About the author

Rachita Maker

Vice President, Chief of Staff and Head of Legal Operations, Tata Communications Limited

Five Tips for Transitioning from a Great Lawyer to a Successful Project Manager

By Rachita Maker

Page Reading Time: 7 minutes

May 2020| Rachita Maker, Vice President, Chief of Staff and Head of Legal Operations, Tata Communications Limited

Do any lawyers remember going to law school and hearing the words “project management”? I certainly did not, and I suspect most of my colleagues didn’t either. It is a different world now with a number of institutes focusing on Legal Project Management and I see there are multiple courses available on the topic. Legal Project Management or LPM is an identified functional area in The CLOC Core 12 for Legal Operations, therefore, identified as a key skill for the legal operation professional.

I chanced upon project management purely by accident in my fifth year as a lawyer. Overnight, I was handed a high-volume complex contract management project with a tight deadline. In an instant, I was made responsible for a team of twenty bright, young lawyers who were relying on me to give them guidance; a demanding client who had expectations beyond the project scope; a deliverable that I had no idea on how to execute; and a management team that wanted me to make the whole thing work. No pressure? To tell the truth, I loved the challenge and still do today.

So, for all the lawyers or legal operations professions who get thrown into large engagements or complex implementation projects, with no one to tell them how it is done – I am sharing a few of the strategies I have forged over many years of managing projects successfully in the legal services industry.

Overview of Legal Project Management

My experience has taught me to view project management as having four pillars – client management, delivery management, team and stakeholder management, and financial management.

Projects within the legal industry could include large scale contract lifecycle management implementations including data migration from old systems to new, obligations management, M&A due diligence, contract drafting and negotiations engagements, and 50-state regulatory research to name a few. Typical challenges in legal projects relate to: scope; balancing the right number resources while ensuring subject matter expertise; maintaining quality; anticipating and mitigating risks; anticipating changes in projects due to unforeseen circumstances like regulatory changes, changes in production timeline or changes in client requirements and unresponsive clients.

Below is my advice for transitioning from a great lawyer to a successful project manager that no one spoke about in law school:

1. Understand the “pulse” of your client
Understanding the “pulse” of your client – in other words, learning what they value most in the delivery of a project and why – is the key to any successful client-provider relationship. No matter what happens, you should be the go-to person for your client. Set up a communication schedule that matches your client’s needs and try to anticipate what they might need next.

I start any large project by identifying what is most critical to my client. Sometimes it is quality; other times it is timeline; and all too often it is cost. While most clients will say that ALL of those factors are equally important, there is usually one aspect that stands out as the priority.

For example, in a 50-state regulatory research project where timing is of the essence for your client, spending too much time ensuring you have researched every angle and missing the expected deadline will likely leave you with an unhappy client. In this example, setting realistic expectations up front on how the research might be restricted to meet the timeline would likely have led to the client suggesting more specific instructions to provide better focus for the research. As you build trust through a series of meetings and in meeting mutually agreed-upon expectations, the client will start to see you as an extension of their team.

The best way to set and adjust expectations is to create a regular cadence of communications that matches your client’s style. As lawyers, we tend to get so involved in our work that we wait to go to the client with our final “masterpiece”. There is nothing worse for a client than not knowing how their project is progressing. I recommend having at least a once a week check-in call, email or meeting. Depending on the timeline and scale of the project, you may want to have more frequent, shorter, or more casual conversations to establish rapport with your client. These meetings are also a great way to learn about the client and anticipate their upcoming needs.

2. Manage “scope creep”
For your clients and for your organization, success is most often measured in financial terms. As project managers, you manage the budget by avoiding “scope creep” – in other words, ensuring that the requirements of a project have not unnecessarily expanded, making the project more expensive than anticipated. Scope changes are easier to identify if a client makes explicit changes to the deliverables or timing of the project; but in practice, small accretive changes are made in smaller bits and become difficult to quantify – in other words, they creep up until the project is ultimate off-budget.

Managing scope begins even before a project starts. As more clients now want fixed pricing or alternate pricing models for projects, the days of hourly billing have almost disappeared. Clients routinely ask for a quote without giving, or sometimes not knowing, any details around the project. Imagine a template harmonization project for a large multinational company – at a minimum, it would help to know how many templates, across how many geographies, the number of business units with overlapping templates, etc. Even if you are able to get some of this information in advance, chances are that you will get answers in approximates, but the client will demand certainty on pricing. It is important to define the project scope to the best of your ability and build in strong assumptions to protect your client and your organization.

