Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I've met the cleaning lady. . .

I met the cleaning lady because I was here until 11:00 p.m. Monday working on a brief (the title of the song you're thinking of is "Hearts and Flowers" by the way) which was due Tuesday.

Last Tuesday.

I know what deadlines are supposed to be, and I try to observe them. But for many lawyers, a "deadline" is more of a "starting line" -- the date on which the file is taken down and looked at and something thrown together at the last minute. Just as soon as the motion to extend time is filed.

I don't think that was the case with this particular brief -- and not just because I was working on it, or at least the responses to the seemingly interminable 'statements of facts,' before the motion to extend time was filed. I've been working on it, in my mind, for what seems like forever. I can't bill for my ruminations, though, nor can I bill for the time spent carrying copies of the briefs to which I was responding back and forth, to and from home, for a couple of weeks now.

The problem is time. What I needed was a block of uninterrupted time where I could focus exclusively on this project -- no interruptions, no emergencies, no questions from people in the office. That just didn't happen until Monday.

My wife is a teacher and she works all the time. Any downtime -- waiting to pick up a kid -- watching the news -- whenever a spare moment presents itself, she reaches into her ever-present red bag, pulls out a folder, and starts grading papers. She can start and stop as many times as necessary -- but every time she starts, she makes irrevocable progress. Each test or worksheet takes a minute, or two, to grade. Once done, it's done forever. She moves on to the next one on the stack. When a stack is done she has to put the grades in her book and on her computer. She has to be in school only for this last part of the task.

It just doesn't work this way when writing briefs. There is the matter of researching your issues, reviewing and analyzing the documents on which you rely (or which may undermine your position), perhaps reading the other side's papers, figuring out an approach and then -- only then -- starting in. Starting a project like this without the prospect of a significant block of time stretching before you is not a waste of time -- you learn something, you gain some insight, you put some more mulch on the pile -- but you lose a lot by stopping at almost any point along the way.

Research you can do in a piecemeal fashion, if necessary -- but you need the time, after the research is done, and the cases are printed or copied or downloaded, to read them, to see how they fulfill the promise you thought they had when you first came across them on line or in the library -- or how they don't. This often leads to more research. Which may look, on the timesheets, like piecework. But it's not. Not if you're serious about getting the project done.

I used to work for a firm that was scared to send a client a bill for 12 or 14 hours on a single day for a single project -- even though that was legitimately the time I spent. Break that time up over a couple of days at least, they'd tell me, or better yet, three or four. So we'd condition clients to think that this work could be done -- like grading papers -- when a spare moment presents itself. And I can't break entirely with how I was taught: The people I worked for were successful doing it their way, so even now I find it hard to write down more than 10 hours a day on a time sheet for a single project, no matter how long I actually spent.

But some tasks do not lend themselves to a piecework approach -- even for my wife. Sometimes (and always to her regret, it seems) she assigns essays. She must find uninterrupted time in which to read them all -- all together -- to see which are average in quality, or above and below. Only then can she assign grades to any of them.

She hasn't tried the method that some of my professors used for grading essays in law school: Step 1: Stand at the top of the stairs with the stack of papers (blue books, back in the day). Step 2: Throw the papers down the stairs. Step 3: The papers that go farthest are the A's -- the ones that go the least distance are the failures. Most will wind up somewhere in between -- the C's. (She'd never go for the other rumored but never proved law school method -- the bottle method -- wherein the lowest grades came earliest in the process of draining the bottle. But once again I digress.)

The bottom line is that I've accomplished something sitting here at this desk. The new undisclosed location is now, finally, a place of business.

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