Jeremy, a mid-level associate at a large New York law firm (Firm A), thought he had a bad cold. One night while toiling on a brief due in a week, his condition worsened. "I couldn't breathe, and I thought I was going to pass out." He called the partner, notorious for working her teams hard even in the absence of deadlines, and told her he was seriously ill, and that he thought it best to leave. She told him to "tough it out," and stay to finish the brief. Jeremy stayed all night and left the office the next morning. On his way home, he fainted on the train.
Thus begins an article in last week's "Big Law," a Technolawyer Newsletter. I have yet to work myself to the point of fainting, but I've had to cancel family vacations, take work with me to funerals, and have on several occasions needed my wife to pick me up from work because I felt it would be irresponsible for me to drive in my sleep-deprived condition. So I can somewhat relate to this story, but let's turn our sympathies back to Jeremy. At the hospital, Jeremy was diagnosed and treated for acute pneumonia and dehydration. "When he called the firm to tell them what had happened, they sent him a copy of the file and told him to get back to work on the brief upon discharge." Understandably, Jeremy jumped ship and joined another firm (Firm B) as soon as he was able.
Jeremy mentions several differences between Firms A and B that make Firm B a much better place at which to work. Notably, fewer hours is not one of the differences. Working in a large, New York law firm means a lot of hours. According to Jeremy, however, there are things a firm can do that make the work load much more palatable, including giving associates control over when and where work can be done and being supportive of working remotely. I agree with Jeremy that having control over your schedule is often better than fewer hours, but what caught my eye was that the article cites project management as a factor in Firm B's positive environment:
Project management also differed markedly. Firm A created an environment in which associates competed indiscriminately for work, no matter what it was. "Whether you were a first year or an eighth year, you were expected to review documents if you could get a few more hours out of it. There was no attention to capability, class year, or developing expertise," he says. By contrast, Firm B made an effort to match associates to assignments, and, by removing the pressure to "maintain a presence in the office, even if you weren't busy," eliminated the desperation underlying the dynamic that existed at Firm A.
Can good project management really make one law firm a better place to work than another? Yes. When I think of those times in my legal career where life was uncomfortably close to Hell, it was often because someone, somewhere along the line, just didn't plan things out. For example, I can understand that you don't want to incur document review costs if the case is going to settle, but how well-thought out is your plan B if the case doesn't settle? Too often the "plan" seems to be panic, canceling associate vacations, brow-beating service providers, and hastily assembling huge teams of contract attorneys to work 16-hours days. Crazy clients and unreasonable adversaries also play roles in an attorney nightmares, but you'll run into them no matter where you practice. Poor planning, however, is something a firm can and should avoid.
The article focuses primarily on issues that fall within the Human Resources "knowledge area" of the Project Management Body of Knowledge, but attention to every knowledge area will affect a firm's working environment. Properly defined project scopes, good time management, thorough risk assessments, effective quality control procedures, improved communications, and accurate cost estimates, will all contribute to a better working environment.
For those who think that a new project management initiative will cure a poisonous firm culture, a reality check is in order. Just because you establish a PMO at your firm doesn't mean it will be the cure-all clinic for all attorney unhappiness. To be effective, project management must be ingrained into the firm's culture. The firm needs to have a project management system in place that its attorneys and staff have bought into. Too often the lawyers or staff assigned the role of "project manager" on a legal matter are too low on the firm's totem pole to have much influence in the decision making that causes or leads to the problems Jeremy complains of.
Poorly planned and implemented project management initiatives, or those pushed on firm attorneys without seeking their input, can have the opposite effect: engendering resentment and just adding to the pile of stuff lawyers have to deal with--and unbillable stuff at that. On the other hand, project management that helps enable initiatives such as fixed-fee billing, flexible schedules, remote collaboration, and appropriate work allocation will create a more enjoyable working environment, which will do more than anything else to show the value of, and win support for, legal project management.
 Liz Kurtz, A Tale of Two Large Law Firms: Which Model Will Emerge from the Recession, Biglaw (Technolawyer Cmty.), Nov. 24, 2009, available at http://blog.technolawyer.com/2009/11/biglaw-tale-firms.html (last visited Dec. 2, 2009).
 See A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge 215-242 (4th Ed. 2008)