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Job Description: Legal Project Manager

Wanted: Legal project manager.

Reports to: Every lawyer in the place, and some of the paralegals as well

Required Skills: 

  • Herding cats
  • Finding the words in alphabet soup without the noodles
  • Singing that song from Man of La Mancha with a straight face (though not necessarily on key)
  • Able to leap at least small buildings in a single bound (trampoline permitted as accessory, but candidate must supply the trampoline)

Duties and Responsibilities: 

  • Babysitting harried grown-ups 
  • Saying “no” to professional negotiators who carry Getting to Yes in their pockets
  • Plate spinning and chain-saw juggling
  • Doing more with less
  • Getting dual-optimal results when playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Useful Prior Experience: 

  • Baseball umpire, with practice withstanding abuse from fans who never umpired even a tee-ball game
  • Pacific Northwest weather forecaster, able to define 23 gradations of “rain” while recognizing that none of them will be accurate in advance
  • Point guard with the Washington Generals, knowing you’ll lose each night to the Harlem Globetrotters but still formulating on-the-fly game plans to get the ball, when you can find it, to your spot-up shooters
  • Publicist to entitled movie stars whose names weren’t called at the Genie ceremony
  • Cultural historian attempting to explain Canada to Americans (“no, it’s not a state” and “the Genies are our version of the Oscars”)

Salary: Are you kidding? You think you get paid for this? Work it in among your 2000-billable-hours requirement!

And Now, the Reality

The germ of this idea came from a question posed on line about what a job description for a legal project manager might look like, to which I responded off the cuff with a few of the snarks above. I felt and still feel the question is misguided, at least for 2011 and the next few years. The better question begins with this one: Is there a call for a standalone legal project manager position?

One could make a case that there are already project managers in place in e-discovery – and when there aren’t, there should be. That said, most of the e-discovery project managers I know are project managers in the Legal space rather than legal project managers. 

In other words, they’re not managing legal cases (or matters or files) but rather managing one aspect of a case. That aspect is enormous, expensive, and complex, but it has a shape different from that the practice of Legal Project Management. E-discovery project management deals with a far greater level of certainties and knowable metrics than does capital-LPM Legal Project Management.

I don’t want to split semantic hairs, and I certainly don’t want to denigrate the incredible efficiencies good project managers have brought to the messy and ever-fluid e-discovery world. However, I do want to call out the particular skill sets required for own-the-case Legal Project Management.

These skill sets are metaphorically represented above. 

They are metaphors, however, not jokes. If you don’t literally have to find words in noodle-free alphabet soup, you do need to make decisions based on partial information, knowing full well that key facts are not in evidence. And while lawyers rarely carry around personal copies of the Fisher and Ury classic negotiator’s bible, a legal project manager must develop the skill and ability to say “no” to lawyers who believe 1) everything is negotiable and 2) that no one, let alone a project manager, can use that two-letter word in their presence and live to tell the tale.

The bottom line is that, for the near future at least, the right legal project managers for full cases are senior lawyers already handling those cases. First, they’ll have the respect of the other players on the team. Second, for many at least, not until they do it and understand it themselves will they not feel threatened in some obscure way by the idea of project management. Third, they are by default project managers already, whether or not they know or recognize that fact – responsible for budgets, progress, client relations, and getting the right result for the client’s underlying business problem. As default project managers, they’re often inefficient at project management, spending more time than necessary herding the cats and becoming frustrated in the process. The final line of the mock job description, salary, is definitely not a joke.

Absent the call for separate legal project managers, we should be inculcating and developing Legal Project Management skills in today’s senior lawyers. 

In reality, then, the job description we really need belongs to the practice leaders. These are the folks who will benefit most from training their teams in the art and skills of Legal Project Management. It is to their existing job description that I would add one line: Supportive of LPM training for their teams… and committed to carrying it through to achieve better results.

Minor Footnotes on Umpiring and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Umpiring is far more difficult than it looks. Calling balls and strikes on even a little league pitch – in real time, no slow-motion or replay allowed – is surprisingly difficult. You don’t have time to think it over, to reflect on what you saw; you have to call it based on a single impression. 

There’s a lot of that in project management, too. Often you have to make the call now, not on the big strategic issues but on the little things. Take too long and you paralyze the team, or lose their trust because of your indecision. (That’s just like umpiring.) Yet you know, just like the umpire, that your call is simply your best judgment in the moment, honed by experience and practice but still potentially incorrect with the hindsight afforded by slo-mo replay… or screaming fans with a rooting interest.

(By the way, think about donating your time as an umpire to a youth baseball or softball league. You won’t get any respect, but you’ll learn both how hard it really is and how to make mistakes and move on without self-recrimination. And our kids will have better experiences; most leagues really don’t have enough umpires.)

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game-theory experiment usually set up something like this: Two prisoners are in separate cells being interrogated about a crime for which they are jointly guilty. If one prisoner rats out the other, he goes free and the other gets ten years in jail. If, however, they both keep silent, they each get six months for another, minor crime and then get to go home.

(The Batman movie The Dark Knight climaxes with a variant of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where two ferries filled with passengers each has a button to destroy the other.)

The best individual outcome in the Prisoner’s Dilemma is to rat out your partner in crime… before he rats you out. (In another variant, “first” is irrelevant; if you both rat out the other, you each serve serious time but less than the ten years if you cooperate and your partner turns on you.) However, the best-for-both-players outcome in the game is silence. 

You have to trust that your partner will keep silent in order to risk silence yourself (though if you know your partner will keep silent, you can choose to skate by taking advantage of him and his silence). A good project manager builds mutual trust in her co-workers, offering the hope that when difficult choices must be made, the team will unite around options that benefit the team (practice) as a whole rather than advantage one player at serious cost to the others.

Comments

  1. Wow Steven, most of the required skills and duties and responsibilities could be a law librarian job description too. No wonder I like your book so much!