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Virtually every busy lawyer has dealt with emergencies where around-the-clock work must be done to meet critical deadlines. But what if the emergency is not the product of the project, but is caused by the procrastination of the supervising partner, who refuses to give you timely directions or a decision on an issue that is basic to your work? This article aims to provide some practical advice for dealing with the persistently procrastinating partner. It is important to note at the outset that procrastination is not always inappropriate. Often, a decision cannot, or should not, be made immediately for good reason. A few questions to the partner may reveal those reasons and may permit formulation of a plan to deal with the unique circumstances that required delayed decision-making. Indeed, such a strategy, in which the subject is why and how to deal with the delay, may be a particularly valuable learning experience. It is also important to note that procrastination is often situational. The partner may have several other important projects in process or may have some personal needs to attend to which temporarily take higher priority than your project. Again, a few (tactful) questions to the partner or to other colleagues in the firm may reveal the nature of the problem and may lead to the formulation of a specific plan to deal with it. For example, it may be possible for the partner to hand off some of the supervisory responsibility to another partner or to reduce the level of supervision to a point that permits you to obtain adequate (but less frequent) direction and the partner to satisfy his or her competing obligations. This kind of discussion, moreover, will permit you to avoid irritating the partner, who may well be trying his or her best to juggle several high-priority issues at once. That all said, we come to the main point: how to deal with the partner for whom procrastination is a way of life. This problem, of course, comes in many forms. Some procrastinators are just generally unavailable; when you call or stop by for directions, they are always too busy. Others may communicate with you, but will often fail to say definitively how they want important issues to be addressed, or will give conflicting directions at different times. Still others are fond of last-minute “revisions” to your work such that the directions you thought you had earlier ultimately prove to be unreliable. The consequences of procrastination are not difficult to identify, but they can be devastating. If you are exercising your professional responsibility, you want your work to be done on time and the greatest opportunity to make sure that you “get it right.” Last-minute all-nighter sessions to complete a project that was delayed due to the partner’s procrastination can produce mistakes and will almost certainly create a tremendous amount of stress and resentment in you. More generally, the inefficiency of procrastination can make you less effective as a lawyer. If your projects are not done well, or on time, your reputation may suffer needlessly. Do not let resentment and frustration from a partner’s procrastination cloud your judgment. It is easy to label the procrastinating partner as “difficult” or some other word that suggests that nothing can be done to affect the situation. Though it may be satisfying in the short term, such labeling ultimately is self-defeating because it means that you may miss the opportunity to analyze the partner’s behavior, and your response to it, in a way that could produce productive change. Trying to avoid the partner’s influence (refusing to take assignments, claiming to be too busy) may also be a poor solution. Aside from the risk of annoying the partner, there is a more fundamental point. You cannot escape procrastinators. Even if you succeed in avoiding one egregiously procrastinating partner, there will be others (and clients as well). Thus, it is important to develop skills and strategies for dealing with procrastinators. Here are a few suggestions. Spend time getting to know the procrastinator’s decision-making habits: What works in getting a decision from this person? Is there a best form for seeking guidance? (Short decision memoranda, checklists or regular “check in” meetings are sometimes effective.) Is there a best time of day to talk to this person? (Some people are only approachable first thing in the morning, before their hectic day is launched; others like to “clear the plate” of incoming mail and calls before they turn to new matters.) Is the partner a generalist in giving directions or does the partner “sweat all the details” and insist on reviewing all your work? Conversely, are there forms or times that clearly will not work (which should be avoided)? Are there ways of seeking approval that are particularly likely to inflame this partner? Your personal experiences with the partner may be supplemented with information from your colleagues in the firm who may know the partner’s style and who may have valuable suggestions for dealing with his or her procrastinating behavior. Look for ways to eliminate the need for approval of relatively minor aspects of your work. If you prioritize your dealings with the procrastinator, your frustration level may decline because there will be fewer occasions in which the partner’s failure to respond hinders your work. The partner may also come to appreciate that when you ask for directions, you really do need a decision, not simply the partner’s blessing on decisions that are otherwise within your discretion. Spend time analyzing the project, breaking it into its component parts and “looking around the corners” for problems that may occur. Do not ask the partner to make decisions on all the component parts of the work at once, and certainly not all at the last minute. At the outset, simply seek consultation on the outline of the steps and potential problems that you have identified: “Have I properly identified the steps here?” “Do you see any other potential problems?” “Do you agree that I should start with the first step that I have identified?” This kind of dialogue can get the ball rolling for continuing communication throughout the project. In effect, the partner does not make any single decision. Instead, at each juncture, you remind the partner of the outline of work that you have done so far and the next step(s) you propose to take. This continuous check-in process avoids the need for isolated, momentous decisions and turns the approval process into more of a collaboration. If the partner is simply not available it may be impossible to establish a truly collaborative relationship. Even in that situation, however, it may be possible to use a variation on the collaborative approach: that is, you break the project into its component parts and you tell the partner your general plan for the project and your specific plan for the first step. If, after a decent interval and reasonable notice to the partner, you get no response, you embark on the first step and continue the reporting/request for direction process throughout the project. It may be very helpful in this vein to establish a written record of your communications with the partner. E-mail is perfect for this purpose. At each step, you can forward a copy of your previous notes on the project with an update on your most recent efforts and plans. At each step the partner can review what you have done and what you propose. At each step you have gotten at least implicit approval for your proposed actions. There are more than a few occasions, however, where implicit approval is simply not sufficient. It may be that you do not have a proposed solution to a problem on the project. It may be that the partner has critical information (from the client, for example) that you must receive in order to proceed. It may also be that the decision to be made is so important that implicit approval is inadequate. In these instances, plan for an escalating series of notices to the partner indicating what the decision involves, when it has to be made and what the consequences may be if no decision is made. The first notice should be provided well before the decision must be made and should set out the essential points involved in the decision (and your recommendation, if any). You should also note that you need to get explicit (rather than implicit) approval or directions. As you approach the deadline, make sure that you investigate whether the partner will be physically available to make the decision in the period leading up to the deadline or that you at least know how to reach the partner if he or she must leave the office. Be persistent, and use more than one means of communication (call, e-mail, stop by and tell the partner’s secretary if you think that will help). Plan for the worst. If you do not get directions or a decision, can your work be delayed for some period beyond the deadline? Can you make a tentative decision, to be confirmed when the partner finally focuses on the issue? Can you do a portion of the work that does not require approval or directions? If the very worst happens — you try to get a decision from the partner; you get none, and the decision must be made; you give the decision your best shot, and the partner questions you on why you did what you did — make sure that you can honestly hold up your head and say, “I tried as hard as I could to get directions here.” Although it is not your job to reform the procrastinating partner, an experience like that can be an occasion for you to articulate how you would prefer to proceed in getting directions on future projects. Such a dialogue may lead to improved communications and better decision-making on such projects. Steven C. Bennett is a partner in the New York City offices of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, and a co-director of the New Associates Group in that office. The views expressed are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s firm or its clients.

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