Slowing Down

By Marc E. Gustafson

I must admit this article began as a piece about slowing down to enjoy the holidays after I observed my almost five-year-old son napping on an airplane flying to see family. But then I thought about all the times I had heard someone (a preacher, a parent, an unsolicited stranger, a Hallmark commercial) extorting me to slow down, and I thought better of it.

Given that I was working on that flight, though, I started to think about ways I could slow down the practice of law, and maybe be a better lawyer for it.

Given the ever-present pressures of the billable hours (and the perennial jokes that go with earning a living in such a manner), it’s no surprise that lawyers are sensitive about time. We rush to draft closing documents, to serve discovery, to argue motions and to communicate with clients, colleagues and opposing counsel so that these tasks fit neatly into 1/10 of an hour increments.

Unfortunately, this seems to leave little time for many things – disregarding for now time for personal lives, families and holidays – I mean things that might advance the exercise of our trade.

So, as I watched my son doze in the pale blue light of the homeward bound plane, I paused my billable work for a few minutes and tried to think about some ways that I could slow down and, in the process, improve my work. Here is what I came up with:

  1. Communications with Colleagues and Counterparts

It seems cliché to say that communication is key. But it is. Too many times I find myself rushing through instructions to my assistant. It’s to the point that I have told her that I promise never to be upset if she asks me to slow down or even to stop and have a conversation, rather than giving her fly-by directions.

With Susannah’s help, I have not only saved myself (and her) time in having to repeat my guidance or to correct what was lost in the speed of translation, but it’s led to her better understanding of and ability to anticipate my needs.

The same is true for communicating with other lawyers. With the proliferation of emails, which has only exploded by the advent of text messages, our legal syntax has become nearly devoid of context, almost to the point that lawyers need their own body of emojis. Slowing down to incorporate not just the facts of our communications, but the subtleties that so often lie in between, may make for better communications among our professional counterparts.

  1. Seeing the Forest, Not the Trees

At the risk of getting too metaphorical, is it possible that we sometimes miss the beauty of the forest because we’re too busy trying to see, or miss running into, all the trees?  In my practice, I work on anywhere from 5 to 10 different matters a day. This can lead to the sense that I’m missing important issues as I race from one matter to the next.

Add in the flurry of incoming emails, the ring of the phone, not to mention the distraction of trying to maintain an increasingly busy personal life, and it is easy to see how someone could miss a detail here, or Heaven forbid, a deadline there.

Personally, I’ve tried to combat hyper-multi-tasking by employing to-do lists. This doesn’t mean my office is littered with Post-It notes. In fact, I haven’t even hung a whiteboard I purchased more than a year ago. But I do try to maintain both a list of ongoing matters with detailed descriptions, responsible attorney, deadlines and comments and a list of daily action items. (Writing this article will soon be checked off both lists.)

Slowing down to organize my short- and long-term tasks has helped to declutter my mind. Knowing that a somewhat finite list of undone items exists, I can then better focus on each of them with my full attention.

  1. Making Your Case: Let the Story Unfold

Whether a transactional lawyer, a family lawyer or a litigator, our success in our chosen profession largely stems from our ability to make our case. We do it to our clients, opposing counsel, a judge, a mediator and our colleagues.

In our race to make our point, we can often forget to tell our story. This isn’t to say that our presentation should be scripted. Instead, it should flow naturally, in a somewhat narrative form, that is simple to follow.

Moving at a pace at which the audience is clearly following allows for feedback, adjustment on the fly and, maybe most importantly, opportunity to develop a connection with the listener. And by creating that connection, in addition to allowing for clearer communication, there is the very real chance that the judge, jury or counter-party will be better able to relate to your point and maybe even your client.

  1. Authenticating the Conversation

To try to slow things down even more, I often try to follow up oral conversations with emails. This may mean following up informal settlement conversation regarding a list of clients not to be solicited or a bullet point list of deal points that is exchanged between the parties in merger talks to avoid future disputes over terms.

I also frequently advise clients to do this, which, in my line of employment law work, may mean a conversation in the hallway regarding an employee’s performance that is followed up by an email to confirm each party’s understanding of the conversation to avoid disagreement in the future.

In each case, the hope is that a point can be missed through either miscommunication, misunderstanding or, frankly, a desire to avoid confrontation, that can be cleared up through follow-up communication. This, of course, is no substitute for personal and authentic communication, but the goal is to ensure accuracy, even at the expense of speed.

  1. Collaboration

From my experience, one casualty of the faster pace of legal practice is the decline in collaboration between coworkers. Some of this may come from the decreased appetite for clients willing to pay for inter-office communications regarding matters, but I’ve found the best result for my client often comes from spirited debate among my working peers.

While I will save for another article the mental health benefits of working together as opposed to in isolation, there are real practical benefits from posing questions to other lawyers. Even if the response confirms your initial thoughts, such confirmation allows for greater conviction regarding the conclusion. Likewise, the act of presenting the matter to a coworker may help to refine or polish your presentation such that any time spent is outweighed by the benefit of an improved output.

Time so often seems like the enemy of the modern legal practice. The ever-increasing demand for a near-instant response to emails, client pressures for efficiency in billing and the balancing of manifold deadlines each seem to suck the time out of every workday. But like the child sleeping on the plane, if we can slow things down, even for a few quiet moments, our practice may benefit in both tangible and intangible ways.

Marc Gustafson is a partner at Bell Davis & Pitt in Charlotte. His practice focuses on complex commercial and employment litigation. Marc is also a certified mediator.