Delay worry and expense. That was the allegedly humorous soundalike name for one of our better law firms, a label which, lest any defamation lawyers be reading, is not at all the experience the clients of that firm can testify to.
The old perception of the solicitor, a man (yes, probably a man) sitting in pinstripe suit and half-moon glasses at a desk, meandering through some paperwork and then sloping off to play golf, is further away from reality than even the Hubble telescope could imagine. These days we are creatures of efficiency, speed, reaction and sometimes panic. Desks are piled high, inboxes filled all the way down the screen, and phones ringing off the hook. Legal practice is a contact sport.
But there is a crucial divergence of ways to deal with this overload. One is to be reactive, and deal –albeit efficiently and well – with letters and emails as they come in. The other, better by far, way is to be proactive. Set timetables, get ahead of the game, and stay there. One obvious example is if you write to the opposing solicitor about some aspect of a case. You ask for a reply. No reply comes. Your client asks you if there is a reply. You say no and you then chase up, and the cycle repeats itself. You do nothing until someone prods you. What that gets you is a client who has to have the inconvenience of being your diary, and an opponent who thinks he or she can get away with an offence under the Manana (Scotland) Act 1974, s. 5.
You may make the excuse – well, it takes me all my time to get on top of the stuff I have: I don’t have spare capacity to go chasing progress. Or you may say, well, if it is important enough for the client he will keep on top of me so I will keep on top of the other side.
OK, probably few solicitors are as extreme as that overall. Some things you’ll keep moving along, but some will be treated more passively. But my belief is that in 21st century practice, it should always be the solicitor and/or the solicitor’s team who drive everything.
There is a very obvious point to make here that is not to do with ethics or client expectation – fees. The quicker you get the work done the quicker you can render the fee note, and I am just bamboozled when I come up against a colleague, in or out of the firm, who does not stick to a rigid timetable for progressing, monitoring and chasing. As per an earlier Austin’s Angle, the diary and/or e-diary along with the case management system should be hardwired into your DNA or whatever the scientific mixed metaphor is. No one has a comprehensive personal memory, but if every day when you switch on, your screen throws up a list of unfulfilled items, then that is your bible or manual for the day. Get the job done, clear the screen. And crucially, let your client know you’re doing that.
As with all rules, there are exceptions. I do a fair amount of commercial conveyancing, and that is now an exercise almost wholly carried out online, with your opposite number quick on the draw in emailing you a 45 page lease, 12 page deposit agreement, 23 page licence for works, 8 page personal guarantee, and a draft missive of a mere 7 pages. And he/she wants it back in an hour or whatever. Here, you need to take time. Revising all that is a substantial job and can only be done with a quiet brain and the surrounding mayhem down to a dull roar. But even here, it is the same underlying process. Set a timetable, stick to it, and don’t force someone to chase you up.
If you are a driver and not a passenger, then it is good for your business, your professional duty, your staff – who themselves, almost by osmosis, will understand the ethos of the firm or the department. As ever, I ask how you would expect to be treated by a commercial company carrying out a service for you or selling you something. As a consumer of John Lewis, or BT, or Kwikfit, you would insist on efficiency, appropriate speed and a proactive attitude.
I must stop now as my Outlook calendar has just pinged a prompt for me to call a client.