Rachel Wood: The rise of the professional legal project manager

Rachel Wood

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, writes Rachel Wood.

Thirty years ago the notion that 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 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.

In a departure from traditional practice and to support the delivery of client matters on time and on budget, last October Pinsent Masons introduced a Client and Legal Project Management Division (CLPM), which has so far won project management mandates in the UK, mainland Europe, South Africa, Singapore and Australia. As Pinsent Masons transitions from being an expertise-based law firm to a professional services firm with law at its core, we believe project management is a great example of a skillset which supports the excellent delivery of projects and transactions.

Senior lawyers are typically already familiar with managing projects. They’ll have an intimate understanding of the organisation’s operations, the industry in which it exists and a bank of knowledge from previous projects, and 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 intricate, multifarious and complex projects, senior lawyers can become distracted by project management and that could have a detrimental effect on the delivery of their core legal skills.

Despite this obvious logic, client-facing project managers are still relatively rare in the legal sector. Research by Pinsent Masons found that some 1177 Project Managers are currently employed in the UK legal sector while an additional 395 Legal 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 per cent 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.

Yet, disciplined project management is an increasingly important component in the massive transformation of the legal profession following the global financial crisis in 2008. There is a universal hunger for more transparency, more regular updates and an assurance that value for money is being delivered.

There is a growing recognition that project managers and project management disciplines can help to build a bigger picture perspective of the project, identifying key obstacles to be overcome to reach designated milestones. 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.

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.

One benefit of project management is that it eradicates unwanted surprises for the client - who prefer to be notified before the event - and a project management resource frees up lawyers to do more complicated legal work.

If law firms and in-house legal departments wish to further to align themselves with the businesses that they serve, it is a natural development that project managers will become increasingly prominent within the profession.

Lawyers should welcome the chance to focus more on achieving the client’s desired outcome, as that’s where they can really deliver added value. 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.

Rachel Wood is client and legal project management lead at Pinsent Masons