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.
  • Greg, I have two comments on this post. First, at my last law firm, an AmLaw 200 firm in Atlanta, the departments are managed by non-attorney, MBA/consultant department operating officers. While they are not project managers per se, they are responsible for managing all department operations and business functions. Second, I am going through the process now of securing my project management certification. I see a real need for law firm professionals, and in my world of legal marketing specifically, to have this skill set when managing projects of all scopes and sizes. While, yes, you do have to trust your gut and experience in a lot of circumstances, law firms need people to propel them past the planning phases into the tougher implementation and follow-up phases.

  • My 2 cents: Even if you have a lawyers with PM skills and a firm that would dedicate them full-time, I'm guessing you won't get many takers. An associate who signs up for this has effectively just crossed their name off the future partner list (not that that's such a hot list to be on these days).

    Second – the best non-lawyer PMs will likely come from CPA firms. These people will know PM in a professional services environment and be the most applicable skill set to poach.

  • Thanks Alison. I think you're hitting the issue right on the head when it comes to actually implementing a Project Management process (whether for lawyers, marketing, or any other team within the firm.) While 'gut' can get you close to a target price, it can't do much with making things run smoother, or actually managing a project. PM is going to be uncomfortable for many in the law firm environment because it means someone is going to attempt to keep you on task, and ask a number of "why do we do this?" questions. I think it will probably be more palatable if that is coming from someone you think understands the overall culture and process of a law firm and can explain to you that there is a better way to do some things.

  • Great post. The more dialogue on this, the better.

  • Lisa Rohrer

    It's great to see so much discussion on this issue. Unfortunately I can't take credit for the original post as it was written by my esteemed colleague Carla Landry and as editor, my contribution was to post it. It's a great topic and Carla and I look forward to more discussion.

  • Thanks Lisa…. and don't be afraid to take credit for other people's work. I claim credit for any of the good stuff Toby puts up on the blog! 😉

    There is some addition conversation going on over at Laudable as well.

    Thanks goes out to Carla for getting the conversation going!

  • Great post on a very important topic. I don't think there's a simple answer and believe successful approaches will vary from firm to firm. For details, see the item I just posted in my blog at

  • Lawyer

    On my opinion it is not possible for a lawyer to be a project manager