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 neve 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!

Interview | Jennifer Harris (Clayton Utz)

Jennifer Harris has been a long-term supporter of TLF! Jennifer is a Special Counsel at Clayton Utz specialising in real estate, local government, urban renewal, property development and commercial property. Jennifer also dedicates her spare free time to mentoring junior solicitors and advocating for a healthier and more inclusive profession. Michael Bidwell (TLF) was delighted to pick Jennifer’s brain!

1) Why is mentoring important to you?

I found out early on that working life was full of happy and sad moments.  I discovered that things can quickly bring you to your knees and that I didn’t seem to have any coping skills.  I felt for a long time that I had to navigate through this all by myself and I didn’t know how to act at work during tough times.  

I wished I had somebody to talk to about what I was going through. Many times in my early career I nearly left the law. Eventually a friend put me in touch with a very experienced lawyer who had been through many things;  and she was the first of many people that have taken me under their wing and mentored me.

I felt such freedom to be honest and open and tell mentors my stories.  As I moved through different jobs in my career I started listening; and I always found people going through the same things that I had gone through. I discovered that there were people everywhere who needed a shoulder to cry on; a sounding board; someone to light the way.

I started talking to people and going straight to the truth; straight to the heart of what was happening to them and what had happened to me in my career. I realised that this support, this confidence, this commitment of time and honesty to others was making me happy and was healing me and helping me find my way in the law.

A whole new dimension to my career opened up when I realised what great insight and joy I got from being there for other lawyers who were dealing with the same challenges and fears that I was. I learnt that realising we were all in this together gave me hope and purpose.

I have seen time and time again how mentoring can change a mentee’s life. Mentoring connects me to new passions and people, it gives me constant and evolving insight into other people and myself.  It gives me an opportunity for connection and reflection.  I really see it as an honour and a privilege to have people I mentor put their trust in me and to share their vulnerability and to seek courage and growth together.  

I really believe we can make a difference in each other’s lives. Mentoring for me is about creating a safe space for other lawyers to see the hope and liberation that comes when they realise that vulnerability is courage.  Mentoring is really about walking each other home – getting where we need to go safely – with our hearts, minds, souls, grace, dignity, humour and creativity intact.  It is a way to put kindness and humanity first;  and we need more of that in the law.


2) Flipping the script, what are some of your greatest learnings from your mentees?

I could absolutely talk about this one all day.  I learn so much from my mentees – the best type of developmental mentoring is fluid so that it is rewarding for the mentor and the mentee.  I love getting to know people and I am curious about what makes people tick and, in particular, because I am a lawyer, I am really fascinated about other lawyers and what they want from their lives and careers. 

It is really important though, even when you are very curious and passionate about people to make sure that the mentoring conversations are more than just two friends chatting; and that is where the real learning kicks in. 

The mentees always drive the goals and the agenda for the relationship, so that way it is very bespoke. Every time I mentor someone I am learning about their goals, their lives, their passions, their expertise, their pain points, their challenges, their vulnerability and their strengths.

One thing that has always amazed me over the years is that the young lawyers that I am mentoring are phenomenal.  They don’t just want a career in law for the sake of it, they want to actually make a difference.  They want to have a well-rounded life – and career is just one part of that. A lot of them have side hustles and passion projects – they are fascinating and motivated people.

I also learn a lot about leadership when I’m mentoring –  when I hear about some of the challenges that my mentees are facing and the difficulties that they are having in the workplace – a lot of it stems from leadership. I learn about a lot things that don’t work in the leadership context – and I can really see how this can cause people to feel undervalued and disengaged. I always reflect on the experiences my mentees talk to me about and I make sure that I try not to do the things that make leaders less effective.

I have also learnt so much about diversity. Mentoring has taught me how important diversity is to make our workplaces and lives richer, more innovative, more collaborative, more humane, more progressive, more loving and more positive.  Over the years I have mentored people that have had really harrowing experiences, and have been treated appallingly because of their gender, culture or sexuality.  I am really happy to say now that it is changing.  The tide is turning and we are seeing a positive, important, powerful and necessary change which is pushing diversity, inclusion, gender equality and all sorts of other issues that are fundamental to the lived experience of lawyers as humans to the forefront.

I am really proud of this change because over the years I have seen so many people that have struggled and been treated so badly, and that is just fundamentally wrong at a human level, let alone a business level.

I feel rejuvenated, recharged and reinvigorated every time I work with a mentee because their goal setting is so inspiring; their hopes and dreams are so inspiring.  Their ability to be open and honest about tapping into different things that have bruised them and chipped their confidence along the way and really being accountable and listening to their intuition and to their vulnerabilities.  I am always learning so much about people.

