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September 20, 2017

How to hire LPM staff (Part 2 of 2)

Based on our LPM work with over 100 law firms, LegalBizDev recommends that candidates should be evaluated based on the five criteria below, which are listed in order of importance: 

1.  Extensive legal experience, ideally at your firm.

In a 2006 American Lawyer article, David Maister published a classic article entitled “Are Law Firms Manageable?”  Maister’s article opened with these words: “After spending 25 years saying that all professions are similar and can learn from each other, I’m now ready to make a concession: Law firms are different.” He went on to describe four major differences at length: “problems with trust; difficulties with ideology, values, and principles; professional detachment; and unusual approaches to decision making.”

The most fundamental challenge in hiring legal project managers comes from this fact: they must learn how to work effectively with lawyers. More than a few law firms have made the mistake of hiring somebody with a traditional approach to project management and no experience with law firms.  The results include lots of wasted time developing plans, frustrated attorneys, LPM staff who move from firm to firm, and firms that think LPM doesn’t work. 

The best candidate may be someone who already works at your firm as a lawyer or a senior legal assistant, who is interested in being trained in LPM.  We believe that it takes much longer to understand a particular firm’s culture and operations than it does to learn the fundamentals of LPM.  Internal candidates already know how things really work behind the scenes at your firm and who the key players are. In addition, the people making the hiring decision also know the candidate well.

2.  A flexible approach to project management that fits the needs of law firms.

Traditional “waterfall” project management works best in an environment where requirements can be well defined at the start of a project and are relatively stable.  However, in the legal environment, that is rarely the case.  The result is that Agile project management techniques designed for rapidly changing environments are most valuable to lawyers, and in many cases the traditional approach may actually be counter-productive. According to the article quoted in Part 1 from two Seyfarth Shaw project managers (“Lean and agile – How LPM can transform client services,” in The Lawyer’s Guide to Legal Project Management), one of the qualities that Seyfarth looks for when it hires new project managers is:

Are [they] flexible in their approach to projects?  How well do they respond to fluid situations?  If they have only practiced the traditional waterfall project management methodology… we would have to consider whether they have the ability to adapt to our environment. (p. 91)

We have seen many cases in which law firms first tried to find people with legal experience and failed.  Then they decided to focus on credentials designed for other businesses, such as people who have been certified as Project Management Professionals (PMPs).  This can be exactly the wrong way to go, if the certification came in one of the many professions in which project managers devote an enormous amount of time and energy to defining requirements and making a complete plan at the start of a project.

In the legal environment, needs can change suddenly, and all of those expensive plans may have to get tossed out the window the instant an adversary changes its tactics.

3.  The interpersonal qualities needed to influence lawyers.

When Seyfarth hires LPM staff, another requirement is that candidates:

Possess a mature sense of confidence and ability to influence a team of high-performing individuals to achieve success.  Could we see them sitting alongside attorneys or across the table from our clients?  (p. 91)

Successful legal project managers are both diplomatic and credible, with the gravitas to be accepted by senior partners.  Many firms have hired individuals with great technical facility, but none of these personal qualities.  They tend to sit in their offices developing elaborate plans for a small number of like-minded partners, while everyone else ignores them.  They also tend to last only a year or two in the position, before moving to a different law firm, or out of the legal field.

Obviously, personal qualities such as flexibility and gravitas will be much easier to observe and assess if one hires internal candidates rather than relying on impressions from interviews.

4.  A highly organized detail oriented personality

By its very nature, LPM requires a high degree of organization, discipline and tracking details.  This is another factor that will be easier to assess for internal candidates than for external ones.

5.  Project management knowledge

Note that this is last in our list, because in our experience, it is the easiest to train.  A number of our clients who have promoted from within have used our LegalBizDev Certified Legal Project Manager® program to develop the appropriate knowledge base.

In our opinion, it is unfortunate that many firms put project management knowledge first on their list of requirements, instead of last. We have seen many cases in which firms have hired LPM Directors based on their project management experience in construction, government contracting, or other areas where traditional techniques are used and agile techniques are not.  This has led to many stories of LPM Directors who could not or would not adapt to a legal environment, and ended up working with the very small group of partners who were interested in project charters, Gantt charts, and tools like Microsoft Project software.

Seyfarth faced these exact problems with their own first LPM hires:

The rigors of traditional project management, with its detailed documentation, waterfall-based phases, change control, and paperwork, were interfering with delivery in the fast-paced and often unpredictable world of legal service delivery. (p. 87)

Once Seyfarth switched to an Agile-based approach, legal project managers gained widespread acceptance among lawyers and “three day planning meetings were replaced with one hour kickoff meetings.” (p. 87)

This series was adapted from the fifth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, a frequently updated online library of LPM tools and templates.

 

 

 

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