I’m closing in on 250 columns at Above the Law, devoting many of them to mistakes that I’ve recently witnessed (or heard about) (or, I should say to protect the privilege, simply ginned up out of whole cloth).
Remarkably, I’ve not yet written about an obvious error that occurs regularly: If you say that you will communicate with someone on a certain date, communicate with the person on that date.
Think for a minute about how often people screw this up, both in-house and at law firms.
In-house, some crisis arises. You take the helm. You send an email to the relevant folks in the organization saying, “I’ll get to the bottom of this, and you’ll know the answer by the close of business my time tonight.”
The close of business comes and goes, and what happens?
You weren’t able to provide an answer by the close of business, so you figure that you’ll solve the problem in the morning.
But all the people to whom you promised an answer are arriving at their desks around the world expecting to see how the problem has been resolved; instead, they see nothing.
Did you solve the problem? Not solve the problem? Are you lying bleeding in a ditch somewhere?
Come morning, everyone gets back to you — or, worse yet, your supervisor — asking for a status report. (It’s worse if they go to your supervisor, because your supervisor may have foolishly assumed that you would do as you’d promised, and the supervisor is now implicitly being blamed for your irresponsibility. That won’t make things any easier at annual review time.)
What’s the answer?
If you commit to do something by a deadline, then you are obligated to do one of two things when the deadline arrives. Option one (and the preferred option): Do the thing, and report that you’ve done it. If that’s not possible, you may reluctantly retreat to option two: Report to everyone who’s expecting a message that (1) you have not yet done the thing (2) you have failed for the following reason (and identify it) and (3) you will in fact accomplish the thing by a new specified deadline.
When the new deadline arrives, you again have the same two choices (with option one becoming increasingly preferable as each new deadline passes).
How does this play out in-house?
Scenario one: We’ve heard that a rogue employee is siphoning off corporate funds as we speak. You agree to investigate and report to the interested gang by 6 p.m. your time.
Come 6 p.m., silence is not an option.
Either send your report or send an email explaining why you’re not yet able to report and setting a new time by which the gang will hear from you.
Scenario two: You commit that you’ll file three documents with a government agency no later than the end of the month.
Come the end of the month, what happens?
All together now: You either confirm that you’ve filed the documents or you explain why you’ve failed and specify when the documents will in fact be filed.
(When you’re silent at the end of the month and you get an email two weeks later asking whether you filed the reports, that email is not posing a question; it’s leveling implicit criticism: “You said you’d do this by the end of the month, and I haven’t heard a peep from you. It’s not my job to keep track of the tasks that are on your desk. Why didn’t I hear from you at the deadline?”)
Last scenario: You tell the gang that there will be a critical hearing in the big litigation matter on June 22.
Come the end of the day on June 22, what happens?
All together now:
No. The heck with it.
I’m not repeating this anymore. It’s too obvious for words, and there’s no excuse for anyone not following this rule. But many folks don’t; I simply can’t explain that.
It’s okay if the email on the night of June 22 says only this: “I told you last month that we’d have a hearing in the big litigation matter on June 22. In court today, the judge postponed that hearing until a week from today. I thus have nothing to report today, but you’ll hear from me immediately after the hearing on June 29.”
That is: “I set a deadline. It’s now passed, and I failed in my commitment. Here’s why I failed, and here’s the new date by which I’ll do what I promised.”
You can either constantly prove that you’re trustworthy or you can have the world conclude that you’re not.
Which is better, I ask you? And, given how obvious this is, why did I even have to type these words?
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at email@example.com.