Practical Advice for Handling Last-Minute Assignments

John H. Thompson

“I need that motion on my desk tomorrow morning by 8!” You think: how am I going to get that done? I had plans tonight, it is 3:00 p.m., and I’m still working on research due today!

Sometimes you have to stay late. Your duties to client and firm may require you to complete the work and forego your evening out, but remember that some personal commitments are more important than work: you don’t have to miss the birth of your child or a special anniversary dinner. Use your judgment about when you can or cannot take on a last-minute assignment.

Maybe you can get it all done. Learn everything you can about the cases you are handling so you will know upcoming court, regulatory, and client deadlines. If you know a motion for summary judgment may be appropriate in your case, and you already prepared a research memo on the legal basis, writing that motion will take less time than you think.

Find someone to chat with about case strategy and your ideas. Don’t hesitate to ask those who have been in your shoes for advice about both substantive questions and about existing resources. If your assignment is about a file you’ve never seen before, your contact may be able to help you with some research or a prior motion on the same topic.

Get into the habit of having a regular conversation about your assignments and their priority with your supervisor. Keep a list of the tasks you are given, when they are due, and who assigned them. Make sure your manager understands how hard you work each day, what you do, and for whom you do those things.

Can you get an extension? Prioritize work based on the flexibility and consequences of not meeting the relevant deadline. Make sure the postponement will have a minimal effect on your client and prevent a similar dilemma in a few weeks.

When possible, keep the deadlines. If something you are currently working on is subject to an immoveable court-imposed or regulatory deadline, and you cannot get both your current project and the last-minute project done, you may need to talk to a supervisor about how you and your organization will handle the work. With effective, consistent communication, such a task might be withdrawn before you have to refuse it.

Last-minute assignments are a challenging aspect of being a new lawyer, but don’t panic. Using your office community, a little planning, and organization, more often than not you can accomplish everything that you need to get done without giving up your personal commitments.

John H. Thompson

John H. Thompson is the associate vice-president in charge of the Central Plains Region for Nationwide Insurance Trial Division.