As December flew by, many pundits predicted that Congress’ failure to resolve the automatic tax hikes and steep spending cuts that were scheduled to take effect on January 1 — otherwise known as the ill-named “fiscal cliff” — would lead to a weakening of the country’s economic recovery. Every news story reporting on the fiscal cliff focused on the gridlock among lawmakers as the final hours of the year ticked by, much to the frustration of the citizenry. Maybe because so many of our leaders are, in fact, lawyers, watching the story unfold reminded us of some of our best and worst habits that we resolve to improve upon in 2013.
Deadlines Exist for a Reason
Because they set the fiscal cliff deadline themselves, Congress and the White House knew for months before December 31 that significant discussions, debate and compromise would be necessary to reach a deal on the tax and spending cuts and other issues tied into avoiding our fall off the fiscal ledge. Yet, it was only in late November that both sides sat down to begin a dialogue and did not reach a deal until the deadline was about to expire in the last hours of 2012 (which was not voted on until the early-morning hours of 2013). Sound familiar?
As lawyers, we are often plagued by all of the different time limits that require our attention — statutes of limitations, discovery deadlines and the list goes on. Many lawyers’ standard practice is to procrastinate … waiting until the deadline is looming to take action. This adds unnecessary pressure to a situation that is already full of stress. If there is some error or unexpected delay in filing a complaint, it will cause you some anxiety; that anxiety will be two-fold if you’re planning to file that complaint the day before the statute of limitations expires. More importantly, your procrastination could cause irreparable harm to your client.
Resolve to change this bad habit in the new year. Try to complete tasks at least one week before they are due. This will give you a little bit of flexibility (and “extra” time) for emergencies that may arise. For those rare occasions when there isn’t a deadline for a particular task, resist the temptation to push it off. Give yourself an internal deadline to make sure that you check it off the to-do list.
Don’t Lose Sight of the Forest
Each member of Congress is in office to serve the concerns of his or her constituents. However, Congress acts as a body to protect the general welfare of the United States. Congress’ failure to recognize the big picture could have been disastrous for everyone. Teamwork is a necessary part of getting the job done.
Young lawyers are tasked with learning a great deal in a short amount of time. One of those lessons is the right way to balance your assignments with the goals of the team of attorneys that you are working with. You don’t want to be the one so focused on your own workload and the minutiae of the assignment at hand that you cannot see the forest for the trees. It’s unwise to focus only on the work that has been assigned to you; you also need to look at the big picture — what your team is trying to accomplish for the client and how can you help meet that goal.
If you are working on a case, take the time to stay abreast of its progress. Review the file to make sure you have a complete history. Make a point of paying attention to what’s happening outside of your individual assignments. Make sure you and your work are a needed contribution to the team’s effort.
‘Compromise’ Is Not a Dirty Word
The art of compromise can be difficult to master. Every member of Congress has his own views and positions, especially on issues like taxes and spending. No member of Congress wants to be perceived as having given in too easily and to have to suffer the political consequences. But that is the very reason why we have a divided government, so that no one faction can control and compromise is necessary to get on with the business of the country. Nobody really liked the deal that Congress eventually struck on the fiscal cliff, which extended income tax cuts for most Americans and kicked the can down the road on automatic spending cuts, but that’s why it’s called a compromise.
The same can be said for lawyers. We are employed in an adversarial process because two parties can’t resolve their differences on their own, so, by definition, we represent equally strong opposing views on the controversy before us. But if we disagreed on every single issue that arose — e.g., scheduling, every discovery request — no case would ever move forward and we would be stuck in endless gridlock and cases would last for years on end. (In fact, we are sure that some of you have these cases and have seen this firsthand.)
Save the real controversies for court. Compromising where you can may lead to better results and less expense for your client. Separate the issues that may be resolved like discovery disputes and scheduling matters from those that really matter. In so doing, you may be able to figure out a way to obtain an advantage that you might not otherwise be entitled to. Placing yourself in the good graces of opposing counsel may also yield unexpected moments of reasonableness when it really counts. In the end, being reasonable and compromising where possible may lead to obtaining favorable settlements and a happy client.
Take the Lead
One of the most disappointing parts of lawmakers’ efforts to resolve their self-imposed tax and spending crisis was the seeming lack of willingness from anyone on either side to step up and take on a leadership role to strike a larger “grand bargain” to resolve the country’s more serious spending and deficit issues. Indeed, the entire point of setting up the fiscal cliff was to impose deadlines and discipline to force the decision-makers to the bargaining table on these important points. Instead, there ended up being half of a deal on taxes and more procrastination on the serious debt issues that the country will now have to confront in 2013.
Perhaps you’ve seen this happen on your own cases that just won’t move along, staffed below a lackadaisical partner or senior associate or a client that just will not respond to calls or emails. Sometimes there is strategy in allowing nothing to happen, but there are other times when a client or case is crying out for needed attention. Step up and affirmatively take on the issues that need to be dealt with. Assess the various states of pleadings, correspondence and document review and plan and execute what needs to be done. Taking the lead on the case allows you to control its pace and, potentially, its outcome. As an added bonus, showing leadership and initiative can only impress those internal and external clients that have been too busy or unconcerned with its direction. If you feel you are pushing the boundaries of your responsibility, you are probably on the right track.
Although the fiscal cliff negotiations were frustrating and the ultimate resolution may have been unsatisfying, we hope that we and Congress can learn from these lessons and resolve to do better in 2013. •
YL Editorial Board
Peter C. Buckley, Chairman
Leigh Ann Buziak
The Editorial Board of Young Lawyer is composed of members of the legal profession. They serve voluntarily and are independent of Young Lawyer. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. Members of the legal community are invited to contribute signed op-ed pieces.