In-House Counsel, Practice Pointers

Moonlighting: I Need This ASAP!

Q: What’s one way in which the non-lawyers at your company are just like law firm partners?

A: Each person cares almost exclusively about her own work and her own little universe. And expects you to do the same. There’s no reason why Finance, Customer Service, HR, and Marketing can’t all be the most important function in the company is there?

Business people don’t have much incentive to give you a lot of time to review or prepare a legal document or address an issue. Generally, the faster they’re able to close deals, offer new products and services, and complete projects, the more quickly the company will make money and they’ll get the pats on the back. It’s actually hard to blame them for wanting everything done ASAP. Heck, I’d be the same way if I were on the business side.

From a quality of work and life perspective, though, “ASAP” is a bad way for a lawyer to go about things. Work quality decreases while stress levels increase. To manage ASAP requests, try to distinguish between the types of requests and collaborate with the business folks to meet their needs….

First, see if you can learn why a particular matter has reached critical ASAP status. Train your clients to get into the habit of letting you know which of the following (or others) apply:

  • Has it just been on the business person’s desk for a while and his procrastination is now your problem? I don’t find that this often happens with my business folks, but people can get legitimately swamped sometimes (this is my excuse when I procrastinate).
  • Is it a true emergency — has there been an unexpected development? If so, these are no-brainers for addressing immediately. Who doesn’t drop everything they’re doing anyway upon news of their COO’s involvement in a delicious shocking scandal?
  • Is it something that’s just nicer to have completed earlier but with no real immediate deadline (i.e., the sooner this gadget gets approved, the sooner we can start sales and all be rich, rich, rich — oh wait, you don’t have stock options — my bad)?

Depending on the reason for the ASAP request, here are some ways you can deal with them:

  • Set up a Delivery Schedule. For certain types of matters that come up frequently, you can establish agreed-upon turnaround times with your business people. For example, contracts may have a turnaround time of one or two weeks.
  • First Things First. If an individual or group sends you a lot of work, ask them to prioritize what they’ve sent. I expect that my business people would generally prefer that they, not I, do this. Especially because the way I prioritize my work is by putting all of my contracts on a roulette wheel. (I don’t really recommend this method as it can get a little messy at times.)
  • Reason With Them. You can explain that, although their particular matter may not need several days to address, you already have a ton of other work that has come in before theirs and is due shortly. You’d be happy to drop everyone else’s work if there’s a good reason that you can share with all of your other business clients (i.e., sometimes their bosses).
  • Break It Up. Sometimes, there are portions of a request that can be dealt with later. If these are obvious, ask the business person about them. Otherwise, ask them to take a look and let you know whether certain parts are more time-sensitive than others.
  • Help Me Help You. Occasionally explain to your clients that you’ll do a better job if you take your time with a request, as opposed to rushing through it. The mantra “good/cheap/fast — pick two” actually works here. This ultimately helps in preventing future issues and embarrassment for them.
  • Ask for Notice. For most ASAP matters, business people are aware that they’ll be sending you a request well before they actually send it. Even if they’re unable to control the ASAP nature of the request, it’s helpful if they can give you a heads up that it’s coming so that you can look out for it and set aside time in your calendar (and some support staff if needed) to address it.
  • Just Do It. If my boss, the general counsel, or a very senior executive asks me to do something ASAP, I’m not dumb enough to question the request. I ask them how high.

What else has worked for you in an ASAP situation? Email me your suggestions or comment below.


Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at SusanMoonATL@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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