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Four Essentials for Keeping Deadlines in a Law Firm

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by Nathan Morris

on 20 January, 2015

The right tools will keep you focused and on track.

Some of the behaviors that result in malpractice lawsuits are hard to change. If you mistreat your clients, you may have to take anger management classes. If you don’t know the law well, you’ll have to hit the books.

But perhaps the biggest cause of problems for lawyers appears to be much easier to address: keeping deadlines. We’ve been practicing this skill since grade school. Back then, we just had to get our science fair project in on time. You’d think that’d be experience enough for us to have learned our lesson – so how could we still be so bad at keeping deadlines?

It would seem sloppy scheduling and procrastination are the smoking tobacco of the legal world: we know we should give it up, we know the consequences might be dire, but we’re stuck in our habits. Here are some tips for getting unstuck, and starting a system to help you meet every deadline:

1. Get Clever Calendars

If you’re missing deadlines, the problem could simply be technological. The American Bar Associations’ Desk Guide to Legal Malpractice notes that “calendaring errors remain a leading cause of malpractice claims.” Some calendars are unwieldy, unclear, or difficult to use — which increases the data entry errors from you or office staff.

And some “calendars” are a confusing hodge-podge. In a presentation to the American Bar Association, attorney risk management experts Bassingthwaighte and Nance insist that if legal professionals haven’t already centralized their calendars, they are asking for a crisis:

“Use a calendar system with one point of entry. I can’t stress this enough. Avoid having a calendar at home, one at the office, and sticky notes all over the place. This ‘system’ is a disaster waiting to happen. There is no way you can keep track of all your appointments and deadlines unless it’s all in one place.”

The ABA’s Desk Guide insists that key points from your personal calendar — particularly deadlines for cases — be shared office-wide in a master calendar, with a clear record of who made each entry. A centralized, shared calendar means others may notice what you’ve let slip, and also increases the chances of catching data entry mistakes. After all, when one person in the office slips up, the entire firm can be liable, so it makes sense to watch out for each other beforehand.

Find a system that’s easy to use, maintain, and teach to new personnel. And then the first thing you should schedule in your shared calendar system is calendar training. No matter how intuitive and well-designed your technology is, you’ll only get a fraction of the benefits if everyone in the office isn’t fully trained on how to use it.

Once the calendar is up and running, remember two tricks to use its full potential. 1) Schedule in a recurring time one evening a week to focus on your calendar. In addition to setting up the plan for the upcoming week, analyze how you spent your time the previous week, and note what things required more or less time than you had expected. 2) With particularly difficult task, don’t simply put them on your task list, but actually schedule “appointments” with that task. These will be blocks of time which you hold free of distractions, just as you would aim for in a meeting with a client, so you can do high-quality thinking about the project.

Technological help in keeping deadlines goes beyond calendars. You can also subscribe to rules-based calendaring software which will calibrate deadlines to specific jurisdictions and areas of law. They’re so effective at reducing the likelihood of malpractice suits that some legal malpractice insurance agencies offer heavy discounts to every firm that gets one. If a court rule changes, this software can also automatically recalculate dates of cases already in its system.

If you’re a Filevine customer, this functionality is already built into your case management software. Our deadline chains ensure jurisdictional rules are always met and a case keeps moving smoothly through its deadlines.

Finally, your calendar should be linked directly to your case management software, which is itself one of the top tools for avoiding malpractice suits. This is especially true if your software generates a shared calendar for each case, so all team members working on it can see its upcoming deadlines and who is assigned to which tasks.

Connecting your calendar, your task manager, and your case files within an all-in-one case management system don’t completely guarantee you’ll never miss a deadline — but it starts you off in the right space. From there, you need to create a firm-wide culture of keeping deadlines.

 2. Create Shared Routines

The most important part of a routine is keeping it. Some main points should be shared by everyone in the office and treated as sacrosanct as a gesture of respect toward clients and each other.

Schedule from the start. Newly-received information is the most vulnerable to getting lost. The instant you have information, someone must calendar it. Begin managing your time at the beginning of the case. You’ll know many deadlines (like statutes of limitations) from the start, so immediately put them in your schedule.

