Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: If I am going to miss a deadline, does it help to tell the attorney who assigned the work the reason that I can’t make the deadline?

A: Usually, no. Think of it this way: If you go to a restaurant and your food takes an eternity to arrive, are you less hungry because the “kitchen was backed-up”? Are you less annoyed? Probably not. You just decide the restaurant is mismanaged.

There are some times that providing an explanation will soften the blow. For example, if you are working around the clock on a high-profile matter, you may get some grace.

And disclosing the fact of a family emergency (without the gory details) can provide helpful context for colleagues who may have to pick up the slack.

An assigning lawyer may also understand if you have to defer one project to complete a different project for that same lawyer. With multiple projects from a single attorney, it can be fair to ask the assigning attorney to help you sort out priorities.

Often, though, trying to explain why you may miss a deadline does little good. And some attempts at explaining can make things worse. Any explanation invites the other person to decide whether your reason is valid. One person sees a reason; the other person sees an excuse.

One of the most common reasons lawyers miss deadlines is that they simply have more work than they can handle. Everyone knows that. But saying it can be perilous.  

The communication might go something like this:

“I am sorry I cannot finish your work on time, because I am finishing a project for another lawyer.”

That statement can prompt one of more of the following (usually unspoken) reactions:

  1. “Why are you leaving me in the lurch? You must not think my work is important.”
  2. “Why can’t you manage your time?”
  3. “Would you tell a client that you could not complete a client’s project, because you had to work on another client’s project”?

Here are some considerations to help you through the thicket:

Speak up. If it appears that you will not be able to meet a deadline, let the assigning attorney know right away – well before the deadline. Frame the issue as a concern that you may need help to complete the project on time.

Assess the work. Assess what tasks still need to be done and how long they will take. And identify parts of the project that you could delegate to paralegals or others.

Just keep swimming. Stay late, get help, and do whatever else you can to meet the deadline. You will get points for pulling through even though you were facing a mountain of work and a dearth of time.

Avoid the “real” deadline trap. It can be tempting to focus on the “real” deadline for a project and to treat the assigning attorney’s deadline as just a goal. For example, the assigning attorney asks for a brief on Monday that must be filed on Thursday. Since Monday is not the actual deadline, the associate completes the draft late on Wednesday – the day before filing.

This approach can work if three things happen: 1) the assigning attorney is available at the last minute to review the work, 2) the assigning attorney does not mind having to drop everything to review the work, and 3) the work is perfect.

Those three things never happen: Treat the assigning attorney’s deadline as the real deadline.

Give yourself a buffer. Plan for projects to take longer than you expect. This is especially true early in your career. It is tempting to want to be a superstar and commit to completing projects right away. Instead, try to negotiate a deadline that will give you more time than you think you need. Then beat your deadlines. That’s when people will decide you are a superstar.

Good luck!

Join the conversation by submitting questions on Twitter @Babysharklaw or here. Get the new Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks here.

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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