We all have suffered through the crash project, so named for its close resemblance to a car wreck, both in the manner of its unfolding and in the resulting condition of its survivors.

Crash projects come in many forms but share two fundamental characteristics: urgency and misery, which are mutually reinforcing.

Everyone has seen those snarky little signs — usually at the desks of low-level government employees who provide public "service" — that declare "Your lack of planning is not my emergency." This sentiment perfectly captures the exact opposite of how most crash projects arise.

Crash projects are typically not unforeseen. Many are not even unplanned and can be seen coming for weeks or months by the responsible attorney. Think "summary judgment filing deadline" or "closing date." There is no doubt that major, inflexible deadlines can crop up on short notice and constitute bona fide emergencies.

This is not, however, the usual case for crash projects. Crash projects usually arise because the responsible attorney has failed to prepare. This is distinct from the failure to plan scorned in the driver license clerk’s sign. Indeed, failure to prepare can be planned out well in advance of the consequences of said preparation failure. This is just the way some lawyers operate.

For some, it’s a personality failing (hey, they’re lawyers — what’s one more drop in the ocean?). They’re procrastinators or they just don’t care what havoc they can wreak on their colleagues’ lives. For others — low down on the Firm totem pole — declaring an emergency can be the only way they can get any resources and help.

The declaration of emergency typically is accompanied by one of two predicted dire consequences: loss of the client or loss of the client plus a malpractice suit. Either or both are certain to get management attention when nothing else the lawyer does will, including walking past the Managing Partner naked. (This is completely understandable, since low-level lawyers at the Firm are invisible, a condition that results in small bonuses and a lot of shaving accidents.)

The Firm’s reaction, as desired, is to throw people at the problem. This is OK since most legal issues are amenable to sheer brute force. (This doctrine is taught in law school as the earliest of all legal precepts — "Might makes right.") The problem is that the participants usually get a bit bruised.

The crash project lawyer now is expected to be a traffic cop and direct all the troops suddenly at her disposal. This is fine if the lawyer is any good at organizing. However, since well-organized lawyers less often have crash projects, the crash lawyer is more likely not to be particularly organized. This puts the crash in the project.

It also quickly becomes evident to the bodies thrown at the project. If one of them is a take-charge personality (and what lawyer does not leap to take charge, without regard to whether he knows anything about the matter taken charge of), he’ll fill the vacuum. Lawyers being what they are, there are sometimes a number of take-chargers, which can turn the crash project into a multi-lawyer pileup.

Crash projects are filled with late nights, tedious work under high pressure, and a lot of wasted effort. Effort being a common commodity at the Firm, this is not a particular problem. If you’re Saudi Arabia, you don’t worry about getting three miles to the gallon. There are plenty more hydrocarbons, or young lawyers, where the ones you burned up came from.

Usually, the completed project staggers, bedraggled and blinking, into the sunlight, filed, closed or otherwise disposed of — straight into traffic where it’s run down in the next crash.