Break down big tasks, and count backward. Without dividing your projects into their smallest parts, you can’t make an accurate assessment of how far back you’ll need to start to make everything happen.

For Filevine users, building out a custom Taskflow that emphasizes the importance of calendaring events and deadlines properly can be a God-send. These task flows help ensure the same process is followed for every case, which means less information can fall through the cracks along the way.

This kind of “process security” is critically important for firm efficiency. As Dan Pinnington, writing for the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine put it:

“Breaking a task into smaller parts can help ensure there is time to complete everything by the required deadline. For example, the milestones for completing a client affidavit might be as follows: Send draft affidavit to client four weeks before the deadline; get comments in from client three weeks before; send the final draft to the client for signing two weeks before; and get final signed affidavit back from client one week before.”

Each law firm should have its own standard system of creating deadlines for critical events, which is clear to all attorneys and support staff. The ABA’s Desk Guide for Legal Malpractice suggests having firm-wide buffer requirements — such as three months between filing a lawsuit and the running of the statute of limitations.

We often think of “routines” as something dull, to break out of. But the purpose of a routine is to free your brain from trying to remember tasks, so you can do focused, high-quality, creative thinking about your projects.

Set spaced reminder dates. Jett Hanna, a legal malpractice insurance expert, recommends that in addition to your hard deadlines, you must have a series of “soft” deadlines. “Making only one schedule entry for a file is almost always insufficient.” Pinnington adds: “Setting tickler dates for the very last day something is due virtually guarantees a malpractice claim will occur at some point.” You must build in buffered deadlines to allow for things to go wrong: “the signed final affidavit coming from the client via overnight courier might get lost, or the taxi taking it to the courthouse for filing might get stuck in an ice storm and not make it before the court offices closed for the day.”

Pamela Everett Nollkamper, a scholar of law office management, recommends a tiered system of deadline types. These include:

  1. Reminder date — as a first notice that a deadline is approaching.
  2. Urging date — indicating a matter is getting close and action needs to be taken.
  3. Warning date — the last reminder, warning that a deadline may be missed if action isn’t taken.
  4. Due Date

Filevine’s Deadline Chains and Reminder Schedules can help greatly here.

Review and Close Cases. Inactive cases can enter a kind of office purgatory, where there’s no other work to do on them right now but they can’t be completely dropped. They still need to be on your calendar and part of the routine. Schedule times to review cases which don’t have other impending deadlines. If you’re waiting for information from someone else, schedule a time to check back to see if you have it, and perhaps send a reminder if that’s appropriate. Reviewing a floundering file might bring up necessary action and could be a step in maintaining a good relationship with clients who grow alarmed that they haven’t heard from their attorney in months.

Jett Hanna recommends that if a case doesn’t have another scheduled entry in it, it should be closed:

“Every file should have at least one schedule entry. If it doesn’t, it should be closed and the client should be told that the attorney will not be doing any further work on the matter. If there is no hard deadline, the client may lose patience with their lawyer for failing to take action. If the attorney is waiting for another event before taking action, the lawyer should set a date to check on whether the event has occurred and, if appropriate, to communicate to the client the reason that the lawyer has not taken action. While the ABA statistics do not quantify how many claims arise from client feelings of neglect, the most common grievance complaint is of neglect.”

The first case to close is the one you never accepted. In an article in The New Jersey Law Journal, malpractice-suit attorney Thaddeus Hubert explains: “Sending a prospective client whose case you’ve turned down a nonengagement letter is a fabulous risk management technique. It provides you with evidence that you did not take the case. You cannot miss a deadline on a case if you can prove you never took it.”

We often think of “routines” as something dull, to break out of. But the purpose of a routine is to free your brain from trying to remember tasks, so you do focus, high-quality, creative thinking about your projects.

