As legal projects, compliance programmes and strategic transactions become ever more complex and multinational in scope, a new breed of professional legal project manager is emerging to help manage the time, quality and cost paradigm. However, can project management principles which often originated from the world of construction and software development really hold good for legally-led projects? 

The practical imperative

30 years ago, the idea of a law firm or in-house legal department developing a template contract document or an organised bank of precedents seemed fanciful; the notion that senior lawyers would benefit from the help of a project manager in delivering a major M&A, big ticket dispute or regulatory investigation would have been downright unthinkable.

Yet today, most large corporates are increasingly recognising that an explosion in the scope and complexity of assignments - driven by the advancement of regulation, technology and cross-border trade - is leading to a corresponding need for professionalised project management capability.

Project managers have already demonstrated their worth in multiple areas, notably running major IT upgrades and other operational changes, but in front-line client facing engagements? That's quite a departure from traditional practice.

Senior lawyers are typically already familiar with managing projects. They'll usually have an intimate understanding of the organisation's operations, the industry in which it exists and a bounteous bank of knowledge from previous projects to exploit. Whether it's a big-ticket dispute, a cross-border acquisition or a major investigation, top lawyers usually have years of practical experience to call upon. In many respects there is no better person to organise the entire process.

Even so, there are plenty of instances where specialist project management expertise appears to be making a meaningful difference. In knotty, intricate, multifarious and complex projects, senior lawyers can become so worried and distracted by project management that it has a detrimental effect on the delivery of their core legal skills. When it's top-level legal expertise the client is paying for, they won't want that top talent diminished by a poor night's sleep.

"I think project management helps you to become a more considered lawyer, less stressed and more adept at covering things off. It helps you to eliminate surprises, ensure you are up-to-date on the finances and actually be able to deliver what you promised," comments Tom Leman, Head of Retail & Consumer at Pinsent Masons.  

Reaching out for help

Despite this obvious logic, client-facing project managers are still a relatively rare breed in the legal sector. Research conducted by Pinsent Masons in September 2019 found that some 1177 Project Managers are currently employed in the UK legal sector while an additional 395 Legal Project Managers - i.e. project managers who manage the delivery of legal services - are employed in the sector. All but one of the UK's top 10 law firms - and 18% of the top 100 UK law firms overall - currently employ project management professionals. However, most are believed to be involved in the delivery of internal projects as the legal sector increasingly adopts new technologies and delivery models. Those deployed on client matters often exist 'in the background' and are invisible to clients.

Yet, disciplined project management is an increasingly important component in the massive transformation of the legal profession following the global financial crisis in 2008. With Chief Finance Officers seeking to wrest greater control over legal spend, the sector has sought ways of driving additional efficiency and certainty. 

"The real driver is from clients. They want us to be better at being on time and on budget and clients are used to using project management themselves," says Rachel Wood, Client and Legal Project Management Lead at Pinsent Masons. 

There is a universal hunger for more transparency, more regular updates and an assurance that value for their money is being delivered. "The landscape has changed," says Laura Wattley, Commercial Lawyer at E.ON UK. "Private practice firms want to differentiate themselves from competitors and they are trying hard to badge themselves as an extension of the client they are working for."

Knocking down barriers

Engaging with clients in a more rounded way is an essential driver of how both private practice and in-house legal functions are evolving. For the last two decades particularly, lawyers have increased the emphasis on business and sector knowledge, and commercial understanding, developing additional abilities to communicate with other functions. 

While top lawyers have in large part achieved this, there is a growing recognition that project managers and project management disciplines can, in many instances, help to build a bigger picture perspective of the project, identifying key obstacles to be overcome to reach designated milestones. 

Tom Leman is an enthusiastic convert to the project management creed: "As lawyers you rely on what you have done before and it doesn't matter how big or small the deal is, you can always do with some of the disciplines that project management brings. It enables you to step back and reflect on how best to achieve the client's desired outcome, who the right people are to get involved and the level of responsibility for each particular action."

From the client perspective, there is an argument that project managers are, on occasion, actually better-positioned to provide a dispassionate sense of perspective to clients' expectations and ambitions. Laura Wattley says: "Whenever the commercial team brings in the lawyers, the first question they ask is often 'when will the contract be signed?' and we have to explain that timelines for getting a contract signed are dependent on the complexity of the project and  how heavily the contract will be negotiated. The commercial team may say they want certain things done by a certain time and often private practice lawyers are used to just saying yes to everything. Whereas a project manager can perhaps take a 'big picture' perspective and help to manage a client's expectations."

While interactions between the client and its legal advisers have evolved enormously in the last 25 years, the age-old glitches routinely still surface. 

"The key problems are not getting clear instructions from the client at the outset," Ms Wattley says. "It could be private practice not understanding enough about what is required, but the client has to take responsibility too. Often they may think they want ABC, when they actually want XYZ."

Inevitably, there are almost always changes to the scope of the project, most notably when lawyers uncover further unexpected glitches. 

