“Learning the Ropes”: Sailing Into Legal Project Management

A sailboat is an incredibly complex machine made up of other machines. It’s full of expensive parts whose cost seems to run proportionately with the length of their names – e.g., a “fiddle block with ratchet, cam, and becket.” Even something as apparently simple as the sail itself is a complex feat of engineering, with complex curves sown into the fabric. And the “ropes” these days are made of high-tech materials that can run many dollars per meter.

All of those expensive, complex, and absurdly named parts have to work together properly for a sailboat to even approach maximum performance. The sailors, too, must practice for years to extract maximum performance from their highly tuned machines.

Yet an instructor can take a novice sailor and in one day teach her to sail. She won’t sail as well as a top sailor. She won’t make the boat perform anywhere near its maximum.

But under normal (non-extreme) conditions she’ll achieve speeds in her keelboat about two-thirds that which an expert can reach. An afternoon v. years, for two-thirds of the accomplishment.

And although it’s harder to quantify, she’ll likely have far more than two-thirds the fun and enjoyment of sailing.

Legal Project Management is like sailing. Okay, to be honest, it’s only metaphorically like sailing. It can be enjoyable, but not truly at the level of moving a boat over the water using only the power of the wind. No matter how good you get, there’s no Olympic event in it… yet, though at the rate they’re adding events, stay tuned for 2016 or 2020. The tools have simpler names (“Word,” for example) and you don’t need many of them; admittedly they’re priced on a par with a fiddle blocks with ratchet, cam, and becket; on the other hand you probably already own Word for other purposes, while it’s highly unlikely you have a fiddle block, with or without a becket, sitting in your toolbox.

But LPM is like sailing in that a lawyer can learn the basics of Legal Project Management in a day or two, become effective – not an expert, but richly effective – in a short period of time, and achieve significant results under normal (non-extreme) conditions. You might even enjoy it. More importantly, you’ll start wringing more enjoyment from your real job, helping clients and your firm or department succeed by dint of your lawyering and related skills, because you’ll be more effective, efficient, and confident at the non-substantive tasks that today take a significant chunk of your time and energy.

So what’s keeping you for learning the ropes of Legal Project Management? It’s not hard, and the payback will come in a short time.

By the way, “learning the ropes” comes from sailing and the days of the old square-riggers, which were a mare’s nest of complex ropes, three or more per sail. It would take a new sailor time to figure out which rope did what. Nowadays, sailboats have lines and sheets rather than ropes, though the old tars never did have to figure out what a fiddle block with ratchet, cam, and becket did. (Use one to control the mainsail.)

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