Ward Damon partner Adam Seligman is a transactional attorney, and he’s been in the position of learning a potential client hired someone else when his response took 45 minutes.
Susan Eisenberg, Miami managing partner of Cozen O’Connor, ended up on the lucky side with “found time” when two days of depositions were canceled, but that’s abnormal. As a management-side employment attorney, she’s more likely to get a call the night before a planned termination.
Litigator Alan Kluger, a co-founder of Kluger Kaplan, has an airline Wi-Fi subscription to work in the air and clear his figurative desk while others are streaming their favorite shows.
All three recognize the pressure to perform instantly in a high-stress profession when digital devices of one kind or another tend to be no more than a few feet away. The attorneys have their own time management tricks and coping mechanisms for keeping what could be a 24/7 job to something more reasonable.
Seligman recalls reading a study finding “every interruption at the office takes your brain six minutes to get back to what you’re doing.” With that in mind, he might turn off email or move to a conference room to talk to a client without his mobile phone in sight.
Eisenberg said: “I think the need for speed has definitely increased over time and obviously because of technology. I think the expectation of clients now is that they want responses immediately, and it doesn’t matter what time of the day or night they’re reaching out.”
Her preferred solution “is manage expectations. If it’s absolutely something you can’t get to, say, ‘I need some time.’ ”
The pace of taking on new business has changed dramatically in only a few years. Eisenberg and Kluger mentioned the transition from snail mail to fax to email. Starting a legal project changed from an initial exchange of calls and paper typically from Monday to Friday.
“ Now you get email at 9, you start the work at 11,” Kluger said. “I don’t think the work happens any quicker. I just think it starts earlier.”
Eisenberg can expect to see a followup email in 10 minutes if she didn’t respond to the first one. Kluger said a client’s response to a request for time can arrive in as little as 30 seconds.
“It’s not just clients. It’s opposing counsel. It’s your partners. Everybody needs everything immediately,” Eisenberg said, tracing the speedup to the mid-1990s when computers and email became commonplace.
Jamie Cole, managing partner of the Fort Lauderdale office of Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman, counsels attorneys to delay answering email in the heat of the moment, especially if the inclination is to send a snarky response.
“One of the mottoes that I tell people is ‘Save, don’t send,’ ” he said. “ Save it and read it tomorrow. People just respond too quickly to things, and they don’t think things out.”
As a former Florida Bar grievance committee member, Seligman said the top complaint about lawyers is they don’t return phone calls, and he doesn’t want to be lumped in that group.
“I am the one who will bend over backward for customer service, and so will my staff,” he said. “If I don’t call someone back quick enough, it’s a missed opportunity, it’s a missed deal.”
Seligman’s approach depends very much on transaction schedules and the time zones of his foreign clients, who stretch from Malaysia to Israel. (He’s never met his Malaysian client but has been doing his U.S. transactions for 10 years.)
“When your deal’s not closing for six weeks or two months, I’m not sure anything is an impending crisis,” he said, explaining the need to set priorities. And face-to-face closings are largely a thing of the past. Double mail away, where documents are sent by email or FedEx, are a common method of automating remote deal closings.
Referral methods are another thing that speeded up in the legal profession. Seligman has offered his services at kid’s birthday parties, but an electronic element has crept in. ”Ten years ago, I never thought I’d be getting a referral from a mom blog or the app Nextdoor,” but both have happened.
Kluger, part of a 28-attorney Miami firm, considers himself a savvy user of technology but makes sure he’s in control of the devices and not the other way around. When he’s not on deadline, he turns his phone off at 9 p.m. and leaves it charging in the kitchen.
“I never have my cellphone in my bedroom, ever,” he said. ”It’s not old school. I’m on all the time. I probably run my law practice off my phone and my Surface at a higher level than most of the lawyers.” And he’s up at 5:15 a.m. responding to calls, texts and emails that landed after the unplug.
Seligman prefers setting time blocks for phone calls, email and work assignments, “otherwise you’re constantly going to be interrupted.”
In terms of response time, Kluger thinks more experienced lawyers have the advantage because those “that have seen the issue many times before can respond with probably a more coherent and focused solution than those that would have to start from scratch.”
Eisenberg, whose office has 27 attorneys, knows the difference between the ideal world and reality.
“Would I like to have a week lead time on everything? Sure. Does it ever happen? Rarely,” she said. “I can’t remember the last time I got an email from a client that said, ‘You know what? No rush. Get to it when you can.’ ”
At law firms, Eisenberg sees a difference in levels of urgency for partners and associates. Secretaries once opened mail and distributed multiple copies of assignments, but the staff has largely disappeared, and a different person is now on the receiving end.
“ The partners have become triage,” she said. “The pressure that the associates are feeling is nothing compared to the pressure the partners are feeling.”
Weekend work is an obvious source of tension.
After reading email strings, some associates complain assignments sit in a partner’s inbox for up to a week and get distributed on a Friday with a Monday deadline. Eisenberg suggests doing the work and telling the partner, “I did this, but the next time if you shoot it to me right away, I’ll take care of it right away. You don’t have to wait until the weekend.”
Seligman, part of an 18-attorney Palm Beach County firm, stays connected and considers it a selling point. He works “plenty of weekends, but that’s to be expected when you’re getting close to the finish line of a major project.” Other stuff can wait. ”Every weekend, I’ll respond to some emails. That’s no problem. But am I going to have a two-hour conference call on a weekend? Probably not.”
With electronics, ”the people that concern me are people who think it’s controlling their lives instead of seeing it as another tool,” Kluger said. “If you hate it, you’re not using it right.”
A big challenge for any attorney is how to handle things when client demands get out of hand.
“I’ll do my best, but again a lot of things are not life or death,” Seligman said. ”I’ve had clients over the years who didn’t respect my time or my staff’s time, and we fire the client. It doesn’t happen often.”