Going From a 2 to a 4

I’m watching a sailboat from my deck.

It’s a sunny day and there’s some wind, just a perfect day for sailing. As a picture, it looks idyllic. Call it a 10 on the idyllic-scenes rating scale. 

It’s Metaphor Time

I used to race sailboats, an amateur pastime at which I became reasonably adept. I can see that the person helming the sailboat isn’t very skilled. His (or her) sails are poorly trimmed, and he’s steering neither a straight nor terribly effective course. He rolled up his sails 30 seconds after I took the picture and turned to what sailors call the iron jib – the engine.

On the sailing skills scale, the skipper was, let’s say, a 2. He could sail the boat safely, I trust, but not effectively or efficiently. 

If he somehow moved his skill level up to even a 4, he could have kept sailing under these lovely conditions. He’d have made Port Hudson by dinnertime under quiet and elegant sail rather than with a noisy engine running. (No one buys a sailboat because they want to motor from place to place!) He didn’t need to be an 8 or 9 or 10, able to win races against tough competition in miserable weather. He just needed to be a 4 to sail a lot more often than he motored.

What Does It Mean?

The best project managers are 8s and 9s and 10s. That’s what it takes to build an airplane or erect a skyscraper. In the legal world, however, project leaders are more like that midafternoon sailor than those 8s and 9s and 10s. 

What they have in common with that sailor is that they only have to get from a 2 to a 4 to be far more successful in managing the project aspects of their legal matters/cases. Where they differ, of course, is that they can’t just turn to an engine if they don’t know how to harness the wind.

I’ve talked with attorneys who are afraid of project management in some way. For example:

  • They worry they’ll have to learn boatloads of new skills totally unlike anything they already know. 
  • They fear they’ll have to morph from attorney to project manager, envisioning an either/or proposition. 
  • They’re afraid of displaying a lack of competence – and confidence – in front of peers or clients or partner committees. 

None of those fears are necessary, however understandable they may be. There might be some truth to them if attorneys had to become project managers with skill levels of 8 or 9 or 10. Most don’t. They just have to go from a 2 to a 4. 

Going from a 2 to a 4 is achievable. Legal Project Management starts from the skills attorneys already have, focusing, sharpening, and augmenting them in some simple project-specific ways. 

Attorneys turn not into project managers per se but into better attorneys: being in control of the non-substantive aspects of a legal project equates to more time to spend on significant client and legal issues. Because attorneys are able to focus more on those issues while standing tall at the helm of project concerns, their peers, clients, and, yes, senior partners will see them as more rather than less competent.

Not all attorneys are 2s as project managers, of course. There are some attorneys who have figured out how to manage large legal projects effectively and repeatably, just as there are self-taught sailors who’ve circumnavigated the globe. And some attorneys are 1s, just stepping into the boat and trying to figure out the bizarre arrangement of strings (a/k/a halyards and lines) that raise and trim the sails. While I applaud and celebrate those attorneys who are already strong project managers, I believe everyone – clients, firms, attorneys themselves – benefits when the 2s (and 1s) become 4s.

The gap between 2 and 10 can feel unbridgeable. The distance between 2 and 4 is easily spanned.

A good coach could in a few hours have taught that sailor the added skills he needed to derive full enjoyment from his sailboat this afternoon. He wouldn’t be a 4 by the time he tied up near the family of otters that have staked their own claim to the docks at Port Hudson, but with time on the water over what’s left of the summer and a bit of follow-up coaching, he’d easily be a 4 by the fall. 

Likewise, a training program in Legal Project Management, by itself, won’t turn you from a 2 in the morning to a 4 that evening, but with some practice and occasional coaching, you’ll be a 4 quickly enough. 

Finally, to belabor the metaphor one last time, everything on a boat has a unique name not found in the normal world, such as a “fiddle block with ratchet, cam, and becket” or a “clam cleat” (a pulley thingy and rope clamp, respectively). You don’t need to know the names of these things to sail the boat well. Likewise, while professional project managers often employ a lingo equally incomprehensible (“program definition phase” or “project evaluation and review technique,” anyone?), you don’t need the jargon to effectively manage legal projects.

May your next project have fair winds!


  1. Two questions, if I may:

    #1 Please remind me where Port Hudson is. I think I should know, but I forget.

    #2 I know how to find a sailing coach. Luckily, my sailing club has a bunch of experts who will show me how to sail my Fireball properly. But WHERE do I find a project management coach?

    Many thanks. Loved the post. It really hit home.