Talk To My Lawyer…Or My PM?


Talk to my lawyer.  That’s a phrase that has, unfortunately, become part of our project management lexicon.  But what about when the lawyers need to say, “Talk to my Project Manager?”

Legal project management is becoming a sub-profession for some project managers as law firms discover the complexities of managing client direction, client information and client goals.  In Australia, a separate certification has emerged for legal project managers, and in the States, it’s become the focus of books and papers.

One of the authors who has come to the fore on the topic is Steven B. Levy, CEO, Lexician.  He coaches and teaches personnel in law offices how to manage their legal projects.  He says their goals are not far afield from the goals of most project managers.

“I think of it as a pyramid. At the top, help the client. Lawyers, including the project managers among and supporting them, are in the service business. Next level, do so effectively. Effectiveness beats the heck out of efficiency every time.

“Efficiency is doing things right, but effectiveness is doing the right things. Because doing the wrong stuff – however effectively – isn’t fulfilling the mandate to help the client. Being effective means focusing on client needs, which starts with understand those needs, and distinguishing among wish, want, and need.”

Levy believes it’s about identifying needs, clarifying solutions and doing the nuts and bolts of good project management and leadership.  “What’s the client’s business problem? Because clients first have business problems. If they’re in your office there’s likely a legal component in there somewhere, but it’s all about enabling the business to move ahead.

“What does done look like? What are the CSFs, Critical Success Factors, the three or four items that define success? If you can’t agree on those, you risk doing too much or too little or the wrong work, or all three. Third in the pyramid, teamwork and leadership.

“Even a sole practitioner is part of a team – not just a paralegal or secretary, but the client, too. Lawyers can be great managers and leaders, but they often have to overcome their own sit-at-the-feet-of-the-master training to excel at leadership.

“Finally, I might list efficiency in all its manifestations. Time management. Money/budget discipline. Communication. Ensuring that assignments – and the time budgets for them – are well understood. Contingency planning and all the other core project management ‘stuff.’”

David Kearney, Legal Project Management and Pricing Administrator for Cohen & Grigsby, P.C., suggests that just as with every other form of project management, one of the keys is recognizing the unique nature of each project.  “I facilitate the implementation of ‘Legal’ Project Management practices, education, and the building of project management processes into the workflow of legal matters working with the lawyers and legal teams to better manage client engagements.

“Every matter and attorney’s practice is unique, so understanding the level of project management rigor that can be applied to each client matter and practice area is critical.  It has become increasingly important to deliver as much value, transparency, predictability, and repeatability as possible in providing legal services to clients, regardless of whether those clients are internal or external.”

Kearney suggests that legal projects used to be managed on more of an ad hoc basis, but times have changed.  “My role is a cross between project management, finance, marketing, and technology and as clients become more sophisticated and more critical of their legal spend and related processes, [project management] has become an expected skillset.”

Like so many project managers, Kearney wrestles with the challenge of knowing some, but not all of the directions, in which a project will go.  “More often than not, strict scoping discussions and value are not defined at the outset.

“The lack of conversations about either scope creep or a distinct unexpected change that can alter the budget and/or time significantly makes further discussions on any issues uncomfortable at a minimum and can easily tarnish a relationship.”

He says the one of the essentials in being an effective legal project manager is clear communication.

“A true two-way relationship between a lawyer and client needs to be beneficial to both parties, so being able to have an open dialogue about an organizations legal challenges and business goals is at the center of a trusted relationship.

“Having this type relationship in place is ideal in scoping, budgeting, staffing, scheduling, monitoring and controlling, and closing a matter.  The more sophisticated and relationship-focused a client, the higher quality of legal work that will be delivered by the attorneys and their legal teams.

“Much of this ideal outcome is attributable to direct communication and managing expectations between attorneys and their teams and the organizations requiring legal services with pre-determined value being delivered.”

Levy concurs about the leadership conundrum.  “As Walt Kelly said in the comic strip Pogo, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’ We get in our own way.

“We’re so eager to get started we fail to plan, to examine risks, to set budgets. And then we pursue each thread forever, doing more and more that’s worth less and less, because that’s what lawyers were trained to do in school, without regard to the value to the client of that particular pursuit.

“We don’t know how to manage projects, and don’t take the time to learn, because ‘we didn’t go to law school to become project managers.’ (It’s like the movie character who says, ‘We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.’[Treasure of Sierra Madre/Blazing Saddles]) And most of all, we don’t learn to truly lead.

“At best, many lawyers manage – some better than others. Good management skills are important, but with super-smart knowledge workers such as lawyers, good leadership makes the biggest difference. And leadership can be learned.

“Maybe great leaders are born, but most of us – even those like me who started off as terrible managers – can with coaching and self-knowledge learn to be good leaders. (Having team members willing to speak up – and kick us in the behinds when needed – is also a great help to learning to lead.)”

Kearney points out that there are still quite a few challenges to be overcome.  The biggest?  Time.  “There are a couple of impediments, or challenges, to the ideal outcome of establishing open communications about and the implementation of processes, efficiencies, managing, reporting, and budgeting.