Even with the best planning, scope creep can continue through the life of the project and often happens in short bursts. Since we are anxious to maintain good client relationships and we want to earn their business, we tend to overlook the scope creep issues, often leading to unanticipated bills to the client or unsustainably low margins for your organization. I recommend logging all requested changes, no matter how small they seem at the time, and their potential impact on the project. Assess these impacts with your clients and organization at regular intervals in order to anticipate any potential changes in cost or timing. Your clients will appreciate the open communication. The alternative, which is not mentioning scope changes until it is too late, can chip away at trust with your client and your organization.

3. Measure and meet your client’s quality and timeline expectations
As lawyers, we are trained to provide high-quality work product. After all, our work product is the showcase of our talent. While it is easy to control our own deliverables and quality, it can be difficult to be responsible for what someone else is producing. The truth is that as project managers, we are responsible for the overall quality of the project. For example, whether you are overseeing 5 people working on an M&A transaction or 30 people working on a document review, you will need to ensure that quality and the timeline are met by the entire team working together.

The first step to providing quality work is to define and measure what quality means to the client. Work with your client to define quality metrics and then track them. As a project manager one should be able, at any point in time, to confidently talk about the “quality percentage” of their engagements. Tracking quality through pre-defined metrics also helps project managers identify if issues are related to a particular person or if those issues are general across the team.

While high-quality work is expected, most legal projects are deadline-driven, whether it is a deadline related to production, regulatory demands or a transaction. As lawyers, we are used to burning the midnight oil to meet our deadlines and produce the best output we can. The challenge is to help your project team stay motivated to work the extra hours when large deadlines are looming. In order to minimize all-nighters or unsustainable work hours, as well as to avoid any curveballs that may come up in a project, I usually try to build a buffer in project timelines. For example, if I have a 4-week project that needs about ten people, I will staff it with twelve people instead and set an internal timeline of 3 weeks so that I can conduct last minute checks, conduct quality review and make changes that may have come up during the life of the project.

4. Build and maintain reports that your clients and management will value
Maintaining daily, weekly and monthly reports on your engagements will benefit both your clients and your organization. As a project manager you are expected to have a real-time understanding of project metrics – whether they relate to number of documents, hours worked on the project, throughput per hour, quality measures and any other information that can be sliced and diced.

I recommend updating clients and other stakeholders with progress reports. It helps to understand your client and stakeholder communication styles and timing, and to set expectations upfront. Weekly, or sometimes daily, reports may be needed. I was once working on a project that I knew was VERY important to my CEO, and I wanted to make sure he wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the night and worry about where we were on the project. I proactively set up daily reports, and it worked wonderfully to keep my CEO updated and comfortable with the project.

There are a number of tools and technologies that can help you track the progress and performance of your project. Using automated workflow tools, you can generate delivery dashboards, quality metrics, monthly information reports, etc. These tools help you collect analytics on each activity of your project. For longer-term engagements, I have also seen the Balanced Score Card approach work beautifully with clients, as they can see a holistic view of the team’s performance based on operational and delivery excellence, client satisfaction and additional value by way of innovation. As lawyers, we are not always proficient with tools and technology in the market place, but as good project managers we need to identify the best-suited person in our team who can support us in generating and maintaining reports.

5. Invest in your team’s growth
A colleague of mine once said, “After a certain point in your career, it isn’t what your boss thinks of you, but what your team thinks of you,” and I totally agreed with her. Your team is a testament of you. A great project manager knows how to get buy-in from the team, give them the right training and resources, challenge them and use their strengths to the fullest. I try to build my project teams with complementary personality types to provide balance. No one person can do everything and most project managers think that the burden of performance is on them. The truth is that we should use our team’s strength to the fullest – this not only helps them to enhance their skills and helps them feel vested, but also takes some of the burden off our shoulders.

Remember that no matter how much you plan, there are things that may be out of your control. Great project managers focus on what is in their control, escalate what is not, identify risks early on and mitigate them to the best of their ability. As lawyers and professionals, we juggle multiple projects every day, and effective project management will help us stay organized.