“I like what I do,” says a transactional partner at a big law firm in Atlanta. But the partner is wary of a particular aspect of the 24/7 nature of business: Client expectations have increased, while turnaround time has decreased.
“The lack of time to just sit and think about something is difficult,” the partner says.
Speed “forces us to be efficient,” and that’s a good thing, the partner allows. But, ”the faster the turnaround, the less effective we are.”
The partner wants to “toil with the case law” underlying the documents the team is preparing. The partner especially wants associates to wrestle with the issues so they understand why deals are structured the way they are. Cutting and pasting from previous deals won’t help them the next time they are creating a 200-page document filled with overlapping definitions.
This partner’s concerns reflect a practice-level aspect to a mental health risk identified last month on Law.com by Patrick Krill, a lawyer and mental health counselor. When clients tell their lawyer, “‘Just make it happen,’ it would seem, in a sense, like they are simply signaling their confidence and bestowing their praise,” Krill wrote. “In reality, the timeline may be disastrously unreasonable, the expectations inhumane, and the assignment itself utterly unclear but, damn it, they know you’ll come through.”
The Atlanta transactional partner understands this dynamic can start higher than the in-house counsel who delivers the direction to the outside firm. Regardless, the partner may be under pressure to push back on the deadline, but “you’re always hesitant” to do that.
Lizanne Thomas, who heads Jones Day’s corporate governance team and has her roots as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer, says, “I have seen velocity increase,” especially in the past decade.
“We are always cautious about the loss of time to reflect,” she adds. But she sounds confident in her approach to clients who need quick answers.
She likes to give an initial assessment of the legal issue and follow up with research to confirm it. “Clients respond well to that,” she says. “Sometimes that’s what they’re looking for.”
Of course, one has to have enough experience to be able to make initial readings on an issue. But Thomas says, “If your only answer is ‘I have to research it,’ you’re only a technician,” making a lawyer less valuable to the client.
Thinking back on her 37 years in the business, Thomas notes another example of how business speed has increased. When she started, deals would be backed by formal legal opinions by both sides’ law firms. Now those legal opinions ”have moved to the level of at least being not customary and maybe even rare.”
Nonetheless, Thomas urges associates to be methodical in their legal reviews of matters, saying they are “not being graded on speed.”
One local general counsel echoes that sentiment. “I’d prefer a right answer to a fast answer,” says Doug Sandberg, the general counsel at First View Financial and former general counsel at Worldpay US.
Sandberg tracks the increase of speed with technology, from the days of mail, which put days in between new drafts of documents, to faxes, email and electronic filing.
Taking the time to wrestle with the legal issues is “part of the benefit of having a good counselor,” he says.
As for CEOs, COOs, CFOs and board chairs who want quick answers to take advantage of business opportunities, Sandberg says managing the executives’ expectations is critical to ensuring lawyers have enough time to get to the right answer.
Despite the concerns transactional lawyers feel about the increased speed of business, Christine Mast, a senior partner of Hawkins Parnell & Young who represents lawyers facing malpractice claims, says speed is not a typical cause of malpractice claims.
However, she suggests that, if clients limit the amount of time lawyers have to respond with an answer to a question, “you may have to put some limits on them.” Specifically, she says, lawyers can respond to the client’s question with caveats—that the answer is contingent on certain circumstances that may need to be researched more fully.
“I can see some exposure for any lawyer who gives a quick answer without the caveats,” she says.