Earlier today, on a webinar about future legal skills, I was asked to mention a thing that I wish I’d learned far earlier in my career. I did and I’ll blog about that later, but this post I’m going to devote instead to something else that I also mentioned on the webinar, that I am glad that I learned early on. Project management.

LHWP Phase 1A

I was lucky enough to cut my project management teeth on an immensely complex multi-billion-dollar cross-border civil engineering project on which I worked during the 1990s. That project was the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) Phase 1A. It comprised the Katse Dam (pictured above) and a 6m diameter, 45km long tunnel that transferred water under the Maluti mountains and through a 72MW hydroelectric power station into the far smaller ‘Muela Dam. Then, on through a second, 37km delivery tunnel that emptied into a river that led eventually to a thirsty Johannesburg, South Africa. LHWP Phase 1A also included 200km of access roads and 120km of electricity transmission lines through the mountains and several construction villages.

For several years, the view from my office window was of that 185m high, 700m long concrete wall rising up from the valley floor, eventually trapping a lake of 2 billion cubic metres and a surface area of 38.5 square kilometres behind it. By the time it was complete, 2.32 million cubic metres of concrete had been poured into the wall. LHWP Phase 1A cost roughly $2.5 billion back then ($5.85 billion in 2020 dollars, apparently). The contract specifications and bills of quantity occupied several metres of bookshelf.

My perspective of project management is heavily shaped by that experience.

Legal Project Management

So, I was a bit bemused when ‘legal project management’ emerged as a discipline some years later. By that time, I was several years into carving out a new career for myself advising law firms on business management and strategy. I was especially bemused at suggestions that ‘legal’ project management is somehow far more complex and difficult than ‘ordinary’ project management. Not to be impolite, but this is nonsense.

Last month, I co-presented with my friend Mo Zain Ajaz a session on legal project management at the annual conference of The Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society of England & Wales. I spoke about project management in general and Mo described specific examples from his work as Chief Operations Officer for Legal and General Counsel at the UK’s electricity distribution network company, National Grid. At the start of our session, we ran a poll asking participants where they thought legal project management fell on a scale of 5 (really complex and difficult) down to 1 (really simple.) Almost every single vote was up towards the ‘really complex and difficult’ side. This is disturbing.

Extrapolating, we apparently have a whole new generation of lawyers out there who believe that managing their projects, their work, is complex and difficult. If that is true, then it is also tragic. With the right knowledge and skills, there seems to me no reason at all why the management of legal projects should be anything but simple and intuitive. The skills are not hard to master and the digital tools available today are a far cry from the Gantt charts of the 1990s. Yes, the substance of the legal work is often complex and difficult, with significant potential for scope variation. That is true. But the process of ensuring that the work is delivered to the client within scope and budget, on time and to the required level of quality should be far simpler than it is often made out to be.

Mo commented that ‘legal project managers’ in the law firms that he encounters are typically limited to tracking expenditure and they have no discretion to influence the project itself. This is a great pity. Project management at its most basic level does involve such rudimentary tracking, of course, but there is so much more to it. Far more value can be gained from using project management techniques to redefine legal processes at all levels (not just ‘commoditised’ services) to discover better ways to deliver what the client needs, enhance efficiency and manage risk. If project managers are being hired merely to act as cost clerks, then that is an opportunity missed and not very conducive to keeping the project managers in the firm!

The webinar

The webinar today was organised by Forte Markets (thank you!) and very ably moderated by April Brousseau (Global Lead – Clifford Chance Create & Innovation). My fellow-panelists were Hussain Hadi (Head of Middle East Publishing at Lexis Nexis), former Linklaters colleague Allison Hosking (now Director of Knowledge and Legal Transformation at Al Tamimi & Company in Dubai), Erika Pagano (Head of Legal Innovation and Design at Wavelength Simmons), Ramez Dandan (Regional Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft in the United Arab Emirates), and Rob Marrs (Head of Education at the Law Society of Scotland).