Like any project, the scale of it frequently changes. It expands, infrequently narrows and this is especially true of legal engagements. For lawyers, this is awkward. Ever conscious of delivering added value, lawyers are understandably eager to get their hands dirty and make an immediate impact. "Lawyers want to respond quickly and get into the doing mode," says Dee Tamlin, Head of Client and Legal Project Management at Pinsent Masons. Here, project managers can step back, assess the engagement and pinpoint aspects that may be overlooked in the lawyer's eagerness to get started. 

Relinquishing control

That's not to say that lawyers are incapable of bigger picture thinking and horizon scanning. Partners and senior lawyers have been managing legal projects for decades, if not centuries, and many are now routinely trained in best-practice project management principles. They have the experience to pinpoint the steps required to get from A to B, to identify key milestones, timelines and budgets. Yet when projects are especially big, complex, intense or time pressured, it is understandable that project management might seem a tall order.  

Rachel Wood says that the goalposts often move freely around the field of play and this can put a huge amount of pressure on a partner who is always trying to create the most effective legal solution. "It’s always the commercial nuances, the unexpected developments and the people on the other side, who could be easy or more difficult to deal with," she explains. "Things come out of the woodwork and then the scope changes, but lawyers are locked into the timeline and the quote they have given, which puts them under a huge amount of pressure."

Laura Wattley

Commercial Lawyer at E.ON UK

Private practice firms want to differentiate themselves from competitors and they are trying hard to badge themselves as an extension of the client they are working for.

Yet this is not a binary choice. Use a project manager or don't use one? While project management may work best when the project manager is brought in at the start for the critical initial planning stage, there is still the opportunity to call them in at a later stage in the engagement when scale and complexity become a challenge too far. The lawyers do not need to cede control to the project manager either. They can co-deliver with the project lead maintaining a high degree of ownership. "For me, it depends on the size of the project," says Ms Wattley. "If it's a small project, I would expect the lawyer to manage it effectively without the need for a specific project manager."

She believes that for larger projects clients will have an increasing preference for lawyers to concentrate on what they are good at, and for project managers to focus on the project management piece: "It might increase the costs for a separate resource, but I would rather a project manager do it than a lawyer. They typically have a cheaper hourly rate than a lawyer anyway."

Rachel Wood says that one partner that she works with draws comfort from project management in that it eradicates unwanted surprises for the client: "It helps him see things further down the track so that adjustments can be made. In-house lawyers often understand that things change and are happy to make adjustments and modify the budget. They just prefer to be notified before the event. They have to report up in their own business, so they want transparency and communication to eliminate surprises. They don't want to go to the board and ask for more money when their budget is blown."

Diminishing responsibilities?

There are understandable concerns where traditional responsibilities are delegated elsewhere. Some lawyers may feel that their authority is being usurped or their status diminished.

Lessons from other industries should provide some comfort. In the pharmaceutical space for example, project management has been brought in to manage the research and development process, where scientists remain absolutely crucial to the success of the project. 

Lawyers too should be empowered through absorbing project management skills by working alongside and collaborating with specialists, with these disciplines eventually being woven into the DNA of the organisation. "Lawyers are going to get better at doing this themselves," Rachel Wood says. "You wouldn't have a project manager on every IT upgrade, because often the IT director will be able to do it themselves through certain tools and learned techniques. It will be the projects that are a bit different or particularly difficult that would require a project manager." She believes a project management resource frees up lawyers to do more complicated legal work. With multijurisdictional matters that have many moving parts and workstreams, coordination then becomes more or less a full-time job.

The idea that the use of project managers will make a career in law even more rewarding is a valid one. Rebecca Fox, Head of Commercial at the Association for Project Management (APM), says: "I'm sure most lawyers don't relish the administration and project based tasks. Without [professional project management], teams might struggle to attract and recruit people in. That might be the risk if they end up getting left behind."

Evolving from PM to LPM

While project management was pioneered in other industries with certain elements of the discipline being traced back to the construction of the Egyptian pyramids and other iconic achievements, it is now increasingly referred to as legal project management (LPM) in the profession. Whether or not those that operate in this sphere should be specialists in the sector is a much-debated point. Having experience in the profession is a natural advantage, though there is much to be said for having a more detached perspective. As true innovators and disruptors will argue, just because a certain method has been used for decades doesn't mean that it is right approach. 

Dee Tamlin is not convinced that firms need to seek out LPM specialists, but rather they should focus on the mutual rewards of lawyers and project managers working side by side. She believes this is about upskilling lawyers in the art of project management and then training project managers to understand legal sector dynamics and priorities. 

Rebecca Fox senses there is probably too much attention paid to legal specialism: "I think the skills are universal and what is important are the outcomes rather than the inputs."

So, will project managers becoming increasingly prominent within the profession? 

If law firms and in-house legal departments wish to strive further to align themselves with the businesses that they serve, it would seem folly to reject an approach that many organisations are already using internally. Moreover, lawyers should welcome the chance to focus more on achieving the client's desired outcome. That's where they can really deliver added value.  

Market forces will dictate of course. However, pressure on fees, the need to deliver quickly and with greater certainty, and the further advancement of key technologies look set to drive project managers even further into the nucleus of legal operations.