Law in Contemporary Society

Time in Legal Practice

-- By ElizabethHuh - 20 May 2022

A Reflection from the First Draft

When you told me to cut the draft before you can accept it, my first instinct was to cut it immediately. I could make more substantive edits in my second draft. In contrast, the task before me was time-sensitive—I had to snip, paste, and send. I knew you preferred a more deliberate look, but I thought I could separate that process from the task at hand. I didn’t think that it would damage the integrity of my later draft, which it did.

Since then, and since our office hours, I had time to think about my instincts and my immediate reactions to your comment. Two points stood out. First, the rush reflected my time as a paralegal. Expediency was highly valued and saying “will do!” right after being assigned a task was the norm. As soon as I saw “you have to cut it,” I went on paralegal auto-pilot. Second, this reaction was an extension of my approach to law school. My mind goes blank in cold calls and I don’t take the pause that will allow me to process the question. Instead, I blurt out whatever comes to mind in an effort to move the ball back to the professor’s court. I work reflexively in law school.

What Time Means to Us and Our Clients

Using the reflection as a new starting-off point, I want this essay to be a more internal and critical discussion of the way I can use time to be a better lawyer. However, the impetus for the essay remains the same. Time is a critical building block within the legal system—law firms operate through billables and incarceration is colloquially called “doing time.” If we are to play the time game to help our clients, it is important that we first take a step back and see how it operates in practice.

In the Criminal Justice System

Within the criminal justice system, time is not a neutral nor equitable resource. When I read Lawyerland, I was troubled by Robinson’s opinion that time is a tool in our arsenal to get a favorable outcome. There are real costs to losing time, as captured by Nicole Gonzalez van Cleve’s Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Court. At the Cook County courthouse, defendants are expected to convene sharply at 9 AM to wait for their turn in the docket, and their final hearing times are left to the mercy of the judge. They have no discretion: losing their place means more waiting, and waiting comes at a great economic loss. They are missing work and paying for daycare and parking. Thus, in the criminal justice system, someone has the ability to control the other’s own expenditure of time, and this discretion does not fall on poor defendants of color.

In Big Law

Time is different when lawyers are working for corporate clients. Playing the delay game isn’t just lucrative for the associates but could be an important strategy that the clients themselves favor. Associates usually have a billable minimum that they have to meet, and they must keep track in 6-minute increments. Billables are at once the units by which law firms earn money and a source of restriction for associates. Further, even though I was a paralegal, I had to spend my vacation days replying to emails. My time was not mine. Lawyers are expected to be available at any time and to send in work products immediately. Attention to detail is valued, but sometimes expediency takes precedence over quality.

Time in Practice

The value and use of time are variable. Time could serve both to restrict the lawyers and clients and to aid them. What do we make of time, then, if it could be many things at once at different points in our practice? My takeaway is that first, we have to understand that deploying time as a strategic means sweeps its effects under the rug. We must be mindful of the value of time to our clients, and we must communicate with them clearly what is going to happen and how long processes are expected to take. This is applicable to indigent clients rather than institutional players. As of now, I don’t know the dynamics and nuances of client representation in real life (and know that exact time frames are never a given), but I know this transparency doesn’t happen frequently in actual practice. I think it is important to acknowledge that we want to restore time for our clients and not treat it with Robinson’s handwaving.

Further, we need to approach our time with deliberation, and the approach will be critical to the type of lawyer we want to be and will be. I want to be a lawyer whose work reflects care and prudence.

Taking my Time and Operationalizing Deliberation

Expediency will still be valued in big law, but whether I want that to be the defining feature of my practice is a separate question. Frankly, I’m still figuring out how to do the above in practice. No one will tell me to slow down and pause in the hopes that I do as well, and I already identified a larger pattern of anxiously rushing rather than thinking. What I do know is that it will be up to me to intentionally take these pauses. I will have to actively make decisions to take my time instead of providing the quickest turnaround. I want to make those habits upfront particularly because I want to work in public interest after I work in big law.

I have taken small steps. Being mindful of the changes I want to make, I had much better cold calls towards the end of the semester because I take pauses when I have to. I not only felt less anxious but also have been more deliberate in my answers. I have no doubt that I am a better student and will be a better lawyer as a result.

(Word Count: 1000)


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r4 - 20 May 2022 - 19:28:14 - ElizabethHuh
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