professional. The reasons for this are obvious. All the management training in the world won’t teach you to calendar discovery response dates, schedule meetings for participants across multiple time zones, or properly eFile an appellate brief. While the Project Manager certainly doesn’t have to perform all these tasks herself, she does need to understand them well enough to effectively manage those who are responsible for them.
As client demands for efficient legal services continue to grow, so too will the need for quality LPM. Fortunately, resources for getting started with an LPM program are plentiful and your firm’s future Project Managers are likely already working in-house. The key is identifying those leaders and empowering them to implement LPM programs without delay.
Does legal project management sound like something that your firm needs? Are you ready to hone your own LPM skills? Share your thoughts in the comments.