The importance of being early
Punctuality is a virtue much pooh-poohed by a certain kind of lawyer – the kind who views her time as so exquisitely valuable that she must operate in a perpetual state of adrenaline-fueled urgency. Meeting starts at 9:00? If it’s only 8:56, there’s ample time to make an important phone call to get instructions from a different client (and ample time, during the meeting, to surreptitiously type notes about that call into her tablet). If the call runs late and she arrives at the meeting at 9:10, well, she was delayed by important business − more important, surely, than the business to be done in the meeting, since it was HER business.
Reader, are you feeling defensive yet? Coming up with mental arguments about the importance of productivity? How the practice of law is no place for Type B characters who allow themselves to be ruled by the clock? You may want to stop right there.
In fact, careful observance of VERY successful people will reveal that the majority of these individuals value humble punctuality very highly. Observe the demeanour of a successful high-level businessperson or politician, and you’ll notice that no matter how demanding that person’s schedule, he or she will be careful to arrive at meetings appearing supremely relaxed, abundantly prepared, and will do his or her best to create the perception that this meeting with you is the most important meeting of the day. The effect is flattering and intimidating at the same time.
If you are a last-minute man (or woman), making a conscious effort to be punctual has the potential to pay much higher dividends, in terms of success, than the habit of overscheduling yourself to squeeze five or ten per cent more busyness into your workday.
In general business (or politics, etc.), many of the best reasons for being punctual relate to image enhancement, obtaining a psychological advantage, or excelling in communication. Consider your own reactions to punctuality and lateness. When a person with whom we are scheduled to meet arrives early or on time, it suggests competence, preparedness, reliability, appropriate time management, and respect for others. A person who arrives late appears overworked, disorganized, ill-prepared, and disrespectful of the value of our time. If the latecomer makes an excuse for herself, unless her lateness is exceptional, our impression is not much improved: Benjamin Franklin, for example, was credited with saying: “I have generally found that the man who is good at an excuse is good for nothing else.”
Our reactions to in-person lateness apply to other kinds of lateness, too. Missing a deadline for delivery of work product communicates not just a lack of respect for the deadline (and the person who set it), but also the inability of the late-submitter to deliver on his promise. It suggests, rightly or wrongly, that the person underestimated the difficulty of the task at the time he promised delivery… or that he was not equal to the task. Not an impression you want to make!
As egregious as punctuality is in business, in litigation lateness takes on an added dimension: the strict limitations regime means that being late is not just bad for your image − it can lead to your client’s loss of opportunity to exercise a legal right. Here at LAWPRO, we have seen a very worrisome spike in the number of claims we have seen that relate to the administrative dismissal of actions for delay. If there were ever a good reason to improve your punctuality, avoiding one of these claims is it.
So how do you go from being chronically late (and at a high risk for claims and loss of clients) to a paragon of punctuality? Consider these tips:
- Get better at estimating how long tasks take. A term called “planning fallacy” was coined more than three decades ago to describe the tendency of certain people to underestimate how much time they will require to complete a task, even when they have experienced similar tasks taking longer than expected. Are you one of these people? If so, try adding 30 per cent to your estimate of the time it takes to do anything – from getting ready for work, to driving to the courthouse, to drafting a statement of claim.
- Overcome “magical thinking” about your productivity. Do you answer every request for your time with “sure”, allowing yourself to become hopelessly overextended, and then assume “it’ll all work out in the end”? It won’t. You will inevitably let someone down. Be responsible when making commitments; know when the responsible answer is “I can’t have you (safely) ready to close the deal by that date” or, “I can’t help you, but I can refer you to someone who can.”
- Learn to value a significant increase in work quality over a minor increase in work volume. Arriving at meetings well-prepared can greatly improve the impression you make on colleagues. Completing work early enough to thoroughly review and proofread it before submission can prevent many embarrassing errors, not to mention claims, and even loss of a client’s business. Compare the gains in perceived competence that you will make by being on time with the very small measure of extra productivity you gain by rushing everything.
- Remember that being on time is a sign of respect for others. When you are late, you send the message that you don’t value the other party’s efforts to make time for you. This is an incredibly negative message, regardless of whether you are late for a professional engagement or to meet an old friend. While others won’t always complain about your lateness, it’s likely that they feel disrespected, every single time. This pattern is more damaging to your professional image and to your personal relationships than you likely realize. Take steps to repair that damage starting today.
- Learn to appreciate the advantages of being early. If you are a chronic latecomer, you likely don’t realize the many advantages that come with being early. The first party to arrive at a negotiation meeting wins the best seats at the table and psychological “home court advantage”. The first counsel to arrive at a mediation gets to make friendly chit-chat with the mediator. The first presenter to arrive at a seminar gets to play host to the first attendees and to network with other panellists. Even minor perks like snagging a better parking spot on a rainy day, or having a moment to organize your documents or your thoughts before the start of a hearing can help make you feel more relaxed, poised, and on your game. When you feel better, you perform better. When you perform better, you avoid malpractice claims.
Take the time to train yourself to be on time (or early!), and you’ll be a happier, less stressed, and lower-risk lawyer.