As you can likely tell, I am fascinated by terminology. I understand the importance of using language to market and promote your firm. I had never thought, however, about the use of terminology within a firm until recently.
The word that inspired this revelation is “project.” Project is used in many ways and with multiple connotations:
(1) “She is my pet project.” This means that “she” is a disaster and needs help. Project is used to demean.
(2) “I am undertaking a house renovation project.” This means that “I” am boring. Project is used literally.
(3) “Do not tell anyone about Project X.” This means those who are a part of Project X are either CIA agents, criminals, or my mother (Project X = Project Val). Project is used mysteriously.
(4) “Hi Val, you are going to be in charge of the data gathering project.” This means that I have a terrible assignment to complete. Project is used insincerely….
At my previous two employers, I had been given various “projects.” I always found myself wondering why I was working on a “project,” when it seemed more like I was being forced to complete a painful “task.” When it happened at a third employer, I realized that there was a conspiracy among legal professionals (big and small). Everyday throughout the country, employers are mislabeling crappy work assignments as “projects.”
Why? Because it sounds better. A “task” seems like something for an unskilled worker. A “project,” on the other hand, is something for a professional. Indeed, said professional can even become a “project manager.” This is the true beauty of the scam. If you give an associate a title — even one as lame as project manager — he or she will buy into the whole scheme. Yes, those project managers (i.e., those tasked with gathering documents as part of a super-important project) get swept up in the glitz and glamour of managing a project.
At my previous firm, there was one associate who was in charge of a project that required him to review thousands of emails. Whenever other associates would ask him what he was working on, he would reply, “I am working on this really cool project.” There was another associate who was made “project manager” of a task to find all the board books for the past three years from a warehouse and highlight any reference to a particular deal. She was so jazzed about her “project” that she would send cutesy emails to the “team” (another word I hate) at 5:30 a.m. telling us that she was en route to the warehouse. And her emails would be filled with exclamation points.
I say it is time for us to bring back some honesty to our noble profession. Do not call it a “project,” people. Call it a “task,” an “assignment,” a “demeaning activity,” et cetera.
As you can tell from this diatribe, I have not quite mastered the happy and positive attitude of the California lawyer. My Chicago grump is still lingering. But next month, I may surprise you with a glowing discussion of the use of task lists.
When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at Valerie.L.Katz@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.