Legal Business Blogs

Guest post: Legal project managers – pioneers or homesteaders?

The recruiters are scouring the market for project managers (PM) to work in law firms. But whilst firms can agree on the title, they don’t agree on the role specification and often the real job is different yet again. So what exactly are they looking for, and why are many firms failing to find them?

Let’s begin by considering the legal topography into which these PM’s are being parachuted. All firms currently undertake legal project management, whether they know it or not.  The question is how well they do it. Most firms say that they are client-centric and service-obsessed. Project management encompasses both: the ability to deliver what the client has agreed to pay for (client-centric), when and how they want it (service-obsessed). Partners consider these two attributes as their raison-d’etre, and are loathe to cede them. Thus before our intrepid PM’s don their parachutes, the resident natives believe that they are doing a good job, so the welcome as they land is normally muted rather than exultant.

Partners are right to be concerned in one sense.  No project manager can take away the partner’s accountability for the client relationship. The PM is, however, normally charged with being responsible for the profitability of a matter/collection of matters/client engagement framework. But responsible to whom, for what?  Partners hold their client relationships tightly, and even when a client is served by a number of diverse partners the client relationship partner is often the leader only in name.  A key role of a non-legal PM is the staffing and efficiency of a project, so this lack of buy-in comes as a surprise to the non-legal PM who presumed that the logic alone and the direction of the Client Partner would ensure engagement. The PM slowly discovers that the buy-in of each individual partner is essential for a PM to deliver enhanced profitability. The PM then realises that the firm may be able to offer a client a variety of ways of doing their work (traditional, north-shored or outsourced), but the partner may choose not to, as increased efficiency may mean fewer personal chargeable hours. When stuck between a rock and a hard place, the typical lawyer will argue that their matter is an exception, which puts them outside the rock/hard place scenario.

Faced with resistance from partners – or in some cases the anticipated resistance from partners – the PM is often re-directed to work with non-partners, maximising the efficiency of the parts of a matter/deal, without affecting the partner role unnecessarily. The astute reader will notice that this is not the standard definition of PM, and the even more astute reader will be pondering whether the skills set required for this activity is not different from that required for a typical PM. The differences are myriad, but in legal setting the new hire is expected to be able to do both the macro and the micro PM, whereas in industry micro-PMing is considered business process re-engineering; a very different activity. Process re-engineering is focussed on repeated processes – making the standard more efficient.  Project Management is about the non-repeated – making the unknown more predictable. They are different roles, and firm’s need to be clear what they’re looking for:

A legal PM – A pioneer who can cope with arrows in their back as they seek to evangelise the natives about the merits of PM, and who are focused on converts who will spread the message.

A process PM – a homesteader who will work within defined boundaries and the rule of law to make the town run smoothly, focused on the income necessary to develop the town.

Industry-trained PM’s are routinely equipped for neither role. As PM’s they are generalists who expect to work with professionals who understand and respect their expertise. The process role, meanwhile, requires them to understand legal processes or face a very steep learning curve.  It’s a recruiter’s dilemma.

There’s probably a 2-column table which could be created which sets out the differences between homesteaders and pioneers, but the main lesson is that a recruiting firm needs to be clear about whether they are hiring a pioneer or a homesteader. A good test is to ask the partners with whom the new hire will be working to define the role and responsibilities of the new hire. If the response is a blank face, the role one for is a pioneering PM, and you need to find a thick-skinned, flexible individual who can influence as well as manage.  If the response is lucid but doesn’t include changing the client-partner interface the role is one for a homesteading process champion, and a legal background would be very helpful. If the response is both lucid and involves changing the partner role you probably need to wake up, because you’re day-dreaming again.

Jamie Pennington’s consultancy, Pennington Hennessy, provides mentoring, coaching and training to law firms. You can read his blog here.