Mentoring really sits beautifully with my practice as a transactional lawyer, I learn so much about dealing with people, understanding people  and the situations they are in, understanding different outcomes, and tipping points for pressure and all of that helps me understand my projects, transactions, clients, counter-parties and colleagues so much better.  Mentoring has literally made me a better human, a better mother, a better wife, a better sister, a better daughter and a better friend.  It has given a dimension to my life and career that has helped me hone in on my own passion and purpose, and reason for wanting to be a leader in our industry and for doing the type of work that I do in the community and development space.

When I look at all the different aspects of my personal life, career and mentoring it all just gels together so well –  and it gives me a really clear sense of who I am and what I have to offer and what value I can bring.  I can’t tell you how many times I feel so grateful for the opportunities that I have had to have really meaningful conversations with incredible people and to help them achieve their own goals. 

3) When you first started as a woman in law compared to now, what has changed ?

So much has changed since I started in Law.  I was admitted in December 1996 and my first job was working in a sole practice.  Often I would be the only woman in the room in meetings. In court attendances it was not uncommon at all for me to be the only woman.  It was very interesting though, when I decided to settle permanently in Real Estate that is actually quite a female dominated legal area and is one of the things that really attracted me to it because I could see people like myself.

Once  I had settled in Real Estate and really became part of that scene in Law I had lots of women around me – counterparties on my matters and colleagues; but what I didn’t have for a long time was lots of female partners.  It was only when I moved to Clayton Utz in 2010 that we had a predominantly female partnership in our Real Estate Group in New South Wales.  So that is a really important change, but don’t get me wrong,  there is still an enormous way to go in terms of female leadership more broadly.

One thing I can tell you though that has changed for the better is flexible working.  I have seen so many women who had gone before me struggle enormously with returning to work after their children were born, whether they returned in a part-time or full-time capacity the stigma and pressure was horrendous.

I have had the benefit of enjoying flexible work, both as a part-time employee and also now as an employee who works full-time. Being able to work from home has changed my own life and my experience as a parent.  When I compare how I feel about my life and my relationship with my children and my husband and my connection with my life as a whole, not just my career, I am having an infinitely more superior experience than women that have gone before me. 

The focus has really shifted from a culture of being in the office 24/7 to recognition now that it is the quality of your work – not the location that you do it from – has changed the game enormously, particularly for women.  But I am increasingly seeing our male lawyers are now taking advantage of remote working to be more present in their family lives.

I am also loving seeing younger lawyers who don’t necessarily have family commitments also embracing remote/flexible working to maintain personal relationships or to pursue their passions, be it playing sport, playing an instrument or art.  I think the new understanding, at a business level, of the importance of people being happy, holistically in their whole life and how much flexibility brings to that equation has changed the landscape.  I am really proud to say too that my firm is particularly good at flexibility and my Group in particular is really supportive of it.  This is just a phenomenal change.

One thing I have also seen is that the stigma around being a working parent has diminished.  Back in the day, say even 6-10 years ago, working mothers used to slink off at 5.00pm and hope that nobody looked at them and they felt marginalised, and less than, because they had these other commitments.  I am now seeing working parents embrace their family life and feel confident about speaking openly about their family, including with clients, and this just makes all the difference, removing the shame and stigma is vital because it is not fair. It is a full-time job being a working parent – and I am just talking about what it takes to raise a human being, when you throw into that mix a career as well it is such a complex emotional minefield. It is so rife with vulnerability, lack of confidence, fear and exhaustion – so it is imperative that businesses support their people in this lived experience. I know that not every working parent will agree with me on this though  – so we can never get complacent on this.

Another thing that has changed has been the recognition of the deplorable mental health statistics amongst the legal industry.  Lawyers are suffering from anxiety, depression, burnout and so many other mental health issues because of the inherent pressures of the job and also the constant juggle between professional and personal life.  Often these two worlds collide in a way that just destroys peoples’ mental health. 

I am really proud that as a profession it is becoming more and more essential to be mindful of each other’s mental health and to put in place systems to protect our lawyers’ mental wellness.  I am so pleased that we are shifting the dial and bringing conversations about our mental health to the forefront.  This is one of the most important changes that I have seen.

