Fancy a date?

Sometimes I think I would like another job. I don’t mean an additional one, as solicitor AND President of the Law Society of Scotland is enough already. No, it is an alternative, something completely different from lawyering. And for one reason above all others: the calendar.

The minute you take on a client’s case, transaction or issue, the clock starts to tick and the diary starts to loom. Date of entry, date by which you need to order loan funds, date for lodging defences, date for chasing up a response to a letter, and the rest. More dates than a palm tree.

If instead of being a solicitor I sold pizzas, then the transaction involves the customer coming in, buying a pizza, then leaving. End of contract, assuming I don’t poison him. If you want an image of our business, it is of a man or woman sitting at a desk, with hooks all over the body, joined on to strings that reach forward in time, and being drawn forward painfully by the strings. You can’t dislodge them, and if you miss a date, the relevant hook will tear a bit of skin off you.

OK, it is a bit Stephen King, but you get what I mean. The reality is that if we want to continue in this business, we need to accept the responsibilities – and risks – of date management. There are various ways we can protect our clients and ourselves. Memory is not one of them.

Take any routine day for any solicitor. Unlike in the movies, you don’t just anguish over a solitary case until it is won in the last episode, it is a multi-tasking multi-platform juggling act that sees dozens of different transactions and/or cases all compete for urgent action and consideration. You speak to lots of different people on the phone, respond to screens-full of emails, and meet several discrete individuals. I defy any human being to be able to remember, then recall, dates and duties from within their own brain. Indeed if they are able to do that, why are they wasting their time as a solicitor and not heading off to showbiz or NASA or the City of London?

The solicitor’s diary has always been an iconic document in this profession. “Hold on, let me check my diary”. “Susan, can you tell me what’s in my dairy for this afternoon?” And “Sorry I failed to appear; it wasn’t in the diary”.

That last one is the problem. IT can help, as it is routine to use an Outlook or other case management calendar in place of a paper diary. A good system will default to setting reminders ahead of time when you create a new case or job and input the case data. But when free-drafting a letter to another solicitor or a client, it is essential either to set a reminder in the calendar a week hence or whenever and/or to set future dates in the case management history itself. If you are using a physical diary, then future reminders should be written in so that on the day you open up the diary, you see not just your appointments, but also a task list of reminders and chase-up prompts.

The beauty of an e-diary or Outlook calendar is that it is accessible to others without having to hunt round the office to see who has it, or avoids people bothering you in your room if you have it. Also it is usually possible for a lateral check of dates and tasks to be done in the system, which can help in planning, staff apportionment and indeed performance measurement.

It is as possible to screw up an e-calendar system as a paper diary, but the former is easier to manage in an accountable way, and especially for younger practitioners and staff, represents a much more logical way to work, and thus anchor in good practice and risk management for all. If the culture is one of diarising everything – formal and informal – and the tools are at hand on the desk screen, it is much more likely that there will be a high level of performance.

Now this might seem self-evident and not worth a blog, but I had to write something this week. The reminder popped up in my calendar.

But it is very much worth a blog. And an in-office seminar. And active understanding and participation by all members of staff.