Understanding Internal v. External Deadlines at a Law Firm

If you're a lawyer, you know two things will likely get you in trouble with the bar: money held in trust and missing deadlines, which is why the latter drives litigators' work. However, deadlines are also the source of tremendous stress, which they don't have to be.

As a new attorney, I came home in the middle of the night (after midnight) after a hellacious "filing day." This was par for the course. On the day of a big filing, we would have to stay late, handle exhibits "at the last minute," make edits "at the last minute," and my husband asked, "Why is it always like this? Didn't you know the deadline was coming?" (Obviously, my response was a little snappy....but moving on). The fact is, this was something I had thought of. But as a newly minted lawyer, I figured this was just "the way it was" and this was how things "are done." I was wrong. We're all wrong.

Knowing a deadline, though, is only about 2.5% of what it takes to meet it. Calendaring it probably bumps that percentage up to 5%. Firms, unfortunately, tend to consider deadline tracking and calendaring as the end all be all of "staying on top of them." But that's not true.

Deadlines are just a date certain by which work must be done. Legal Project Management creates a series of events, triggered either when the work is identified to be done (which is long before a deadline is even created) or at the time a deadline is identified (an order is issued, discovery is served, a motion or response are filed). What are these events? They will vary by task, but generally, at a firm, the steps will be: 1) research, whether factual or legal, 2) first draft, 3) review process (one or more lawyers), 4) edits, 5) assembling exhibits, 6) final review and delivery (service or filing or both).

When is the entire process to be completed? If your answer is "by the deadline" you are wrong. The entire process should be completed at least 5 days before the actual deadline. Five Days. Why? Because that will give the entire team breathing room if something goes wrong and will forever eliminate the "filing day" madness. It also creates a buffer for all the other work, allowing a more level distribution of workload. This D -5 deadline is the "internal" deadline. And while it looks easy to do, explaining and implementing an internal deadline is actually hard.

For starters, internal deadlines get called "soft" but they aren't. Internal deadlines are real, they are "hard deadlines." Your team has to understand that missing an internal deadline is a serious issue that will reflect poorly on their ability to manage their time and complete tasks. Harsh, yes, but necessary to implement a real deadline management system.

Tasks necessary to meet a deadline must be assigned as soon as possible, and give each team member the necessary "runway" to get things done in a timely fashion. When a deadline is 14, 30, 45, or 90 days out, the work begins now. Whether it's creating a task list (for a unique type of assignment) or implementing an already-existing SOP (which you should have, more on that in another blog post), a deadline is the end poin, but the lead up to that deadline begins long before that.

Law firms should implement Standard Operating Procedures for routine tasks such as drafting discovery, drafting discovery responses, briefing, drafting complaints, and preparing for depositions, among others.

For example, in the case of a discovery request, the following steps and timeline would kick off right away (Day 1):

  1. Within 2 days of Day 1: An admin, legal assistant, or paralegal converts a .pdf into a word shell, editable, and already formatted for use.

  2. Within 5 days of Day 1: An attorney reviews the requests and drafts the appropriate objections. This may require consultation with a more senior attorney to discuss strategy and with the client to discuss what does and does not exist.

  3. The attorney drafting the objections puts together a list of what documents, information, data, or custodians have to be culled. If the case calls for it, the e-discovery vendor gets involved in these conversations early on.

  4. Within 7 days of Day 1: The client receives a copy of the discovery requests, in word, with the limitations and parameters the lawyers have developed, so that the client only answers what has to be answered.

  5. Within 14 days of Day 1: The client and the lawyer (and whoever needs to be there) are set for a call to go through responses. The responses have to be sent back by the client 3 days before the call. This creates pressure on them to get this done.

Following this procedure, the team would be 14 days out from receipt of discovery requests, with at least 16 days left before the discovery response deadline (e.g. the deadline is 30 days under the Fed. R. Civ. P. and 35 days under the Colo. R. Civ. P.). Further, even if everything goes wrong, objections would be drafted within the first week and can be served, thereby preserving them, and the rest can be served later.

Critically, the work is ongoing long before the deadline comes around. And if an extension is needed, that too is known far ahead of time. This kind of staggering process maintains stability of work, starts early, and is systematic. It is the antithesis of how legal work is currently completed.

The review process must be built into the Internal Deadline system.

As I moved up in seniority and attempted to implement the "Internal Deadline" system, I routinely ended up on the receiving end of "last-minute drafts." The document would be "ready" (according to the lawyers and/or staff working on it) and I'd get it the day before or the day of the deadline for a "final review." This is a chronic problem and undermines any efforts made up until then to stay "on top of it." If this is an issue at your firm, demand that drafts come to your desk at least 5 days before a deadline and implement systems to ensure that happens.

Enforce internal deadlines, consistently and firmly.

When leadership sets but doesn't enforce internal deadlines, they are undermining their ability to do so and fundamentally impeding Legal Project Manager's legitimacy. If an internal deadline is real, make it real. If someone repeatedly misses internal deadlines, even after being asked not to do so, they should be eligible for termination. Ensuring a less stressful workplace requires some discipline. Counterintuitive, but true.

I hope you decide to implement internal deadlines in your practice. They are important, they are life-changing, and they will help you work towards the great uncrushing of the legal profession.

Dr. Giugi Carminati, Esq., JSD, CIPP/E, CEDS, LPM, is a legal and e-discovery project manager, as well as an e-discovery specialist and privacy professional (EU). Dr. Carminati uses her decade-plus of litigation experience, in federal and state courts, as well as a track record creating her own law firm (The Woman's Lawyer), to bring practical solutions to law firms. She is licensed in Texas, Colorado, DC, California, and New York.

Dr. Carminati currently works with a number of firms, both internally and externally, to provide project management and deliver coaching so that firms can implement their own Legal Project Management solutions. She is the founder of Geek Like a Girl, a legal project management and legal tech blog, as well as Livable Law, offering LPM training and implementation for solo, small, and midsize firms. She speaks four languages and is a PADI diving instructor. She splits her time between Hawai'i, Colorado, and Texas. She can be reached at giugi@carminatilaw.com.

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