I’m Late, I’m Late!

I’m late,
I’m late,
For a very important date.
No time to say “Hello, Goodbye”.
I’m late, I’m late, I’m late. 

The White Rabbit said it in Alice in Wonderland, but how many of us lawyers have said it a hundred times?  Why oh why are we always late?

As a young associate in New York, I remember spending a frustrating day pondering this very question.  I know exactly when it was — October 4, 2002.  There’s a reason I remember it — it’s the day I got engaged.  It’s also the day I received an email that contained the following sentence:  “Cancel your life for the next 7 months.”  Sort of a memorable email.

The circumstances were that I was working on a high-profile securities litigation.  The SEC had brought a civil enforcement action against three Big Four accounting firm professionals, and our firm represented one of them.  The partners attended a hearing that day at which the judge set a discovery and summary judgment briefing schedule.  Discovery was tight, and summary judgment briefs were due the Tuesday after Memorial Day.  Our lives were canceled because of discovery (a bit understandable in the twisted world of BigLaw), but what really bothered me was that we were also told not to make any Memorial Day weekend plans.

Seven months ahead of time, it was already deemed that we would not be finished with our brief until Tuesday after Memorial Day at filing time.  And you know what?  That’s exactly what happened.  In the four days of Memorial Day weekend plus Tuesday, I went home from the office once.  At 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, our brief left the office of our local counsel in Philadelphia headed for the courthouse.  It was filed just before the clerk’s office closed.  We knew it in October that that brief would have not a second to spare in May.  Why?

When we are told that we have thirty days to complete a filing, it will nearly always take us 29 3/4 days to complete it.  Tell us we have 15 days, and we do the same filing in 14 3/4.   Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why?

I’m sure a psychologist could help explain why we procrastinate.  I am no psychologist, but I do work to keep myself on a better schedule and to help my clients work toward better organization so that they are not late all the time too.  So here is what I’ve come up with.

First, there’s always a part of us that wonders if the work will actually be necessary, and we hate to do work that isn’t needed.  It’s a waste of our time and drains the client’s pocketbook.  So in our (somewhat deluded) way, we wonder if the case will settle before the brief is needed, or if some ruling will come down that will change the nature of the work.

Second, sometimes we really are so busy that we have to calendar things by urgency.  In our triage, we put filing dates as the deadlines and we take our tasks in order of the calendar.  This is somewhat unavoidable.

Third, as I think is often the case, we aren’t really too  busy, but we would like to think that we are.  In today’s economy, I don’t see all that many lawyers with their plates completely full.  Most of us have the time to put into the cases on hand.  Is admitting this fact somehow harmful to our mental health?  I do wonder.  I think we delude ourselves into believing we are busier than we are to avoid facing the reality that we are not working at full capacity.

Fourth, Parkinson’s law.  Work expands to fill the time allotted. 

Fifth, the more time we spend on something, the better (we think) it is.  I actually find this to be true, for the most part.  You can tell when reading a filing when the lawyer has rushed it.  It will be full of direct quotes from practice guides, unshepardized cases, and disjointed quotes of rules.  A well-thought-out brief reads like a lot of time has been spent on it.  This begs the question, though, of why if a brief is going to take 40 hours to write, those 40 hours can’t be the first 40 hours after the deadline is announced instead of the last 40 hours.

So, we hope the case will miraculously settle, we triage and delude ourselves into believing we’re super busy, work fills to expand the time and the more time we spend the better it is.  Ok, but how does this make us work better, more efficiently, and in a more timely manner?

We need to address the causes of our own procrastination.  If we truly believe the case is going to settle, is that a reasonable belief?  Does your client feel that way?  Before putting off work in the name of hopeful settlement, talk to your client.  If they don’t think it’s likely, then press forward with the work.  Explain to them that the work will appear on their bill even if it settles before the filing.  Then get it done. 

If you’re really that busy, get help.  If you’re not, admit it.

Budget your time to do the best work in the time you allot it to — not the time that the court has given you to complete your work.

And in the end, you should have work that is done well, done on time, and done to your client’s satisfaction.  You’ll have a happier client, a bill more likely to be paid, and you will not be as stressed.  And why do I care if you’re stressed?  Because a stressed lawyer is more likely to make mistakes — mistakes that lead to State Bar complaints.  I don’t want you to need me, remember?

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