22 July 2015

Lawyers Aren't Transformers

“Shouldn’t we train all of our lawyers to become project managers?”

I get this question from people in the legal industry a lot and, since I consider such a quest to be a significant waste of time and money, my answer uniformly is “Of course. That is exactly what you should do.” (What can I say? We are in a competitive business.)

In all seriousness, lawyers do need new skills and tools to adapt and thrive in a changing environment. It just so happens that “becoming a project manager” isn’t one of them.

What’s the difference between God and a lawyer? God doesn’t think She is an attorney.

There is an implicit, and often ignored, assumption in the project management question worth exploring here: we lawyers assume that, because we are lawyers, we can become experts in an entirely different profession or, alternatively, that other professionals have little to offer in our service delivery.

We tend to see the world through the lens of “lawyers” and “non-lawyers.” Implicit in that language is that somehow “non-lawyers” are lesser contributors.

That is the wrong way to look at our business. I am not an astronaut. Rather than being a lawyer, am I instead a “non-astronaut”? Is the first person I see at the physician’s office the “non-doctor”?

Trust me when I say that a real project manager is a professional. Perhaps he or she did not go through three years of over-priced and only moderately relevant schooling. The requirements, however, remain grueling — a combination of real life experience and classroom education. The path then culminates in an exam in which the passing rate is lower than the rate of those passing the Illinois bar examination.

This is not to say that lawyers lack the capacity to become skilled project managers. However, we shouldn’t assume that through some magic training lawyers can take on the mantle of another profession.

The skillset needed to excel in our evolving legal service environment is not that of a Transformer. We don’t need lawyers who can reconfigure themselves, on demand, into a completely different type of professional.

Instead, we should be teaching lawyers the skills and mindsets necessary to work within multi-dimensional teams.

These teams, not super-powered individuals, are the keys to client success.

Find your own Kim Craig.

Roy Strom recently wrote an article about Seyfarth that was the feature story in the Chicago Lawyer magazine. Gracing the cover of the magazine is a picture of one of our teammates, Kim Craig. What is remarkable is the fact that Kim wisely chose not to become a lawyer. Rather, she runs our team of client facing project managers (and process engineers). Within the article, Roy talked at some length about Kim’s personal journey that led her to her success today and he posed the following question: “A good litmus test for any firm traveling this path: Do your attorneys like having a Craig around?”

Roy got this question absolutely right. In a different world that requires a different way of thinking and executing, the delivery of legal services can no longer be the exclusive domain of lawyers. I know that sounds contradictory but the intersection of process, technology and data requires different disciplines to allow those tools to work together and operate at their optimal level.

Embrace the adhocracy.

Learning to adapt to this type of environment is not easy. It requires an appreciation for the value that other professionals can add to the client experience. At Seyfarth, we have learned this value through ten years of experimentation and experiential learning. Many of our attorneys can tell stories of client meetings or presentations where the most important person in the room — from the client’s perspective — was the project manager, the legal process engineer, or the legal technologist. Once this happens a few times, it crystallizes the value that different professionals can bring to our own profession.

An appreciation for those teammates as collaborators — true partners on an equal footing — is a critical component to a culture of high-performing, cross-functional teams: a true adhocracy held together by commitment to the best client experience possible.

In that sense, providing lawyers with education and enablement on how to work within cross-functional teams is critical. Should those programs include basic primers of project management, process improvement, and legal technology? Absolutely. Will such training programs displace the need for professionals in those disciplines? Of course not.

The purpose of such training is to help lawyers learn to adapt to a working environment that is more adhocracy than hierarchy. As we work to design solution sets for clients’ underlying problems, the combination of skills necessary to execute those solutions will change based upon client need. The days when every client problem is handled with a command and control structure that starts with the partner directing the associates and paralegals is long over. It may be the right structure in some cases but it is no longer the answer to every client problem.

The diversification of roles in our industry is quite remarkable. Just focusing on practicing lawyers, the nature of their roles has changed dramatically. It is no longer the case that most firms are structured like pyramids with associates working their way up to partnership. Rather, they are far more matrixed organizations; with lawyers developing different relationships with firms and finding different paths. Add to this mix completely different skill sets — like technologists, process engineers, project managers, practice managers, and on and on. This becomes a different, and very potent, mix of talent to be deployed to solve client problems.

Clients have more and different needs, and we need more and different capabilities to serve them.

Maximizing this talent potential for the benefit of the ultimate client is the goal. This does not mean that lawyers need to become all things to all clients. Lawyers must, however, learn that working within a cross-functional teams environment enhances and augments the client experience. And, yes, for you partners out there, you must learn that sometimes you are part of the team — not the leader of the team. If we teach our lawyers these skills, they will be better equipped to work as part of multi-disciplinary teams to increase the value being delivered to clients.

So, when people ask me, I tell them to go ahead and train their lawyers to become project managers. But I think the question misses the point.

Photo credit: “Masterpiece Seekers” by Flickr user Pete Slater under a Creative Commons license.


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