Floating Deadlines

We’ve all made the mistake of giving an assignment and failing to establish a clear deadline.  Outside counsel are no different from your staff or anyone else you’re collaborating with.  It’s easy to fall into the trap.  “As soon as possible” is a time-honored deadline diffuser.  Others are easily recognized, like “when you can”, “it’s not urgent” or “at your earliest convenience.”

Unfortunately, it’s your responsibility to establish the clear deadline, and hold the firm to it.  A couple months ago we needed one of our standard agreements updated.  This was a three or four hour assignment — tops.  But we blew it when we told the attorney, “Oh, it’s just a routine update.  We want to be sure recent case law doesn’t trip us up.”  BANG! We walked right into the trap. No deadline.  So, when the revised agreement didn’t come back in a couple days, or by the end of the week, OR by the end of the next week, blood pressure rose.  Finally, we called, and not surprisingly, were met with, “I’m sorry, I didn’t think it was something you needed right away.”  We asked, “Can you get it done by 4:00 p.m. tomorrow?” “Of course,” was the reply, and it arrived on time.

The better attorneys will catch this up front, and use it to their advantage.  We recently asked for some research as part of a decision to file a lawsuit.  Our internal client needed some options to get out of a bit of a mess and was losing sleep over it.  Like good negotiators, the firm gave themselves a wide margin of safety (“we’ll need about a week”).  When we said we needed something in 3 days, the firm responded, “Well… that’s going to be tough — especially staying in your budget.” (Nice move. Personalize it: “your” budget.) “But we’ll get it done.” The memo came in a day early, along with a note from the billing partner saying she wrote off some time as “training”. (Another clever gambit — memorializing the unasked-for discount up front. This enhances the perception of value and sensitivity.)

The result? We got what we needed, when we needed it, by setting clear deadlines. Make sure this is part of your assignment process and others will get more done for you on your schedule.


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