Also – I think it is so, so, so hopeful and positive that we also moving ahead on the diversity and inclusion front.  We are getting to the point where it is no longer acceptable just to give lip service to these very important concepts and cultural behaviours.  That has been a most illuminating and promising change, both on the LGBTI front and also, more particularly, on the gender inequality front.  We can never ever get complacent on this though; we can never ever accept that we have gone as far as we can go. There is enormous momentum now but we need to continue to build on this to ensure that our workplaces are safe and inclusive for everyone and that everyone is treated fairly and equally.

4) Who inspires you?

I am one of those people that is inspired by so much.  I am inspired by dreamers, doers, thinkers and believers … you know what, that is what really first drew me to my husband.  He is a dreamer and he is a doer and to this day he is one of the most inspiring people that I know.  He has been a stay-at-home father for the past nine years in a social and cultural landscape where that has been really hard to do.  He has supported me in my career and life so enormously.  Every single day he continues to inspire me, as do my children.  My children are pioneers and heroes every day of their lives; they are propelled by curiosity and they are absolutely the kindest and most compassionate young people. They are so inspiring; they give me so much hope for the future and they drive everything that I do.

Last year when I won the award for Mentor of the Year at the Lawyers Weekly Women in Law Awards, I had opportunity to say during my speech that I am really inspired by the early career lawyers coming through our industry at the moment.  I mentioned in particular, your wonderful self, Michael Bidwell, Sophie Tversky, Erika Ly, Kiarah Grace Kelly and Jerome Doraisamy. I am so inspired by these young people because none of you will accept the status quo and you are all embracing the potential for the future and you are all so passionate about social justice and making the world a better place.

I am also really inspired by artists, authors and anybody that tells a story and shares their vulnerability through art.  I am really inspired by people who live though appalling trauma and wake up every day.  I am inspired by people that tell the truth, people who know who they are and always behave consistently. I am also really inspired by people who keep growing; people who push past their comfort zone and do amazing things.  

I am utterly inspired by Clarissa Rayward; she has changed my life since I met her back in 2015 and she has changed the way that I live amongst my legal community and the way that I think about the practice of law.  I am inspired that she made a change in her own life and then made it her mission to help other people experience the same change. I am inspired that she sees a hope for the future in the legal industry and that she is allowing us all to have a safe place to explore it.  I am a member of her Club, and I am also doing some really intense work with her this year in a Mastermind program with 9 other amazing lawyers where I’m working on my own goals and dreams and, to be honest, I have never been so inspired or motivated.

5) If money was no object, where would you go?

If money was no object I would absolutely love to go and live overseas for a year and I would like to start with Italy. We would have to learn the language and also pretty much come off our low carb diet – but I think it would be an amazing experience.  My kids and I really love cooking and I have always thought that it would be so awesome to go and learn how to make traditional Italian food.  But you know what – if money were no object – I would love to go somewhere, probably not all by myself – I would have to take my husband and kids – but I would love to go somewhere absolutely beautiful and just write a book and take a whole year doing it and not have to worry about money.  That would be amazing.

6) What is your legal forecast? Where will the legal industry be in five years?

This is such a complex and multi-layered question; there are so many ways to look at it.  Because I am working in a law firm I look at it through the lens of the challenges that we will be facing.  The legal industry is changing and in the next five years I think we will see firms grappling more and more with the uncertainty and unpredictability that this will bring. 

There is going to be a real need for law firms to respond to these changes with great agility; and I think will bring with it a huge focus on leadership.  I think this is going to be really important as we work out ways to accommodate the new technological opportunities within our legal practices.  Some lawyers are afraid, for example, of AI because it is going to be taking jobs and changing everything that we do.  But I think the focus needs to be on the incredible opportunities that AI brings for firms to move their investment time away from process and to really focus on human skills. 

I am actually really excited. Decades ago I worked with a partner who was often critical of me – saying I was too kind, that I was too worried about other people’s problems, too worried about how other people feel and what it is like to walk in their shoes.  I read something by Richard Susskind once and he was saying that the future of law is going to need new types of lawyers who are trained in skills that are not able to be automated – and you know what Richard said those skills were – human intelligence, compassion, empathy and creativity.  Finally I found a time in the legal industry where empathy and compassion are going to be essential skills. Every single time I think about that I feel like ringing up that partner and saying “hey, have you read this – the legal industry is now really going to need people like me”!

For firms to inspire people to tap into those very humane skills, we are going to need leaders who are committed to working towards improving the mental health of our lawyers and weeding out counter-productive values that can drive people to feel stressed and burnt out.  What I love about it too is that it is going to take diversity of thought and experience for firms to be successful in this new landscape.  That can only be a good thing.

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