Great post from Lisa Rohrer (actually Lisa told us it was from Carla Landry) at Hildebrandt Blog on “Is It Possible To Turn Lawyers into Project Managers? Or Will They Crash & Burn??” Toby and I have had a number of conversations on this issue and I’ve gone back and forth on this question. Lawyer know how to practice law, but do they necessarily know how much it costs to represent a matter? One answer that we got from Matt Homann, over drinks one night, was that actually if you asked a lawyer his or her “gut” feeling on how much we should charge for a matter, their gut answer usually comes out pretty close. Unfortunately, most attorneys are afraid to trust their gut, and instead ask for report after report of the ‘history’ of charges the firm has charged for similar matters, only to be overwhelmed by the data and winding up more confused, and their ‘gut’ feeling has turned into a pit in their stomach.

Rohrer Landry goes on to ask if it is possible to MAKE a lawyer a good project manager (PM)? My thoughts on the topic depended upon whether the “lawyer/PM” is a practicing member of the group, or a true project manager. If you try to pull one lawyer out of the practice group and say “Hey, you are now the Project Manager, make us efficient and tell us how much we should charge for services. Oh… and you’ll still need to keep up with your own practice at the same time.” Then this would fail. Project Management is not something that you do on the side. It has to be your primary (and sole) function.

If, on the other hand, you hire someone that happens to be a lawyer to be a Project Manager, then it could give him or her the respect from the lawyers in the group he or she is trying to manage. Of course, they’ll still need to perform a good job as a Project Manager.
If you decide to hire someone with an MBA and no legal experience and have them attempt to manage a law practice group there could be a perception from the group that the person might be a great project manager, but doesn’t know the industry. Maybe not a fair assumption, but lawyers are usually skeptical of non-lawyers trying to tell them how to do their business.
I guess in my scenario you are left with two choices for PM —
  1. Former Practicing Lawyer who is brought on to be a full-time PM
  2. PM (non-lawyer) who has some type of experience working with lawyers, or can at least speak the ‘language’ to the lawyers and prove that he or she does know how lawyers work
As firms try to wrap their heads around Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs) and determining the ‘costs’ of matters vs what to ‘charge’ for a matter, Project Managers are going to become some of the most valuable people in the firm. Tackling the issues of efficiency, effectiveness, return on investment, and changing some of the basic behaviors and cultures within law firms, it may take a lawyer to point out these issues to other lawyers. Kind of the old “it takes one to know one” adage.
Rohrer Landry leaves us with this question – “is it time to hire professional project managers?”
My answer is that it is definitely time to start talking about it.