Work-Life-Balance Photo Credit: Fotolia

A new Delaware Supreme Court policy imposing an earlier filing deadline for most state court cases has highlighted a years-old divide among attorneys in a wider effort to address work-life balance in the legal profession.

The change, announced Monday in an order from Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr., moves the filing deadline in non-expedited cases from 11:59 p.m. to 5 p.m., in an attempt to “ease the burden of a late filing deadline on staff and attorneys.”

However, a 2015 report from a committee impaneled by the Supreme Court found little consensus on whether an earlier deadline would help lawyers better handle their commitments at home and in the office. In fact, the report noted, a majority of practitioners in each of the state’s five courts opposed a 5 p.m. deadline, with the most pushback coming from attorneys who practice in the Court of Common Pleas, where 64 percent of respondents said it was not a good idea.

Opposition varied by firm size and practice area, with attorneys voicing concerns that the rule change could disproportionately impact small firms, solo practitioners and public defenders, who often lack the time and resources to meet the end-of-business deadline, according to the report.

Supporters of the change, however, argue that it will bring the state courts more in the Delaware district court’s 6 p.m. deadline and codify practices that most attorneys already stipulate to in briefing schedules, while allowing lawyers more flexibility to make dinner and pick up their children from day care. The earlier deadline, they said, would also improve the quality of filings and also free up nonattorney staff, who did not commit to a 24-hour profession.

The report noted that members of the Women Chancery Lawyers, a networking group for attorneys who practice corporate and commercial litigation in the Delaware Court of Chancery, were particularly supportive of an earlier deadline, though there was less agreement on the best time for a filing cutoff.

“We believe the criticism and resistance to a 5:00 p.m. filing deadline is outweighed by the benefits that will be created,” attorneys Patricia L. Enerio, William M. Lafferty and Gregory P. Williams wrote in the 63-page report. “The current state of e-filing contributes to a ‘culture of overwork’ for all involved in Delaware litigation practice—staff and attorneys alike. A 5:00 p.m. filing deadline could help to diminish this negative culture for staff and attorneys.”

The recommendations were supported by 14 Delaware attorneys who signed on to the document in an endorsement.

In announcing the new policy, Strine acknowledged a lack of consensus on the issues documented in 2015, but said the new deadline would better serve the profession in Delaware.

“Based on the report, the chief justice, as the administrative head of all the Delaware courts, with the concurrence of the justices of the Supreme Court, concludes that the recommendations in the report are sensible best practices that will improve the work-life balance of legal professionals and enhance the quality of their work product and will improve the administration of justice if adopted by the Delaware courts,” he wrote in the five-page order.

Francis G.X. Pileggi, a vice chair of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott’s commercial litigation practice, said the change was a welcome one for local counsel, who often have to deal with law firms from around the country, including on the West Coast, where attorneys operate on schedules three hours behind their Delaware counterparts.

“It’s going to be a little extra challenge for them because they’ve got to get it done by 1:00,” he said of the West Coast firms.

But for Pileggi the biggest relief would be felt by Eckert Seamans’ nonattorney staff, whom he notified of the changes on Thursday.

“Some staff like to get overtime when they select it, not when it’s forced,” he said.

“I think it’s probably going to be a greater benefit to staff, in addition to being a benefit to the lawyers of course.”

Robert M. Kleiner, of Kleiner & Kleiner, did not expect the move to make much of an effect on his two-partner firm, which mainly handles probate and elder law. However, he said the impact would likely vary by practice.

“For our type of work, we don’t find ourselves filing after 5:00 anyway,” said Kleiner, former chair of the Delaware State Bar Association’s small firms and solo practitioners section.

According to Strine’s order, the new filing deadline will go into effect Sept. 14 in all Delaware courts. The Supreme Court is currently drafting an implementation order, which it plans to publish in the coming weeks.

The order also recommended that the individual courts consider implementing best practices to avoid filing due dates on Mondays or the day after a holiday, issuing non-expedited opinions late in the day and scheduling oral arguments and trials in the month of August.