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Procrastinators, don’t let work-life balance kill you

The Accidental Mentor
|Written By Lee Akazaki
Procrastinators, don’t let work-life balance kill you

You’re back at the office, after the season of merriment, stuffed turkey, and promises of a better year ahead. If you’re lucky, you’ve come back from a few days of sun and sand.

As a junior lawyer, look what 2012 holds in store:

1.    Your work goes unappreciated.

2.    Tasks nevertheless require exacting attention to detail.

3.    The law is never clear.

4.    Opponents or colleagues who are bullies, yellers, or pedants.

5.    Clients’ instructions compete with your duties as an officer of the court.

6.    Either you champion causes you do not support, or you pretend to sympathize with needy clients.

Much of what you do as a lawyer involves a bottleneck or a dilemma. What is more, most lawyers got into law school because their obsessive-compulsive streak made them better at writing end-of-term exams. You deny you are one of them, but others might say the jury is out. It is a marvel that you ever get anything done at all. So happy new year.

Oh, did I mention, the greatest bane of the law-consuming public is the procrastinating lawyer? Hamlet even cited “the law’s delay” as a ground for suicide, right after “pangs of despised love.” (Who is he to talk? He dithers, and we behold the entire royal family piled up dead on the floor.) To your colleagues in a transaction or your adversaries in a lawsuit, the procrastinator is not a fellow companion on the journey, but an obstacle to their travel. People will start honking, until you find yourself off the road and unable to get back on.

A junior lawyer should not draw consolation from senior members of the bar who are often the worst procrastinators. Learning from the bar’s elders does not always mean you do what they do. Sometimes, we learn a lot from what they don’t do, and how they go about not doing it.

In the senior echelons of the profession, we often encounter lawyers who work hard all their lives and suddenly allow their output to drop off sharply. The conventional wisdom is they have put in their time, and now deserve to slow down. Yet among them are many without life outside the law, and therefore nothing for which to slow down. They are not slowing down. They have, instead, lost their ability to figure out what to do next. Exhaustion will not stop the lawyer committed to working till the day he drops — but fear will.

Waiting for judgment day

Senior lawyers used to joke that the only cure (or sinecure) for procrastination was an appointment to the bench. Thus, years ago, my mentor Ian Outerbridge came to tell me about a judge whose reasons for judgment were over a year late. This judge had a peculiar habit of recording the entire proceedings on a portable cassette recorder. “He’s got a heart of gold,” Ian told me. “His partners had him appointed because he was loyal and worked hard but could never get anything done. It was better than letting him go. Phone his office, Lee. If he still ignores you, get the regional senior justice to phone him. Enough is enough.”

It was the handwritten apology on golf club stationery that precipitated our motion before the RSJ. Our duty to our clients to obtain their judgment after trial finally trumped deference to the judge. In our clients’ minds, he was a lazy judge. We, however, knew him as one who could not make up his mind for months on end, could not remember the evidence, and had to hear the trial over again from audio tapes.

Tolling that limitation period

Many of you have heard of the lawyer who, having failed to start an action on time, reported to his client that he had done it, reported out the status of the action from time to time, and tried to pay a fictional settlement with his own money. From my own experience, I can also tell you about senior lawyers who start lawsuits on the eve of the expiry of a limitation period, and then allowed them to drift unattended for years.

How many actions are started within a week of the expiry date? The lawyers could never admit, either to their clients or to themselves, of a fatal flaw in the cause of action. At some point, the failure to come to that conclusion becomes negligence.  There may be no claim for damages, because the action was flawed in the first place (an effective but ego-deflating defence). However, the lawyers could end up repaying the fees and disbursements from the date they were put on notice of the flaw.

Tickler Ping-Pong or living from warning to warning

Professional paralysis is not the exclusive disease of litigators. Have you ever had to prepare an extension of time on a prosecution of a patent or trademark application? Take a peek in the file and maybe you’ll find another half dozen like it. Or how about that corporate deal on which you’ve been asked to help the partner by meeting a number of last-minute due diligence checks? Nothing has been jeopardized, yet. In days gone by, you could see the extended tickler deadlines crossed out on the front of a file — like a record of the times he depressed the snooze button on his alarm clock. Today, you can simply move the deadlines in the electronic diary after getting an indulgence from the agency, your transactional opponent, or your client. It is harder to see how many times you’ve changed the target dates.

Throw away the crutch

The common element in all three of these stories is the abuse of systems once wisely devised to protect against the consequences of procrastination. The cassette recorder, the hurriedly issued writ, and the tickler system are backstops that have become coping or delay strategies. Sooner or later, one of them will slip. For the obsessive-compulsive in most lawyers, that will be enough to bring on physical panic.

The way to stay clear of panic is to view deadlines and other safety mechanisms as targets. In theory, the workflow of someone who is meeting deadlines and of one who targets dates as next steps should be similar. However, in practice, the target-oriented lawyer is visible to clients as a provider of value, doing what the client wants. The target-meeter (or exceeder) is compared with the deadline-keeper, whose motivation is to avoid bad consequences.

For all of the talk in the blogosphere and self-help world of wellness and work-life balance, the negative approach only pits a career in the law against life, and disease against well-being. This defeatist formula suppresses motivation and forward thinking in a professional. This does not mean we go back to embracing the “die with your boots on” approach to law practice, or to the 2,200-hour quota. But brainwashing young careerists into believing law is a pitched battle between work and life will only turn new lawyers, especially women, away from the practice.

Work is a part of life. Being a lawyer is more than a type of work: it is an identity. Be excited and look forward to completing tasks. Let deadlines never come up. Provide service and value to your clients. If, like the vast majority of lawyers I know, your eyes welled up during your call ceremony because of the challenges of the life ahead, the best way to keep that motivation and to avoid paralysis is to remember why you became a lawyer.

This is Lee Akazaki’s first of his monthly columns offering mentoring to young lawyers. He’s happy to address any career concerns or questions from readers and can be reached at lakazaki@gilbertsondavis.com. So ask away.


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