“All of this takes time and the right workflow and toolbox to build a successful relationship and ideal outcome for everyone involved.  Managing legal work, for the most part, is complex.”

The unique nature of legal projects, just like the unique nature of all projects, creates an amplified need to build project manager-to-customer relationships.  “Although some legal work can be standardized or commoditized, not all matters can be made to look the same and not all clients or their engagements can be approached as ‘cookie-cutter’ at the onset.

“So, attorneys that invest the time to learn the uniqueness of their clients business and platform and clients appreciating that attorneys want to learn their business and strive to deliver high quality legal work enables an efficient and effective relationship over the long term.

“Meaningful strategic relationships, key partnerships, and a long-term investment strategy facilitates a customized approach to providing value and is the start of a client-based approach to serving as legal counsel.

“Communication and education about project management, processes, and how important defining the scope at the onset is key and is probably one of the [other] biggest challenges, but this ensures a high return on investment.”

Levy adds the caveat that it’s crucial to remember that communications cuts both ways.  “Remember the old sign on ungated railroad crossings? ‘Stop, look, listen.’ Or maybe, ‘Don’t just do something, stand there’ – until you understand what questions you need to ask of the client and your team to truly understand what you need to do.

“What the client needs, not just wants or wishes for. And to some extent, what the firm or department needs, because every project involves expanding the skills of those on the way up. Planning itself isn’t that hard. 1) What do you want to happen? 2) What can go wrong? 3) What will you do about it? 4) Who else needs to know about this? And while it’s true that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, remember Eisenhower’s law: ‘Plans are useless, but planning is essential.’”

PM Today asked each expert what they would do to ensure the highest probability of success in legal projects.

Rebecca A. Winston, Owner at Winston Strategic Management Consulting, says that success is about language and relationships.  “The ‘lesson learned’ is to establish rapport through a shared lexicon and by using the staff in the organization with which you are to work.”

She adds that credibility in both worlds is crucial.  “Have some legal background. I am an attorney by education, as well as a project manager, so I have credibility in both professions.”

Such credibility is definitely high on David Kearney’s list, as well.  “Having worked in the legal field across a couple of different areas for twenty years, one of the biggest lessons learned that I should have shouldered earlier was a deep understanding of what each practice is actually involved in.

“With a high-level of knowledge in technology and the litigation process, I was lacking a lot of knowledge in each practice group, what work was done in each practice, and the nuances of each attorney and practice.

“I would recommend that one considering getting into ‘Legal’ Project Management learn all they can about the type of matters that they could be managing.  Understand how cases are broken down into phases, tasks, and activities; what attorneys practice what types of law; and how the matters are currently managed.”

Kearney believes that kind of background information and research grants the project manager depth, as well as breadth.  “This will allow a project manager to properly manage the matter.  Also, know what is happening in the legal vertical, what tools are available, and what similar organizations are doing with regards to project management.

“A good way to understand a practice from a law firm perspective is to read about the firm’s practices on their website, participate in responding to RFP’s from outside organizations, and understand the pricing of these services within your organization and compare that to what is available in the market.

“Having this knowledge will provide a good head start in being able to develop a plan to help attorneys manage their matters and add value to the engagement.”

In Levy’s world, the word “luck” is a four-letter word.  And he’s not a big fan of the term “hero”, either.  “The biggest lesson is that even if heroic efforts can sometimes overcome the lack of planning, we’re not serving our clients – or for that matter, ourselves – if we rely on luck and heroism.

“Because luck runs out, and in the real world heroes die. Saying “we did the best we could” is palliative, and may make both you and the client feel better… but was that really the best you could do? Or was it just hard work by smart people, unguided by planning and skillful management of projects, of people, of money, of the client, of time?

“Because those are the five things you can manage, and life is a lot more fun and less hectic (albeit less heroic as well) when you start managing them.”

Both Kearney and Levy believe learning more about the client and the profession is a key step forward for those already in the legal project management realm or those thinking to join the fray.

Kearney cites a few key areas where the learning should happen:

“1. Learn the legal industry.

  1. Learn what your organization provides as far as legal services.
  2. Educate yourself on the finance piece of the legal services your organization provides or that your organization needs. .
  3. Apply project management concepts and tools when needed.  All good attorneys are fairly good project managers in their own right.

Attorneys that have had success in their practice have done so not by only knowing the law but by managing their cases to a budget, schedule, and/or scope.”

And while Levy suggests his book might be one good learning tool, “Get help. Get some training. Don’t try to go it alone. And realize there is no magic bullet, no easy answer. Training can only point you toward a better path.

It can’t set your feet on the path, and it certainly can’t propel you along that path. Only you can do that. And to do so, you have to want to get better, want to serve clients better, want to take control of all the “project stuff” so it isn’t overwhelming… you can find ways to feel in control of it, so that you can get to the cool stuff you actually went to law school for!”

Carl Pritchard is PM Today U.S. Correspondent.

Carl Pritchard
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