If I ever quit practicing law, the one aspect I will not miss is the endless pressure of time deadlines. I don’t ever recall in law school being lectured about the importance of time in the practice of law, or even how to effectively manage time.
I have been a contingent fee lawyer most of my career, so keeping track of time has not been as important for me as it would be for someone who bills by the hour. Lawyers who bill by the hour are more attuned to the march of time. There is an old joke that a lawyer who is 55 years old dies and is told at the pearly gates that according to his time records he is really 80 years old. That joke suggests lawyers don’t accurately keep time, which is not true for most. At some point, you have to present a bill to the client and if the bill reflects too much time the prospects of payment lessen. Those lawyers who work for insurance companies and bill by the hour have restrictions on the time they can bill, so there is not much inflation on those cases.
One of my favorite memories from my early days of practicing law involved a case we were trying in Jefferson City in front of Judge Scott Wright in federal court. We showed up for trial, and the lawyer on the other side came by himself to defend his client. He was being paid by an insurance company.
A local lawyer from Jefferson City who had known Judge Wright for many years also appeared for the defendant. My thought was that he was going to attempt to take advantage of his longtime friendship with the judge to help the insurance company.
After the local lawyer walked into the courtroom the judge asked him what he was doing there, and he responded that he came to help the other lawyer. Judge Wright yelled at him and told him to go back to his office because the other lawyer did not need his help. His plan to use his influence blew up in his face. It was rather comical.
I spend the time on a case that is necessary without worrying about the clock. There are many days when I have been at my desk doing research on the computer and hours have passed by and I am surprised when I check the time. Since my fee is contingent on the outcome of the case, the time I spend is not nearly as important.
I am not bothered by the time I spend on my clients’ cases. Yet there is another aspect of time keeping that is very stressful. A significant part of my practice involves medical malpractice cases, and in Missouri there is normally a two-year time limit for filing the case. If the injured party is younger than 18, the time limit expires at the child’s 20th birthday. In most cases involving death, there is a three-year time limit for filing wrongful death cases.
However, there are cases in which the injuries did not actually cause the death, and there is a trap in those cases. Those cases are called survival actions and must be filed within two years from the date of the negligent act, but the case must be brought by an estate that has to be opened within one year of death. Thus, the time for filing the case is shortened. There are many nights that I wake up thinking about an impending time deadline. These statutes of limitations create much stress.
There are also time deadlines for responding to various actions in the course of a case. We receive written questions and requests for documents that must be responded to within 30 days. Most lawyers will give extensions of time, and we extend the courtesy also. The golden rule of treating others as you would like to be treated works well in most cases.
There are also scheduling orders entered by the courts in most cases that require certain deadlines to be met. There are deadlines for identifying expert witnesses, for producing expert witnesses and for completing discovery. Sometimes written motions are filed and there are strict time deadlines on responding to those.
As the case approaches a trial date, there are all kinds of time deadlines for filing pretrial documents such as exhibit lists, witness lists, designations of deposition testimony and pretrial motions to limit certain types of evidence. Those can be burdensome too.
There are many nights when I wake up thinking about upcoming events. I have never tried to juggle several balls at the same time, but that is the image that I regularly have in my mind as I juggle deadlines.
In “Alice in Wonderland,” the White Rabbit says: “I’m late, I’m late for a very important date.” There is no time to say “hello” or “goodbye.” Alice then suggests that it must be important, to which the White Rabbit says: “I’m overdue, I’m really in a stew.”
And then he looks at his watch and keeps running. I can relate to the White Rabbit. I don’t want to be late for a very important date, so I must look at the clock and keep on running.
Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence, www.wagblaw.com . Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org