[This is a project management article disguised as a sports metaphor.]
In National League baseball, pitchers have to bat, for some absurd reason.1
It’s said there is no feat in sports harder than hitting a professionally pitched ball. Most teams find only three or four hitters who do it well, and then another half dozen who do it at a mediocre-at-best level.
Pitchers are almost never among them.2 They do something else incredibly difficult, throw a ball at 80 to 100 miles per hour consistently to a circle about three inches across. If they lack the control to consistently hit that circle – which moves from pitch to pitch, according to the catcher’s dictates – they get relegated to mop-up duty, which means pitching when you’re behind by eight runs and the manager doesn’t want to wear out the arms of the guys who can hit that circle.
In most of organized baseball, pitchers don’t hit. There is a designated hitter who bats for them, usually someone who can hit but can’t field well enough to earn a spot defensively.
Except in the National League. There, pitchers hit.
Except that when there’s a runner on base and less than two out, they bunt. They hold the bat softly in front of them, make gentle contact with the ball, and let it roll out about 40 feet toward first or third base. The runner gets to the next base, and the pitcher is thrown out. But at least it advances the runner, and keeps the team out of a double play.3 So they bunt.
Last night, I tuned into a bit of the Mariners/Padres game. Because they were playing in the Padres’ park, and because the Padres are in the National League, the pitchers had to hit.
With a runner on first and nobody out, the Padres pitcher comes up to bat. Obvious bunt situation. And so bunt he does.
I mean, he badly fails. He misses one pitch completely, and bunts two others not just foul, but very, very foul. I’ll be 63 in a few months, I haven’t wielded a bat in anger in 30 years, and I could probably bunt at least as well. Bunting – at least getting the bat on the ball and pushing it into fair territory – isn’t hard in the scheme of things, given that these men are professional athletes.
It was embarrassing. And I’m a Mariners fan! But I hate to see anyone fail that badly, in front of thousands of people.
Okay, let’s get to the Legal Project Management point of this story.
Learn to Bunt!
A lawyer is a pitcher – highly specialized skills, extremely good at the core skill of throwing a legal argument over the plate such that the other side can’t make solid contact with it.
But occasionally a lawyer is asked to bat, to manage projects.
And when she comes up with a runner on base, she has to get that bunt down. It costs the team big-time if she fails.
As I said, bunting (managing legal projects) isn’t that hard. A great project manager (.300 hitter) is always appreciated, but you’re hired for other skills. However, when you come to the plate, even if you’re not a big hitter, it behooves you to get that bunt down properly.
That’s the rationale for Legal Project Management in a nutshell.4
The goal for a lawyer of learning to manage legal projects isn’t to turn yourself into a project management wizard. Rather, the goal is competence, getting the basics right. Bunting the runner over so you can maybe score a run or two and then, when you’re on the mound, pitch with a lead instead of playing catch-up.
A (National League) pitcher who doesn’t learn to bunt does his team a disservice. As good a pitcher as he may be, he can’t win if his team doesn’t score runs. He may not be able to drive in runs by slamming balls off the outfield wall or into the seats, but he can help set up the runners so they can score when the next batter hits a single.
Think of yourself as a pitcher. As effective as you may be at your specialized skills, occasionally you’ll be in a position where you need to draw on a skill set beyond your comfort zone.
You’ll need to manage your legal project.
Doing it brilliantly would be an added bonus, but your client and your practice and group need you to do it at least competently.
Don’t be like that guy on the Padres. Get that bunt down. Help your team even when it’s out of your comfort zone.