Richard Susskind tells a joke (although it is no laughing matter) that a lawyer will go off on a three day project management training course, then return to the firm and say “Look, I’m a project manager now!” Susskind then asks how lawyers would like it if project managers went on three day legal training courses, then came back and declared they were lawyers!

Speaking as an ex-lawyer (wig-wearing barrister branch) I know there are few creatures more egotistical than lawyers. I once met the managing partner of a now defunct US law firm who claimed, in all seriousness, that along with clocking up 2200 hours of billable work each year, he also micro-managed the running of the firm. “I’m an aviation lawyer,” he said. “By comparison, how difficult can law firm finance, marketing, HR and IT be?”

Precisely! And that is why the big differentiator among many law firms today is not the calibre of their lawyers but the calibre of their managers. Or, more to the point, whether lawyers let their professional managers get on with the business of running the firm as a business.

Lawyers will tell they are members of a profession that practices law. They are not. They are employees of a business that tries to solve problems and, in the process, manufactures documents on an industrial scale. Yes, of course it helps if the firm understands the law and gets the legal advice right. But that is not always what clients require.

With corporate clients, the exigencies of business will often mean commercial considerations take priority over legal issues. This possibly explains the findings of a recent Lexis Nexis Martindale-Hubbell study that when it comes to selecting a law firm, 72% rated an understanding of business needs, objectives and culture more highly than lawyer expertise (54%). Similarly, among issues influencing retention, lawyer expertise was flagged as the least important factor.

More recently, we have seen a growing awareness among more ‘traditional’ law firms (as they start to come under pressure from alternative legal business models) that the key discipline in any client engagement is not matter and case management (essentially lawyering expertise) but rather project management.

This involves the multidisciplinary expertises of law (for the domain expertise) marketing (is there a demand), HR (do we have the people), finance (will we make a profit) and IT (can we deliver the work on time and/or in the way the client wants). In other words, the legal element of the engagement is now recognised as only being part of the picture and to run this properly, you can no longer expect a lawyer (even one who has been on a three day course) to manage it. Instead you need project management.