Monday, September 8, 2008


It's like a bad joke: I've been meaning to write this post for weeks, but I never got around to it. Procrastination is one of my besetting sins, and it's a particular plague for self-employed contract attorneys -- especially part-time self-employed contract attorneys.

After all, if you're in a law firm, you go to the office, where everyone around you is working, and you just throw yourself into that billing stream. At home, without that soft peer pressure, it's so much easier to do what you want (after all, the boss isn't watching), and imagine that you can delay your projects indefinitely.

Of course, a lot of legal work is deadline intensive, and it really doesn't matter if anyone is watching you work or not. The clock is still ticking and the court will still rule against you automatically if you miss a deadline.

Fortunately for me, I respond extremely well to fixed deadlines, because I can plan my work towards them. In the old days, pre-kids, I was easily able to do anything but the largest project in the 24 hours before the deadline. After all, who needed sleep? It's a testament to my weird kind of self-discipline and intelligence that (a) I never missed a deadline and (b) I always did, at minimum, a good job. I took on lots of projects and just cycled through them, with each deadline panic, once resolved, giving way to the next deadline panic. The adrenalin rush was wonderful!

Having children rather abruptly changed my approach to drop-dead deadlines. I no longer lived in a world where the only limiting factor to meeting a deadline was sleep. Not only was I too sleep-deprived to contemplate giving up even a minute more to a legal task, I kept worrying about the deadline disaster that would result if, at the last minute, one of my kids got sick. With all the will in the world, it would be impossible to finalize a motion for summary judgment at 3 a.m. with a vomiting baby in the background. (With older kids, I'm less worried about that situation, but I can assure you that one good stomach flu can destroy a very carefully mapped out last-minute plan.)

I needed a plan. Once I had kids, I dealt with deadlines and procrastination by mentally recalibrating time lines. For the last 11 years, my thinking has gone along these lines: If the filing deadline is Friday, my mental deadline has me finalizing the document by Thursday morning. I still work up to the last minute, but it's a fake last minute that has a built-in buffer to ward off the horror of having both a sick child and an imminent, case-ending deadline. It's not a perfect system but, because the risks of failure under this system are real and not imaginary (unlike the "new" deadline, which is imaginary), it works.

The worst problem for me isn't playing little mind-games with imminent filing deadlines (since those always put the fear of God in me). Instead, my professional challenge is dealing with the projects that have no deadlines at all. Because I'm constantly multi-tasking, a no-deadline project is, for me, the functional equivalent of no project at all. There is, after all, always something more pressing in my life: carpools, cooking, cleaning, childcare, elder parent care, systems maintenance (dealing with financial, computer, car, etc., issues), and just a thousand other miscellaneous details that fill a Mom's life. It is these projects that demand real discipline from a self-employed worker.

How do I handle these deadlines? The same way everyone else does. I just do it. I get the kids out of the house, read the paper (online, of course) and eat breakfast. I read some blogs. I put in a load of laundry. I speak with my mother and sister on the phone. I throw the dog for the ball. I dry my hair. And I think about the fact that, deadline or not, if I don't get a research memo to a paying client, he or she is going to be really mad at me. And he or she might never call me again. And he or she might cut my bill. So I'd better get my a** in gear and get that project going. In other words, I create an adrenalin rush for myself. Only this time it's not the rush of beating the clock, it's the panic-filled rush of facing the loss of a good client.

I envy those people who get a project, sit down and get it done. Sadly, neither age nor wisdom has ever changed my basic bio-rhythm, which seems to demand external pressure, rather than internal discipline as the engine for my work. However, what I have learned over the years is that I can use my imagination to create that external pressure, without ever getting myself in the dangerous situation of missing a deadline or letting down a client.


Dallas said...

Hi, I'm a contract attorney also (or "freelance legal writer" when I'm feeling fancy) and have been enjoying your blog. You just described my work bio-rhythm as well. Panic is the only sure fired guarantee of performance. I'm going to try out fake panic the next time I have a project.

Please keep blogging so us deadline-challenged people have something to read while we're procrastinating :)

Captain said...

Hi. I have missed your posts over the last month. I don't know how else to contact you to ask, but I wanted to ask you about how lucrative the position of a contract attorney can be. I currently work for a small firm and would like to leave and definitely don't want to move to a big firm. I suppose I have a problem with so many other people with having a boss, but I also am confident I have the motivation to find work for myself, and one area I have been interested in is contract work. So how lucrative can a career as a contract attorney be, whether it is a short term plan (5 or less years) as a sort of transition piece or long term?


KC - Atlanta