A few days ago, I was talking about this to the Director of Business Development at an AmLaw 200 firm. They are already one of the leading firms in project management, and they want to get further ahead. The central question was, what should his firm do to get to the next level? One of the options he raised was hiring outside project managers.
That same day, Greg Lambert at the 3 Geeks and a Law Blog posted a very interesting item entitled "Law Firm Project Managers - Lawyer or Non-Lawyer?" He started by reviewing a Hildebrandt blog post titled "Is It Possible To Turn Lawyers into Project Managers? Or Will They Crash & Burn?" which asked:
Is it possible to MAKE someone (a lawyer) a good project manager? Is it possible to change someone's behavior in order to drive the cost down? Will the push to drive down costs provide an impetus to change behavior? Is it possible to change behavior across a firm, i.e., change the culture of the firm?The questions had been discussed at Hildebrandt’s Marketing Partner Forum January 13-15, and the conclusion at that meeting was “A disappointing no – it is not possible to change behavior to drive the cost down.” Carla Landry, who wrote the post, disagreed with that group consensus. “Lawyers are inherently competitive and, I believe, if challenged to become good project managers, they will become some of the best project managers.”
In his follow-up post, Lambert took the discussion further, and argued that for project managers to be successful, “[Project management] has to be your primary (and sole) function.”
I respectfully disagree. The best way of implementing project management will vary from firm to firm, depending on each firm’s culture and on the individuals involved. In large firms, different practice groups may even answer the question in different ways.
Some lawyers will make good project managers; some won’t. Some firms will do well with individuals who focus exclusively on project management; some won’t.
One good example of a firm that uses full-time project managers is Orrick, who uses them "as part of our continuing focus on reengineering our approach to legal work." Their web page describes a separate job category for "Legal Team Professionals," including full-time project managers. According to sources at Orrick, some of their project managers are practicing attorneys but most are not.
Another example comes from the largest and best known firm that works strictly on an alternative fee basis: Bartlit Beck. Last April, when Fred Bartlit participated in my panel on alternative fees for West LegalEdcenter, he talked about how his 60-lawyer firm has centralized project management. At Bartlit Beck, there is no management committee.
One guy, Skip Herman, runs the entire firm, from deciding which cases to accept to setting the price and staffing each matter. We have no firm meetings and no conferences; Skip runs everything.A third example comes from Eversheds, a UK-based firm that has a project management section on its web page. It explains their approach, starting from the fact that:
We have invested more than £10m [that is, $16 million] in:
• developing innovative project management processes to provide transparency
• installing new IT systems to support our project management approach
• training all of our people to apply our project management methodology.
Which takes us back to Greg Lambert’s original question about who should serve as project managers: lawyers or non-lawyers? At one level, I don’t think it matters. As Richard Stout wrote in a followup post at Lawdable:
But knowing how to manage projects is the easy part. The hard part is getting lawyers to do it.
Excellent project management is completely dependent on the individual project manager. If you look hard enough, there are lawyers out there who are great project managers, who understand how to budget and track metrics, who know how to design and implement proven protocols – and who have been doing this for years. On the flip side, there are undoubtedly non-lawyers who can come into a project management role, add a lot of value, and do a better job than 95% of the lawyers who currently have project management responsibility.
In this time of transition, some firms will undoubtedly hire outsiders to manage legal projects. I predict that while a few may succeed, most will fail.
I am reminded of law firms’ experience over the last few years as they tried to become more professional about developing new business. Many experimented with hiring people with no law firm experience to help in sales. A few of these outsiders quickly figured out how law firms operate, and had great success. But most became frustrated by the way decisions are made, and not made, in law firms. They were unable to adapt to an environment in which they could be personally micromanaged by dozens of owners (that is, partners). Some quit, others were fired.As the owner of a firm that offers business development coaching, I know all too well how hard it is to get lawyers them to behave differently when selling. And most of them don’t even care that much about selling. It’s just the principle of the thing: they want to do things their own way.
Changing business development habits will look easy compared to getting lawyers to manage projects differently. Effective project managers will want some partners to change the way they have worked for their entire careers. Good luck.
I am not saying that this cannot be done. In fact, I believe that it MUST be done, and that firms that fail to figure out how to manage more efficiently are ultimately at risk of going out of business. But success is going to require flexibility, patience, resources, the right kind of training programs, and more than a little psychology.Each group’s answer to how to implement this change will be based on whether some of their lawyers are naturally good at it, whether those individuals want to do more, and how much time and money the firm is willing to invest in it. There are many ways to solve this problem, and what works in one firm or practice group may not work in another.
But of one thing you can be sure: to succeed in today’s challenging environment, firms will need to manage projects more efficiently.