Forget the bunkum. Which management skill do lawyers really need?

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It’s official. Brilliant legal minds are passé.

You might be able to recall some obscure case that clinches the biggest deal of the year, but this season all the winners will be sporting MBAs. Management is the thing. And business growth is the mind-set.

Or so you would think from the endless times you’ve had to hear that being a ‘great lawyer is no longer enough’. And fair enough, you’re probably not going to make partner if you can’t demonstrate some aptitude for generating revenue via an ever-growing client portfolio.

But when yet again you have to hear that today’s lawyers need to be great business managers too, what does it actually mean? What specific management skills or qualifications do ambitious associates need to make it to partnership?

Be a MBA?

You could, for example, join a growing band of lawyers taking MBA-type courses. And for sure, having a good grounding in corporate finance, strategy, leadership and marketing sounds pretty darn fine.

But will it help you close the major deal that’s been keeping you and your team up all night (and, when it comes down to it, is it the real reason your client is willing to part with their cash)?

The fact is that most lawyers do not need all-round management expertise. It could be reasonably argued that diverting a lot of time into generalist management training is relatively pointless at best or actively harmful at worst – you don’t buy a lawyer to get a jack of all trades.

However, in the midst of all this is one management discipline that lawyers do need – and in increasing doses. Without it, you may struggle to practise law effectively, maintain client relationships or develop new business.

In today’s legal profession lawyers need to learn project management.

Project yourself

There are several reasons for this. The increasing use of alternative fee arrangements – including fixed pricing – requires lawyers to have a much firmer grip of the processes involved in undertaking a matter.

You can’t pitch for work, or ensure you come in on time and in budget, if you can’t project manage. In addition, project management is critical when more deals are becoming multi-jurisdictional and involving a bigger team over a longer period.

Yes, to a degree support staff can cover this ground. And there’s no doubt that firms are hiring more dedicated project managers for precisely this reason.

These professionals can crunch endless data from past matters to come up with solid profit-guaranteed client proposals and comprehensive processes that maximise the potential of a firm’s available resources. They too can oversee matters working alongside lawyers to ensure matters are running the right course and flag issues as they arise.

However, they are not on the coalface of client relationships. Nor should they be. No-one is better placed to work with a client on their on-going legal needs than their lawyer.

More firms are realising this too. A couple of years back, King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) introduced project management training for its lawyers of three years’ PQE and above – to provide clients with greater certainty in relation to time and costs.

Dechert too was one of the first US firms to establish a firm-wide project management department, and now has project management training for all partners worldwide.

Specific courses

Consultants are also getting on the bandwagon – with Edge International and the LawVision Group just two examples of those that have devised project management programmes specifically designed for lawyers.

According to Edge, it’s about demystifying legal project management and addressing its association with quantitative, IT-driven industrial project management, which can be off-putting for lawyers.

Meanwhile, the Project Management Institute (PMI) – traditionally geared towards the IT and construction industries – has introduced its own support network, the PMI Legal Project Management Community of Practice, reflecting the rising importance of project management in the legal sector.

Yes, these may be small beginnings. But the lawyer project manager makes for a particularly compelling mix of skills for law firms and their clients alike.

It supports better legal service delivery and the improved overall management of the firm. And far from distracting lawyers from their core remit, it actively supports the day-to-day practice of law within the context of far stronger client relationships.

What’s not to like? When it gets down to specifics, you could do far worse than seeking out a project management accreditation to go with your shiny law certificate. Get in there early and you may even give yourself an advantage in the job market – for this is one area where bird and worm most definitely spring to mind. CP

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