Billable Hours, Boutique Law Firms, Partner Issues, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Artificial Deadlines

Tom Wallerstein

My friend Pablo told me that when Monica, a partner, called his home at 9:00 p.m., he knew it couldn’t be good. Why not email? For an instant, he considered letting the call go to voicemail. Taking a deep breath, he answered.

Monica wanted to know “where he was” with the brief Pablo had been working on. She had not given him any particular deadline, so he explained that he expected to circulate the draft for review the following evening. The brief was a motion to dismiss, and he knew the deadline to file was still two weeks away. He was allowing the partner one week to review before she had to send to the client, who in turn would have another week to review.

The partner, however, had a different idea. “I want it on my desk tomorrow by 8 a.m.,” she told Pablo.” “Not a moment later.”

Thus began another all-nighter for a Biglaw associate. As promised, Pablo had the brief on Monica’s desk by 8:00 a.m. But Monica didn’t get into the office until after 10:00. Pablo waited for feedback all day, in vain. When the partner went home around 6:00, Pablo took the liberty of looking on her desk, and there sat his brief, unread, in the same place he left it, with the same tell-tale paperclips he had left strategically placed.

Pablo spent the next few hours revising the brief, and before he went home that night, he swapped out a new-and-improved version for the earlier version he had left on the partner’s desk. This routine repeated itself every day for the next week.

Every day, the brief sat untouched. Every day, Pablo made further edits, and swapped out the brief on the desk.

Pablo’s experience is hardly unique. Everyone who has worked in Biglaw has been forced to meet artificial deadlines. An artificial deadline is one imposed by a partner in response to strictly internal concerns, rather than one based on client or legal requirements. To associates, artificial deadlines, like face time, can exemplify all that is wrong with Biglaw.

One of the many benefits of running your own shop is the freedom to set your own deadlines, and know the reason behind them. But moving from Biglaw to boutique also has enlightened me as to some of the less obvious reasons why artificial deadlines are so ubiquitous.

The usual explanation is that the partner needs time to review the work product. Obviously, an associate cannot expect to hand the brief to the partner on the day it is due to be filed. All associates understand and accept this.

Even so, some associates may resent overly strict artificial deadlines because they view them as a sign of distrust, or an implicit criticism of the quality of their work. This concern is not completely off base. Associates who consistently perform at a very high level will inevitably earn more leeway in providing drafts later because the partner can trust that the work will meet a certain standard and require less reworking.

But this only goes so far. Even the most competent, trusted associate doesn’t always know how busy their manager’s schedule might be. Even if a partner is only going to spend, say, an hour reviewing and commenting on a brief, that hour may be hard to come by. For that reason, the partner might require drafts several days in advance just so he can ensure he will be able to find the time he needs to review and comment.

One reason I tend to impose early artificial deadlines — both on myself and on others — is to account for unexpected contingencies that may arise. Don’t ask me what those will be; they could be anything, and that’s precisely why I leave extra time. Maybe our printer will jam, or we’ll have a network problem, or a fire drill will keep us out of the office on filing day. I don’t want to cut our deadline so close that any little snafu could jeopardize the filing. This is the same reason that if I have a plane to catch, or a meeting to attend, I always leave extra early.

I end up wasting time that could probably have been better spent, but the peace of mind is worth it to me. Unfortunately, this may sometimes manifest as arbitrary pressure on others to complete their work earlier than they might deem strictly necessary.

I don’t intend by my comments to rationalize abusive behavior. Artificial deadlines are a favorite tactic of corporate bullies who want to flex their power over subordinates. From Pablo’s description, it sounded to me as though his boss was trying to intimidate and harass him. Maybe she had other, more palatable reasons of which my friend was not aware. But the fact that she apparently never so much as glanced at his brief, after calling him at home, at night, to insist on it the next morning, suggests to me that she was most concerned about asserting her power over him.

Another undisclosed reason for artificial deadlines is the economic reality that the more associates work, the more money the firm makes. By imposing artificial deadlines, partners strive to increase their associates’ output and, consequently, firm profits. Perhaps the partner doesn’t really need the brief until Monday; however, it behooves the firm to have the project finished by Friday and the weekend spent working on another case, generating more income.

I opined once before that deferring billable work leaves money on the table because, over time, some percentage of available work that is deferred will never be performed and will never be billed. Thus, a firm has an incentive to impose the strictest deadlines it can.

I’d like to think that it’s possible to have the best of both worlds. A partner can insist on artificial deadlines for associates, but do so in a way which is not abusive or demeaning. My approach is to be honest to the point of recklessness. I trust my associates, and respect them. There’s no need to lie about a filing deadline, or pretend a client insists on seeing a draft earlier than it really does.

You can give transparency into all the real, external deadlines, even when your personal interest calls for a stricter or earlier deadline.

In Pablo’s case, I might have told him, “I probably won’t even look at this until next week, but I’d like you to get it done tomorrow because I need you to turn to the Terrapin matter. That case might settle soon, but meanwhile the client wants us to keep the pressure on, so we need to get that work done now.” I think most people, including Pablo, would respond favorably to that kind of approach.

Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at

(hidden for your protection)

comments sponsored by

Show all comments