3. Investigate

A lot of deadlines are missed because we are complacent that we already understand everything, and don’t hound out the correct information. Be sure to double-check these two areas:

Facts of the case: The best clients provide their attorneys with a lot of information — but this always needs to be reviewed and verified. Police reports, hospital records, and other corroborating documents should be reviewed early on, to double-check dates and the identities of opposing parties. Jett Hanna explains:

“We see a lot of [malpractice suit insurance] claims where lawyers fail to analyze such documents until very close to what they thought was the deadline. Such documents are best analyzed immediately after the client first approaches the lawyer, not almost two years later.”

Relevant law: Even when you believe you’re familiar with a kind of case and jurisdiction, it might be worth double-checking. Thaddeus Hubert describes a seemingly simple personal injury case when a heavy steel door closed shut on an infant’s arm. The infant’s parents brought a suit against the company of the steamship, which was carrying them across Lake Michigan when it happened. The lawyer, assuming the relevant statute of limitations would be the one for the family’s residency, waited too long to file suit. When he did, he learned Federal Maritime law controlled the statute of limitations, and time was up. The case was dismissed.

Schedule your research of the law and the facts right at the beginning. If you’re working on an unfamiliar kind of case or new jurisdiction, allow yourself even more time.

Above all, ensure that you are running the reports necessary to stay on top of critical data points in your caseload.

4. Analyze Your Procrastination

A Florida attorney named Mary Catherine Bonner twice missed last-chance appeal deadlines for clients facing the death penalty. Before the US Supreme Court, arguing for another death-row prisoner whose attorney had filed late, Bonner explained: “You know, being lawyers, we always do file at the last minute.”

Even seasoned attorneys miss deadlines when the consequences are dire. A Florida attorney named Mary Catherine Bonner twice missed last-chance appeal deadlines for clients facing the death penalty. Before the US Supreme Court, arguing for another death-row prisoner whose attorney had filed late, Bonner explained: “You know, being lawyers, we always do file at the last minute.”

Is it as simple as that? A fundamental flaw within the profession, to be accepted? Thaddeus Hubert muses: “we can ask ourselves anecdotally whether lawyers are genetically prone to procrastinate.” He explains that when the ABA started creating statistics about the causes of legal malpractice, problems with the calendars always came up as a top error. Once calendaring systems improved, however, deadlines were still missed. “[T]he ABA had to add a new category to their studies — failure to react to the calendar. It was the same old problem in yet another form.”

The best calendar system and the cleanest and most well-defined routine can’t completely save us from our own bad habits — especially when we cavalierly accept those habits as our professional badge, like a medical doctor’s messy handwriting.

Psychologists, business management gurus, and life-hackers generate a steady stream of simple tricks for dealing with procrastination. Most deal with the surface-level problems, which is sometimes all you need. You can commit to doing an unpleasant task for a measly five minutes, knowing that once you’ve started the momentum usually carries you through further. You can micro-reward yourself each time you achieve a micro-goal. There are apps that will block your biggest time-sink or distracting websites, and other sites that require you to put down money, which, if you don’t achieve your goal in time, will be sent to an organization that you find offensive.

If the threat of handing $50 over to the Westboro Baptist Church or a rival sports team isn’t enough to end your procrastination, the problem is probably deeper than your software. It’s time to look at the bigger picture. Are you avoiding specific clients or kinds of cases? If you analyze where your biggest problems are happening, you might recognize there’s an area of law that you’re either not familiar enough with, or that doesn’t interest you as other projects do. Or there could be a specific kind of client that you find annoying and unpleasant. This is an opportunity for you to commit to refusing certain kinds of cases or clients in the future — and to ask whether the situation is so unpleasant that for everyone’s benefit you should hand your client off to someone else.

Or the problem could be more general than this. If you are overworked and under too much stress, it doesn’t matter how well your calendar functions — you’re still bound to slip up. At this point, the only alternatives are to take fewer cases or deal with underlying problems like inefficient work habits, the plague of distractions, or stress and other emotional strain.

These are all bigger issues than we have space for dealing with here — but keep an eye on the Filevine blog for regular discussions on how to avoid distractions, improve your mood, and do your highest quality work. If you have not had the chance to explore our Case Management Software, feel free to ask us for a Demo.