Legal Project Management 101 with Peter Dombkins (Gilbert + Tobin)

On behalf of The Legal Forecast, Milan Gandhi and Iain McGregor-Lowdnes sat down with Peter Dombkins, the Head of Legal Project Management (LPM) at Gilbert + Tobin, in an attempt to find out more about LPM, why it is important to modern law firms, and whether it is a topic that should inspire interest in law students and early-career lawyers.Thanks entirely to Peter, this interview is one of our best to date.  Peter is deeply knowledgeable and takes pride in transforming complex concepts, somewhere at the intersection of social science and law, into memorable and practical innovations with the potential to transform how lawyers' work.

Getting to know Peter Dombkins

Peter, we are in the habit of starting these interviews with a few ice breakers aimed at getting to know you better. Please humour us!

1. Is there specific quote you live by or think of often?

Honestly, no. [insert random Simon Sinek motivational meme here]

2. What would we usually find in your fridge?

Some rosé, and berries of some description.

3. What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word 'innovation'?

FREEDOM, closely followed by change

Career journey

Peter, many of the early career legal eagles who subscribe to The Legal Forecast are interested in how to pivot from strictly legal careers into other dimensions and disciplines.

4. What was the motivating factor for you to leave your role as a projects lawyer and become a strategist and innovator?

It was actually the other way around for me – after law school, I spent 6 years working as an organisational change consultant specialising in infrastructure/PPPs – I worked internationally (including three years in the Middle East), and obtained an Executive Masters in Complex Project Management. Only then did I return formally to the law, and worked as a projects lawyer for a few years in international firm – before being head-hunted by their Head of Strategy to work in legal ops; and I’ve been working in legal ops ever since.

5. Do you have any advice for law students and early career lawyers who may wish to follow in your footsteps?

Work for a few years as a lawyer, and be interested in how each legal matter is planned and implemented – get above just doing the legal work, and understand the process for how everything fits together – because once you start thinking in this way, you’ll start to see opportunities on how to improve those processes. You’ll begin to perceive legal work as a business and not just a vocation. And for those committed to becoming legal project managers, you’ll need to start developing your knowledge and expertise in project management and then change management – for starters, think about getting a diploma (or higher) in project management. Become involved with the Australian Institute of Project Management and/or get a PMI, PRINCE2, Agile or Lean certification.

Legal project management

6. We swear we already know this, Peter (not really)... but what is LPM  and why do so many modern law firms (including over half of the 'Am Law 100') employ legal project managers?

I’ll let you in on a secret – each legal matter is a project, and all lawyers are project managers. The only problem is, as lawyers we’re trained in how to be excellent legal technicians who understand the law, but we’re never trained in how to be project managers. We’re never trained in the business of law – which is important, because delivering great legal advice is only one part of the picture: you also need to be able to deliver that legal advice within time and (increasingly) budget constraints. The term ‘LPM’ first started to appear in 2010, coinciding with pressures being placed onto the legal sector to deliver legal work within time and cost constraints (or what is called ‘delivering greater value’) – and since then, these pressures have only increased such that now most larger firms have developed (or are looking to develop) LPM competencies.LPM adapts management techniques (from a wide variety of disciplines including project management, organisational design and change management – all of which are focused on improving the value/outputs/efficiency of projects/processes/organisations) to the legal profession, to help lawyers achieve their business goals. I’ve developed a more practical working definition – LPM is:- a systematic approach- for strategising, planning, tracking and reporting upon legal work- within agreed constraints- that involves teams- and that also captures data and lessons learned in order to enhance future performance.

7. Should LPM be taught in law schools/during PLT and, if so, why?

Yes – good matter management practices are already an inherent part of our professional obligations as lawyers (as part of the Uniform law, and also reflected in our CPD requirements covering practice management and professional skills). LPM (and more broadly how real-world legal practices work) should be included at the very least as an elective, so that being a good ‘matter manager’ is recognised as part of what being a good lawyer means. In many respects current legal education runs counter to the real-world behaviours and situations that graduates find themselves in – ranging from delegation and task planning/prioritisation, to collaborating under pressure, following and tracking progress, and adhering to processes. Law students would be better placed to enter the market with an understanding about these situations and how to best respond.

8. What is the most significant change that you have assisted to bring about since you took up your position as Head of Legal Project Management at Gilbert + Tobin?

Well, the creation of the firm’s LPM function for starters – I started as the sole LPM, and now manage a team of five which services the entire firm.

9. What is the biggest mistake that law firms make when managing their legal work?

Easy – by thinking that lawyers are the best-placed people to know all the answers about everything forever, and by letting them getting away with badly managed legal work: too much emphasis can still be placed on delivering great legal advice, but without looking at the constraints – was the work profitable? are the team burned out? what’s the human cost?

10. Are law firms unique beasts? If so, what are the key peculiarities of LPM versus run-of-the-mill 'project management'?

Yes – professional services are different:• Dedicated resources for project management: unlike in ‘hard hat, high-viz jacket’ construction project management where you have a team dedicated to updating a wide variety of project management plans (such as a schedule, a risk register, and an overall project plan), most legal teams don’t have the luxury of this type of support – which means that we have to simplify the amount of project management that is required.

Back-office processes and delegated authority: many ‘traditional project management plans (such as quality management and procurement) will generally be taken care of by a legal practice’s policies or back-office team.

• Risk profile for planning and re-work: for legal work that involves drafting documents, the cost of re-work (such as changing the wording in a clause as part of a negotiation) is far lower than the cost of re-work in construction (ie. knocking-down and re-building something).Also, there is plenty of US-based academic research which shows that lawyers (as a generalisation) are sceptical and pessimistic, with a predisposition towards preferring autonomous work, having low trust, and a ‘ready, fire, aim’ approach – which shows (i) that we need to start addressing these issues in law school, and (ii) that there are unique challenges in getting law firms to adopt LPM. By comparison – implementing project management in an engineering company is easy, because everyone there already knows and accepts the benefits of project management. I’ve written a recent article on this topic:

11. What is the biggest commercial advantage that a law firm stands to gain by applying LPM?

There’s plenty of recent research on this (including from ILTA in 2015, and also the CLOC initiative’s LPM work stream):

• Reduced surprises for their clients, with increased clarity on objectives and progress

• Improved internal team performance and quality of life, with improved collaboration and reduced stress

• Better data on ‘what good looks like’, so that successful matters (however you choose to define that) can be replicated


12. You may have seen that we were recently represented by our NSW President, Erika Ly, on the ABC News as part of a panel discussion about the rising tide of automation and its implications for the job market. How will automation have changed what it means to be a lawyer 10 years from now?

Well, the last time I appeared on the ABC was for Q&A, where I asked Joe Hockey a tricky question about infrastructure financing and national credit ratings. He entirely ducked my question #almostfamous.

Yes, automation will undoubtedly have an impact – there’s even a (somewhat sensationalist) article recently talking about the impact of AI on project management! (see below links). However from an LPM perspective, stakeholder management lies at the beating heart of project management, and in my view we are still very far from a bot empathising and working with people to provide the delivery of a large-scale project. Nonetheless, automation is very much process and data driven – both from a product development and ROI perspective, and I regard LPM as providing lawyers with an enabling set of competencies which means they are more aware of both process and data. We are helping build the core skills for the lawyers of tomorrow.

Thank you for your time and insights, Peter!