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Four Traits of Effective Legal-Project Managers

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In an article for The Register, Ken Young lists four essential characteristics of project managers.[1]  All four characteristics also apply to legal-project managers...with some minor twists and caveats.   

"PMs do it in the right order, standing in front of complicated charts"
The first phrase certainly applies to legal-project managers (and makes for a good, geeky t-shirt saying), but the second phrase? Not so much. Other than perhaps large e-discovery matters, most legal projects do not require complicated charts. A legal-project manager standing in front of complicated charts is probably new to the discipline. He may be someone with a project-management background trying to apply skills and experience from prior work to the legal environment (and trying to impress his new spreadsheet-adverse employers). Or, he may be someone with a legal background who thinks that project management is all about GANTT charts and schedule network diagrams, because they are the most obvious, visible things that look different from "normal legal work." In either case, the charts are likely more impressive than the project results.

If the first lesson a legal-project manager must learn is the importance of planning and documenting legal work, the second lesson should be to not over plan and over document. Determining how much is the right amount depends on the nature of the work. Skilled project managers have learned how to apply the Goldilocks Principle to avoid project death by either inadequate or excessive planning and documentation. 
"PMs take the blame if the project goes bad; it's in their job description"
While this should apply to legal-project managers, all too often it isn't in the job description. Most legal-project managers are accidental project managers. Also, much project-management work is done by legal-support personnel who are not given any authority over the project. This is a common problem I see with e-discovery project management. A litigation-support professional, paralegal, or junior associate is tasked with managing e-discovery in a matter, but is given very little authority to do so effectively. Responsibility without authority is the primary attribute of a scapegoat, not a project manager. 

This is why I feel that any firm or legal department that wants to implement legal-project management needs to clearly define the role of project manager, whether it is a permanent position or a role that different staff members take on from project to project. Whoever is put into this role must have authority to run the project and that must be clear to everyone on the project. Without this, don't bother. 

With that authority comes the responsibility to take ownership of the project and accept blame for its failures. Legal-project management, however, presents an interesting twist to the accepting-blame bit. Lawyers are held to rules of professional responsibility. I strongly believe that good project-management practices can help lawyers better ensure compliance with their ethical duties. Yet, at the same time, legal-project managers bear much more responsibility than most project managers. In what other industry do project managers risk losing their or their sponsors' licenses to practice their profession if they completely botch their management of a project?  

This is why hiring a certified project manager to develop project-management systems and to manage projects, so attorneys can just delegate and ignore that "project-management stuff," is not a LEGAL-project management initiative. The attorney-in-charge cannot delegate away her ethical obligations. She has a duty to supervise the work of the legal-project managers working under her. There is nothing wrong with delegating project-management to those better skilled at it. In fact, it is more ethical for the attorney to do so if she has trouble managing everything on her own. But the supervising attorney needs to understand what her delegatees are up to and ensure that their actions do not violate her ethical duties to her client. She will be able to do so much more effectively if she has had some legal-project management training herself.  

So, again, if your legal-project management initiative is not going to involve training your senior attorneys as well as the junior attorneys and support staff, don't bother.
"PMs aren't more important than the project, but bad ones think they are"
This is a universal truth that applies not just to project management, but to management in general. It takes leadership to stay focused on what is best for the project and project team. When considering the management of legal projects, I think those in greatest danger of this are attorneys-in-charge who are also doing the project-management duties themselves. 

For example, when prioritizing project-team activities, there is a high risk of an attorney-in-charge prioritizing activities that provide him with what he wants more quickly, rather than what will move the project forward more effectively and efficiently. I think that a self-aware and team-focused attorney-in-charge will, where resources allow, delegate project-management to someone else. For more egregious cases of narcissism, there is a much better stick available to legal-project management than to project management in other industries--the rules of professional responsibility governing the supervising attorney. Lawyers who engage in self-dealing at the expense of their clients can be, and often are, severely penalized.
"PMs think most processes need improving and, if you sit down at a PC with them, they will show you how"
Yes. While project management and process improvement are two different disciplines, a good project manager will look to optimize workflows. A crucial caveat, however, is that a project manager is not afraid to step outside the established process. Project management is all about effectively managing work that is unique and of limited duration. It is not about cranking out identical widgets. While much of legal work is susceptible to process improvement, you can't let your process become your religion. A process should be a habit, not a ritual. It makes an activity easier, automatic, and predictable. It doesn't bring you closer to God. 

A good project manager appreciates good processes, understands what they are and how to apply them, but also has the discipline check whether a process is fit for given project and the leadership to occasionally deviate from established processes where a project is more effective if done in a different way.

As for sitting down with you on a computer and showing you how, it may not be a computer (no software is required for legal-project management, white boards and legal pads are still useful technologies), but a good legal-project manager is able to break down a legal matter into tasks and deliverable in ways that make sense to lawyers. They will further be able to identify those activities that are more-or-less repeatable from matter to matter and suggest tools and methods to more efficiently and effectively monitor, measure, and complete these activities. They can also show how this will allow for more accurate cost and time estimates, decrease errors, and increase profit.

[1]Ken Young, Project Managers: Fall-guys or Heroes?, The Register, (Nov. 08, 2010, 10:40 GMT),


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This page contains a single entry by Paul C. Easton published on November 9, 2010 10:49 PM.

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