Is 'Project Manager' The Next Big Legal Job Title?

Once upon a time, there were really only a handful of titles in the legal profession: Associate, Partner, Paralegal; General Counsel, Associate General Counsel; or simply Attorney. Sure, there were mini-steps between these positions and other classifications, but for the most part these titles offered a good snapshot of the profession – especially the way business was done. Everything that couldn’t be handled in-house was sent to the law firm. There were no Account Executives, no Client Liaisons, no Information Systems Administrators ... no other business partners to lean on.

The rise of e-discovery ended that several years ago. With the entrance of the IT and consultancy worlds, and the development of in-house IT departments, titles like Data Analyst and Systems Manager became commonplace. But the title that has seemingly had the biggest impact – at least from outside the walls of an in-house department – could very well be Project Manager, especially from the collection through production phases of the EDRM.

Practically every vendor touching the world of e-discovery has this position. If you don’t have it, or refer to it another way, you might get funny looks (We once did. “So is a Team Leader really a Project Manager? Or does someone oversee the Team Leader? Who is the PM?” Good point. Why make it more confusing than it has to be?). In our line of work, the PM can consult on the technology tools to use, develop the budget of an entire discovery matter, and handle the assembly and work of the review team, among dozens of other issues. These vital roles raise the question: Does this position merit a place, or a more prominent place, within the legal education system? Or will that just mess it up?

Like most things in our profession, top-notch e-discovery project management typically only comes with experience. A good PM has battled through the tough assignments, been able to troubleshoot while under intense deadlines or emergencies, managed matters large and small and understands the different approach each requires, and has the innate ability to become Zen master amidst the myriad roles and personalities at work on a typical discovery matter (between the technology vendors, law firm associates and partners, in-house team and it’s IT department, and the review team), among a million other issues. So it’s difficult to imagine this being taught well in academia. I won’t go into the teaching of practical applications in law school, which is another reason this will never happen.

Additionally, it’s not entirely clear how good lawyers are, as a profession, at project management. I feel like I can make this statement as a lawyer myself. The budget is often front and center of a project, whether it requires staying within it or forecasting. This has never been a strong suit within our profession. Project management also requires the ability to manage teams, work directly with vendors and other partners, and have an understanding of the substance of the case; that’s several jobs rolled into one. By nature lawyers can be good at each of these functions, but collectively it becomes more problematic.

That being said, the project manager is undoubtedly a role that is here to stay and it merits an established, accredited training ground within the profession – something beyond being certified as an e-discovery professional. Many of these training programs happen internally and organically (we do this). But outside of that, a publicly available service might need to be taught by IT professionals or consultants – someone not a lawyer by trade. E-discovery service providers might be able to step in as educators. Or maybe there is a different tract that needs creation: equal parts legal education and on-site, real-world apprenticeship. (Since summer programs are falling by the wayside, maybe this is a real alternative for law schools? Doubtful.) Or maybe there are enough lawyers already searching for new roles in the profession who could fill the need for great e-discovery project managers. Surely it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a more prominent and respected position at law firms.

One thing we hear loud and clear from potential in-house clients is that they understand the essential role a project manager plays in helping to achieve their cost savings and coordination goals. A good project manager is like gold, and I’d like to recognize Richard Stout and his team of PMs at Counsel On Call for consistently being recognized by clients for their outstanding work (Richard truly is the gold standard in the discovery/review world).

But when there’s a rush for gold, the legal profession typically is already waiting to be able to sell its supply … in this case, it doesn’t seem to match the demand – yet. I would love to get some thoughts on the subject.