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Do or die deadlines

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Deadlines are a part of every lawyer's working life. LawCare looks at how you can keep on top of them and minimise the stress that they bring.

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Sadly, not all of us can have the relaxed attitude to deadlines that the late comic genius Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, did. In the legal profession, a missed deadline or time limit can result in major problems for a client in being unable to pursue or defend a claim and the potential for a costs award against you, plus (in private practice) a possible negligence claim. For all lawyers, and particularly those working in litigation, deadlines are crucial and a fact of everyday life. They can therefore, not unexpectedly, also be a tremendous source of stress.

It is a fact of life that prolonged stress can lead to clinical depression. Depression is exhibited by symptoms that include an inability to concentrate, a lack of motivation or interest in anything, sleeplessness, overwhelming apathy and a sense of hopelessness. Depressed lawyers may make it in to work, but will not open the post – may even hide it, hoping that if they ignore it, it will go away. They will shuffle papers around, may even tap at the computer for a while, but will not get any productive work done. Depression and deadlines don’t mix. If you, or a colleague, seem to be suffering from any of these symptoms – including indifference to matters which might be regarded as urgent – this is too important to be ignored. See your GP immediately.

Whilst depression can be cured, stress related depression is best avoided in the first place. If deadlines are a major contributory factor to the pressure and anxiety you face, then learning to deal with them and to manage time well can avert problems later.

  • Recognise that deadlines are necessary, and that they bring order and allow you to plan ahead.
  • Especially if you have multiple deadlines, keep a calendar (virtual or real) with the deadlines clearly marked and put it where you can see it. You could also use this to plan your work towards these deadlines.
  • Find out in advance what extensions and allowances are available, how important the deadline really is, and where possible, make a “Plan B” just in case you are unable to make the deadline despite your best efforts. Hopefully you will never need it, but knowing that you do have a contingency plan could help to alleviate the stress.
  • Establish exactly what needs to be accomplished by the deadline.
  • Break up all that needs to be done into smaller tasks and focus on them in turn, setting “micro-deadlines” for each if this helps. Focus on these plateaus rather than the whole looming mountain, and reward yourself each time you achieve something.
  • Don’t procrastinate or put everything off until the last minute – if something goes wrong or something else crops up, you won’t have time to deal with the essentials to meet the deadline.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either from a colleague or a superior, or to delegate parts of the work where appropriate.
  • When planning towards the deadline, build in a little extra time to allow for unexpected setbacks or things which crop up.
  • Prioritise carefully, thinking about how urgent and important each task is.
  • Make a task list. Be realistic when listing the tasks you need to do each day and take satisfaction in crossing off tasks as you do them.

Deadlines can cause stress, but they are a necessary part of the legal profession and good client service. Learning to deal with them and work with them is an important part of being the best lawyer you can be. If you still find that you are not managing to keep up, then LawCare’s free and confidential helpline is available to you, 365 days a year.

LawCare’s hotline is 0800 279 6888. It is open 9 am to 7.30 pm on weekdays, and 10 am to 4 pm at weekends and on bank holidays. For more information, go to www.lawcare.org.uk.