“Write that guy a nasty letter…”
That was the marching order I received from the senior PM in the project meeting. It was the fall of 2004 and I was working as a project engineer for Perini Building Company on a project on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. The ‘guy’ in the scenario was an obstructionist roof consultant who continually rejected installed work by demanding details not contained in the project documents, nor required by the manufacturer. As directed, I dove in and analyzed the plans and specifications and documented technical correspondence with the roofing manufacturer. The resultant response letter resolved all of the issues to the satisfaction of the owner’s representative. I thoroughly enjoyed the research and writing involved in that response letter, but at the time, I had no idea that the satisfaction I found in that work would lead me down a path to be sworn in as a member of the Massachusetts Bar 11 years later.
I began to seriously consider a career transition to the law after a decade in construction while completing my Masters of Construction Management degree. My final class was a construction law class that was instructed by an Attorney/P.E. who taught the class as a de facto law school class. The following fall I enrolled in law school.
Law school was my first experience with the legal community and through my classes and affiliation with the Forum as its student division liaison; I began to understand the process of practicing law. I also saw the parallels in the attributes required for both PMs and attorneys. From a process perspective, project management and the practice of law are more similar than one may think. The Project Management Institute defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.” Almost any part of the practice of law falls within that definition. Further, the “Project Management Body of Knowledge” has established knowledge areas that are integral to a successful project: integration, scope, time, cost, quality, human resource, communication, risk, procurement and stakeholder management. Any attorney could look at those knowledge areas and relate their processes directly to the procedures of managing litigation or a complex negotiation.
One of the major differences I noticed between PMs and attorneys (other than math) are risk tolerance. For PMs, the amount of immediate decisions required on a daily basis is in stark contrast to the measured, thoughtful study that is necessary for an attorney’s counsel to clients. PMs need to make decisions that might not always be the most legally sound, and might leave attorneys shaking their heads, but these decisions are required to move a project forward. The risks associated with those decisions are the balance between safety, quality, time, and budget a PM must weigh. For a PM, time is not available for the review and reflection that an attorney may have before advising a client.
Some of the shared skills that are required for PMs and attorneys are apparent. The ability to interpret contracts plus negotiation skills are essential for both roles. There are also skills that might not be so obvious. The interpersonal skills required of a PM and an attorney are similar because of the varied people and situations each deals with on any given day. For an attorney, a hearing in the morning with its courtroom decorum could give way to walking a client off the metaphorical ledge in the afternoon. On a construction site, a heated disagreement with a grizzled iron worker could be occurring while literally walking into a meeting with a graduate of the Yale School of Architecture. Each needs to know the appropriate protocol for who they are dealing with, what lexicon to draw from, and what the desired outcome of the interaction is. Additionally, there are strategy and tactical skills that are similar for both jobs. A PM making a calculated risk to start a work activity without designer approval because of schedule concerns has parallels to an attorney filing a motion at the right time in a dispute for the full effect and anticipated result. There are risk assessments for the possible outcomes made in both instances.
The confluence of the construction and legal fields is full of high stakes disputes, complex projects, and outsized personalities. As I move into my new career and attempt to traverse those two worlds, I hope to meld the management and project experience of my construction days with my refined research and writing skills learned in law school. If I am able to do that correctly, I will be able to best assist my clients with problems they face within the construction industry.