Time to Bring Back the Lost Art of Procrastination - Articles

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Posted by: William Haltom on Jul 1, 2018

Journal Issue Date: Jul 2018

Journal Name: July 2018 - Vol. 54, No. 7

I’ve long believed that the most common sin of lawyers is procrastination. Benjamin Franklin once famously said, “Never put off ’til tomorrow what you can do today.” To which his lawyer friend John Adams reportedly responded, “Well there’s no reason to do anything today unless a statute of limitations is about to run!”

During my 40-year-long career (yes, I am that old), I have found that most of us lawyers believe that justice delayed is justice. That’s understandable when you are a defense lawyer. But, ironically, I have discovered this approach is often also taken by really good plaintiff’s lawyers even though it means that if they keep putting things off, they may never get paid!

My friend and fellow Tennessee Bar Journal columnist John Day is one of the best trial lawyers I know, and he does not engage in the art of procrastination. I was recently on a seminar panel with John in which I heard him favorably quote a fellow plaintiff’s lawyer who advocates shorter statutes of limitations for all civil actions, contending that more abbreviated filing deadlines would actually help lawyers more aggressively pursue claims.

But John and his friend are exceptional lawyers. Too many lawyers (sadly, myself included) have never met a motion for a trial continuance that they didn’t like.

I believe, however, that there is a new generation of lawyers emerging in Tennessee, and from what I have observed, these young men and women are not procrastinators. In fact, they are just the opposite. Having been raised on social media, they bring a frenetic sense of urgency to even the most mundane task.

When I started practicing law back in the 1970s (when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and dinosaurs roamed the earth), lawyers carried briefcases, and we did not have phones and computers in those leather cases. We had legal pads and No. 2 Ticonderoga pencils. Consequently, when a lawyer was out of the office, he was literally out of touch. You couldn’t reach him in the courthouse or in his car or at lunch or at dinner. If a client tried to call him when he was out of his office, the lawyer’s secretary would fill out a little pink slip with the client’s name and phone number, and eventually (but not always), the lawyer would return the call when he got back to the office.

But I hardly see any young lawyers carrying briefcases these days. They carry iPhones and iPads, which they look at constantly. Not only do they look at them, they type or talk into them nonstop, responding to emails and texts as if they were basketball players desperately attempting a 3-pointer as the shot clock is about to expire.

According to a recent survey, more than half of U.S. lawyers try to respond to every email within a half hour. And they apparently review every text and email every few seconds.

These days, lawyers no longer hold legal pads. We clutch our phones and look at them 24/7.

And so, as the unofficial pastor of the Tennessee Bar Association First Church of Lawyers, I no longer believe that procrastination is lawyers’ most common sin. In fact, the emerging transgression is just the opposite. The sin of lawyers these days is engaging in frenetic activity with a false sense of urgency.

Brothers and sisters, I believe it’s time to bring back the lost art of procrastination. We lawyers need to spend more time with our phones turned off and the doors to our offices shut. We need to engage in detached reflection on behalf of our clients. If we are truly going to be counselors, we need to stop and think about the issues our clients bring us and the counsel we are going to give them.

And we should not lose sight of the fact that sometimes the very best counsel we can give our clients in response to a problem is for them to do absolutely nothing. It is what the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan called “benign neglect.”

So here’s my proposal for a (very) late New Year’s resolution for Tennessee lawyers. Resolve to think and reflect more, and do less. Spend a designated and limited amount of time each day reviewing emails, texts or social media accounts, and responding to the same. You can still respond to a client’s email or text within 24 hours. There is no need to respond within 24 seconds before the shot clock goes off!

Finally, take your time implementing this resolution. Feel free to wait until tomorrow before you get started! There’s no rush.

Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a shareholder with the firm of Lewis Thomason. He is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Read his blog at www.billhaltom.com.