No Holidays For Lawyers
Total Black: $1,066.57
Total Red: $228,867.93
A few days ago, while at the contract attorney position, I got to talking with the office manager for the attorney temporary staffing agency’s off-site location. She was working quite late, as was I, and I inquired why. A new project was starting up and some computer problem had occurred. She had to stick around until the situation was solved otherwise the project wouldn’t have been able to start on time. It got me wondering why Law is all-consuming.
The practice of law is like a black hole. Come anywhere near it, whether as a paralegal or an office manager, an IT technician or a clerk in the docket room of a courthouse, and even a mailroom attendant, and of course as a lawyer—and you’ll never escape it’s gravitational pull again. All are beholden to the demands of the law. But law isn’t medicine. A heart attack or stroke doesn’t mind the calendar and hold off so as to not ruin your special day. Radiation treatment cannot be put on hold because it’s Christmas time. And law is also not like public safety. Sadly crime doesn’t take a holiday. Accidents and fires too do not hold off until the long weekend has come to a close. Police officers and firefighters must be available at all times.
But lawyers? Why is it that lawyers never stop working. Rarely pause. Hardly eve say, “Let’s hold off on this until after the weekend.” Instead “emergencies” always arise that require urgent attention. “Firefighting” assignments we used to call them at the firm. And even back when I interned at a government agency, people generally came in on their day off or took work home with them. And with the good ol’ Blackberry leash around nowadays, lawyers routinely email each other quite late in day or over weekends or holidays. I’m guilty of it myself.
I recall one night at the contract attorney project back in October, the temporary attorney staffing agency’s IT guys were settling in for an all-nighter because the firm decided to expand the project and bring on like one hundred additional contract attorneys. Ok. Fine. But why was it so urgent that these guys had to work all night? Could it have been spread over two days? What would really have been the harm? The IT guys wouldn’t have pushed back and said, “No. I’m not staying here all night.” Or maybe a few would have, but most—especially in this economic climate—wouldn’t. Similarly, the paralegal forced to stay late photocopying materials or assembling binders for a meeting the next day. She too wouldn’t look at her watch and say, “My shift’s over. Sorry. See you tomorrow.” Back in More More More I mentioned that I had to help out one day over at the firm doing photocopying. Nine copies of eighteen different exhibits, a few of which were over four-hundred pages a piece. Once it was all finished, six hours later, the staff attorney directly over us joked that it was a good thing he called me over early to get started. And if he hadn’t? Either he or I would have had to remain at the firm until everything was prepared for the next morning. But why did the photocopying have to happen the night before? Why not three days prior?
Why are lawyers notoriously inept at time management? With the exception of a few instances, I do not believe that any situation involving the practice of law should ever require late nights or these unprofessional panic attacks. Why is it that we let the profession of law be hyjacked by mismanagement? Take the expanded document review project just referenced: the firm must have become aware of a ballpark figure as to how many documents would have to be reviewed. Do the math and out comes an approximate number of days and attorneys you’ll need to get through it all. So why the fire then? I can’t count the number of times this partner at my former law firm decided to begin work once the whistle blew. He bullshat the whole day long, flirting and chatting and doing who knows what, and then once it got close to quitting time, he decided that was when he’d get to work. And he’d keep us there for all hours, to his credit sometimes with him. Another example: at the eleven-thirty hour, just as the team was finishing up edits to a final report to the client, the partner decided that he wanted to make edits and changes. Of course he wrote them on paper. His secretary attempted to put them into the system, but used an earlier version of the document. Eventually everyone figured it out and re-input the chagnes, but her edits screwed up the formatting I and another associate had spent hours repairing. And the client paid for it all!
Why must lawyers be so inefficient? Today my remaining team member shared a war story of her’s about apharmaceutical document review she had been on in New Jersey a few years back. For months hundreds of contract attorneys sat around doing nothing because they had no documents to review. But the client did not want to let the attorneys go out of fear of not being able to staff the project again. (Clearly this was before my time, back in the golden era of document review.) So the company paid the attorneys to do nothing. Paid them an hourly wage plus overtime to sit around for hours and just be on stand-by. They did have to report each day to the project space, but they did nothing. Literally! If I have the story correct, that is. Insane! (And where are those project now. I need that money.)
I acknowledge that legal situations do exist that require emergency attention. Perhaps an unexpected death and related estate matters. Similarly, arraignments before a judge often occur at all hours. If crime doesn’t take a holiday and neither do the police, then courts don’t either, nor prosecutors or defense attorneys. The pro bono case I handled while at the firm required a rush to court seeking an injunction to stop the auction of the client’s personal property. We received very short notice beforehand about the auction. Composing the papers and getting everything assembled took time and required over twenty-four hours straight work. And then we had to go to court afterward. That was an emergency situation too. But in all honesty, and in retrospect, I don’t think it required that emergency pace. I just failed to appreciate the scope of the work involved, but yet it did need to get done and within a short time-frame.
These few example I cited aren’t the everyday for most lawyers and those who work for and support lawyers. Yet lawyers routinely manufacture emergencies, concoct crises, and drum up drama . . . and turn everyone else’s life around them into a nightmare. With few exceptions, legal situations do not warrant this frenzy. Instead, I think it is widespread failure to plan appropriately and manage time wisely that precipitates the current pace of the law. And I think it’s partly due to the way law school is set up. Law students are conditioned to coast through classes until the reading period begins—a few weeks before exams when one must relearn (or in many instances learn it for the first time) all the material covered throughout the course. It establishes a pattern in the minds of lawyers-t0-be that important deadlines can be pushed off until the last minute. I recall a presentation given to the summer associates the firm I worked for. The presenter quoted a statistic somewhere around 80% as the number of attorneys who require a sense of urgency before they’ll turn to something. I too am guilty. But it has to change. Too many overworked, stressed-out, unhappy lawyers. Tack on all the support personnel and it’s just mountains of woe.
So yes . . . although it is President’s Day weekend. And although it is a holiday. I am working today. And so was everyone else on all the projects in the office. No holidays for lawyers, it seems. And yes, I know, a backhanded answer is to get out of the profession if I don’t like it. But I do. I honestly enjoy the practice of law. What I don’t understand though is why the administration of the practice of law must be devoid of any acknowledgement of anything else outside of the law. I guess it’s like that event horizon. No light escape from a black hole. Well . . . not without breaking the laws of gravity.