Many lawyers struggle with punctuality, but what percentage of the time that we’re late for a meeting or a phone call is it truly, fully, outside of our control? Certainly it’s very rarely. The vast majority of the time that we fail to be punctual, it’s because we don’t plan well enough. We didn’t leave early enough for our destination. We didn’t enforce time boundaries earlier in the day. Or we didn’t set expectations properly. (Or some other reason over which we could have exercised control but didn’t.)
Here two important questions to ask of yourself:
- What do I have to do differently to be on time?
- What can my staff do differently to help me be on time?
And lest the question go unasked: Why should lawyers strive to be on time with clients, prospects, fellow counsel and staff? Because being punctual builds credibility and trust. Being punctual also builds your confidence to ask and expect it of others. Conversely, being late creates a negative external impression in people outside of your office, and it lowers morale among your colleagues and staff when they can’t trust your word about when you’ll be somewhere or when a meeting will start.
When you’re punctual, you’re less stressed, more organized, and in greater control. And when you’re all of these things, your overall mastery of time-related activities improves as well — e.g., getting your bills out on time, or estimating how long something’s going to take to complete.
We’re talking here about appointments and meetings that you initiate or agree to with someone, whether in person or by phone, whether formally or informally.
Here are four tips to help you become more punctual:
1. Use calendar reminders and alarms in Outlook or whatever you use for your calendar. Some appointments only require a 5 minute reminder (if you’re placing a call, for instance) or a longer reminder depending on the circumstances (such as travel requirements).
2. Let your staff know that you’re working on being punctual. Have your assistant remind you of what’s coming up on your calendar. Ask your staff how they can help you be on time.
3. Check the words that come out of your mouth, and revise them in the moment if necessary. “I’ll call you back in five minutes . . . . I’ll head down to your office at 11:15 . . . . I’ll meet you there at 4.” Of course, the goal is to have the first words out of your mouth be accurate and achievable, but better that you adjust right then and there with the person than not meet your commitment later.
4. Don’t schedule appointments back to back without taking into account transition time (whether that’s travel time or prep time).
When you’re scheduling appointments (or making verbal commitments to be somewhere or call someone) on court days, let those folks know it’s a court day for you (or a depo day, etc.), and that you might be constrained by those requirements. They’ll understand and accept that if they’re warned in advance.
Finally, what about meetings you don’t initiate but have to attend? If they start late, practice the skill of letting the organizer know that you’ll have to leave at a specific time. While this can be tricky, you can learn to do it graciously and remain in control of your time.
Because, as we know, if you’re not in control of your time, other people are.
Bill Jawitz is an attorney coach.