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Bringing project management to lawyering

16 October 2014

Some are born lawyers, others have lawyerdom thrust upon them. And others, like Shaun Plant, come to the law only after gaining a wealth of experience out in the non-legal world. It’s a unique combination of knowledge from both within and outside the practice of law that Shaun – now senior in-house counsel with the Waikato Regional Council – will bring when he leads CLANZ’s upcoming seminars on legal project management.

UK-born Shaun left university first time round with a qualification in mechanical engineering and took up a position with a French multinational developing power generation systems. It wasn’t long before the project management side of the work appealed to him and quickly became his career path.

“I went back to university and completed a Masters degree in project management and then continued to work on projects in different industries. Even though I was a mechanical engineer by trade many of the projects were multidisciplinary – they involved construction, electrical, software, power generation, telecommunications”.

This variety of projects took Shaun round the world, from the tracks and signalling of the British rail system to the slopes of a new ski resort in South Korea, and from Kuwait following the Gulf War to a more serene Hamilton where he became first project manager for Wintec’s campus redevelopment – and where he was drawn to a legal qualification.

“I thought it would be a great thing to have legal skills coupled with my project management skills when I was negotiating contracts”, Shaun explains, so back to varsity he went again. 

“I hadn't actually decided to become a lawyer. It was only as I started to understand how the law operates that I started to think that law maybe was a career I'd like to pursue.”

With a law degree under his belt Shaun worked first in private practice and soon realised that he approached legal files and problems in the same way he’d approached other projects.

“I’d break them down, I’d restructure them and I'd develop plans to help me monitor and identify what the issues were. I started to get feedback from my peers that this was really useful and they’d like to know a little bit more about it.”

Shaun had been a member of the Project Management Institute and got back in touch. Now as well as his current job at the Waikato Regional Council, he’s a knowledge manager for the Institute developing tools and techniques for managing legal projects.

Shaun says that lawyers are often “accidental project managers”, not realising that they are managing projects for which a process has already been well-defined and used in other industries.

“Lawyers already possess some of the skills that a good project manager needs. They have to be able to persuade and negotiate, they need problem-solving skills, there's a whole skill set that project managers have that lawyers also have. What legal project management does is provide a structured approach and discipline to your legal work.”

“We go through the process from the first conversation to closing the file, and we have tools that can be used through the course of that process to define what the project is about, to define what needs to be done, to plan and then to monitor and report back.”

As well as being more time and cost-efficient, Shaun finds that project management skills help lawyers clarify what work actually needs to be done.

“Quite often you get an instruction that you give an answer to but because you haven't got the client to back up the bus and talk about the background and business objectives, you're just solving a perceived legal problem, not a business problem. And I get this is as an in-house lawyer too. We encourage lawyers to spend a little more time at that early stage talking to the client so the client really does feel that you understand what they want, and that you aren’t just giving them a black letter answer to a legal problem.”

While several of the projects Shaun has been involved in have been several years in duration he points out that the principles of legal project management can scale down to everyday legal practice.

“It's relevant for big medium and small projects. We teach a dozen or so tools that you might use throughout a project’s life cycle. If you have a really complex and significant project then you’ll probably want the whole suite of tools but for normal day-to-day legal matters you might be able to draw on two or three of those tools that will help you to deliver your work more effectively. Try it, pick one tool, see how it goes.”

Shaun will be leading CLANZ’s seminars on legal project management in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch from 14 to 17 October. For more information on CLANZmini visit www.clanzonline.org/conference-2/clanzmini.

This version of 'Bringing project management to lawyering' differs slightly from the printed version.

Last updated on the 17th March 2016