Helga Butcher is a highly experienced Legal Project Manager, currently working as Interim Head of Legal Project Management (LPM) and Process Improvement (EMEA) at Ashurst. She tells Lacey Near, consultant in our legal operations, transformation and technology team about her career so far, evolving trends within LPM and her hopes for supporting legal project managers into the future.
In your career so far, you have moved from marketing systems to legal project management (LPM). Tell us about that journey to LPM.
Over my career, I had built a lot of expertise in programme and project management, including managing a global implementation of the CRM system at Allen & Overy (I’d also previously worked on CRM at Simmons & Simmons and PricewaterhouseCoopers). Once A&O’s new CRM system was fully implemented and following seven years in a marketing systems management role at the firm, I felt the time was right for a change.
At the same time, Legal Project Management (LPM) emerged as a new discipline. A&O set up effectively a startup function offering LPM. This presented me with an opportunity to switch into a client-facing, fee-earning role as Senior Legal Project Manager, which utilised my project and programme management skills.
While I’d had some client interaction from working in marketing for years, it was an exciting challenge to bring my project management experience to an externally facing role. I moved across to the new role in 2015.
How have you seen LPM evolve in the legal sector?
It took time to define and establish what LPM is across the sector, in terms of both LPM as a function and service offering, and the role of the individual legal project manager.
As with any new area there was initially some scepticism. To establish LPM as an effective discipline, the priority for firms was two-fold:
- Defining the role of the LPM function and the service it provides. The focus was on delivering the operational aspects of some of the largest, most complex matters, developing toolkits, a communications plan and providing education (such as training for both lawyers and clients).
- Proving the value of the service; using case studies, for example, was critical for comms and education.
Each firm took a different approach. A&O jumped in at the deep end with LPM focused on supporting high-value, high-risk matters, often cross-jurisdictional. With more complex matters, project management support was needed to manage the operational aspects and to free up lawyers to focus on legal tasks and issues. Some firms started with more of a framework approach, slowly introducing client interaction.
What kind of candidates suit an LPM role?
A big challenge in LPM has been attracting and retaining talent in the function, and it’s been key to think laterally. There is an ongoing question of who is better suited to LPM – project management professionals or lawyers. The jury is still out on this one!
How do firms determine which matters to support in LPM?
As with most business services functions, there will always be a scarcity of support available, so you have to prioritise matters.
There are various factors which contribute to deciding which matters to support:
- Logistical: size of the team and their level of knowledge.
- Commercial: the business value of the matter, including the financial value, risk, how strategically important it is, whether it’s a key or growth client, a groundbreaking area/deal, etc.
- How many external/additional parties are involved, such as barristers or advisors, and how many jurisdictions it crosses.
Ashurst offers a tailored solution for each matter. The services on offer range from self-service – e.g. toolkits and training - to full LPM support throughout the lifecycle of a matter. LPM support can also be provided on a flexible basis, such as at the beginning of a project or during a more complex phase of the matter. This ability to deploy LPM support more dynamically has meant LPM can support more teams and makes the function more effective.
What trends do you see going forwards in LPM?
One area that is currently lagging is technology to support LPMs.
Many law firms have developed toolkits but there is a real need for technology, as most legal project managers still rely heavily on relatively manual tools and processes. It would be great to have LPM technology that enables better workflow, matter and ultimately portfolio management. Consistency is key in the legal sector and technology could make a real difference, particularly when integrated with existing systems.
LawAdviser [where Helga worked prior to joining Ashurst] has been working on developing a new product in this area, Fibonacci, so there may be interesting things to come in this respect.
Where do you think most firms are at in their development of LPM?
Most firms now have LPM in some form, although to varying degrees of approach, capacity and quality. Some firms are very advanced and LPM has provided great efficiencies for both clients and law firms. Some teams provide more basic support and focus more on the admin aspects of matters – this is partly driven by how partners and clients engage with LPM, not necessarily the project manager’s capabilities.
High demand for LPM roles led to an inflation of salaries and did not always deliver the quality expected. The pandemic appears to have had a levelling effect in this regard.
LPM roles are demanding:
- Junior roles in particular involve lots of number crunching and research, often at a fast pace and to tight deadlines.
- Mid-senior roles require advanced communications skills, as well as the ability to interpret complex data sets to enable effective decision making, technology, project management best practice and legal knowledge.
It’s an incredibly broad and multi-faceted role.
Can you tell us more about the LPM competency model you are working on?
I am collaborating with a group of experienced senior leaders in the LPM field from firms with advanced offerings to devise the LPM Competency Framework in order to drive consistency across the LPM community.
The goal is to professionalise the role of Legal Project Manager and credentialise it as a recognised career option.
The model is based on five competency pillars across four levels of LPM, which practitioners need to succeed in LPM and provides a way to measure a legal project manager’s development:
- Technical project management skills
- Other technical knowledge – data, industry knowledge, information and technology skills
- People skills – i.e. in communication, relationship-building, leadership, etc
- Organisational change – change management, process improvement & management, training others
- Commercial knowledge – around industry/sectors, bidding processes, pricing, etc.
The competency model provides the basis for the knowledge all LPMs should have/need. There is more generalist training available from bodies such as the Association of Project Management (APM) and the Project Management Institute (PMI), but this model is specifically tailored to project managers in the legal sector.
The goal is to get accreditation for this framework to be adopted in training processes across the sector. I hope this more structured training and development will help nurture talent in the sector, as well as grow the talent pool.
Huge thanks to Helga for sharing her experience and thoughts on LPM. If you would be interested in finding out more about LPM, or about current roles in this area, contact [email protected]