The Great Balancing Act: Your Ability to Multitask Is Your Most Valuable Asset

Sarah C. Jewell and Edward M. O’Brien

She pulls into the office parking lot on two wheels, almost a half hour late. Blazer draped over her arm, lugging binders of medical records, she slurps the last of her liquid breakfast. Already this morning, she’s exchanged texts with a client and one of the supervising partners in her office and spent twenty-two minutes on the phone with a client whose case has settled. It turns out the client “slept on it” and now is 100 percent absolutely, positively sure his soft tissue PI case is worth $1 million. After all, those are the policy limits. If anyone is worthy, it’s obviously him. He doesn’t have a job. He asks her to “un-settle” his case.

As she turns the corner into her office, her desk phone is ringing. Answering on the last ring, she’s smugly greeted by that adjuster in that one case who she’s been trying to reach for weeks. She pulls up the electronic file on her computer and reassures the adjuster: “Yes, now is a great time to talk.” She can’t let him get away. Fifteen minutes later, arguments and counter-demand made, she sets her phone to “do not disturb,” but quickly changes it back to ring. Someone may need her for something important. She must be available. Always. That’s her job.

For the next hour, she reviews a client’s medical records, organizing to later prepare a treating doctor for his deposition. During her hour of prep time, she finalizes a complaint to be filed for a partner initiating a case in another state, and she hopes her self-primer on that state’s law was correct. Personal jurisdiction is personal jurisdiction, right? Her assistant says she has a call on a new case, so she takes it. Then, she preps paperwork and sets an appointment a few hours out. Her stay-at-home-mom best friend texts her a recipe. “Can’t wait to try it,” she lies. She can’t remember the last time she grocery shopped, let alone cooked from an actual recipe.

She spends an hour researching for a partner an issue that’ll decide whether the firm takes the case, meanwhile fielding five calls from adjusters and clients on car wrecks all at various stages. Her cousin calls asking how to get out of a lease with eleven months remaining because it’s too expensive and her roommate is weird. She should know the answer because she’s a lawyer, never mind the fact that she is a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer and an associate at that. She finishes up a blog article she started yesterday morning, emails it to her firm’s public relations and marketing consultants, and mails her RSVP to a fundraiser battling tort reform.

It’s only 10:38 a.m.

Have you been in her position? If you’re a young lawyer, no matter what kind of work you do, you’ve likely been—or are perpetually stuck—“there.” Even if your practice is focused in one specific area, your days are filled with competing priorities. Every phone call, (almost) every email, and every encounter with office staff, partners, or fellow associates—it all matters. They’re all priorities. Everything needs to be done now and it needs to be done right and with care.

This dynamic should be all too familiar to practicing attorneys—the day-to-day, often competing, and always challenging demands of the profession we have chosen for ourselves. An attorney’s life is one of competing priorities and, at times, competing roles. Learning to balance them is just as important—if not more important—than any skill or legal doctrine learned in law school. And believe it or not, the pomp and circumstance of the courtroom that dominates the common perception of the practice of law notwithstanding, the role of litigator is just one of many “hats” a successful attorney must play.

An attorney is . . .

A counselor, first and foremost. Clients will come to depend upon you for guidance, and it won’t matter whether the subject matter is within your area of expertise or not. The hallmark of any lasting attorney-client relationship is trust, and in their time of need clients will turn to those they trust. A counselor must be ready for any question, any challenge, and any crisis. This does not mean that you must know every answer on the spot, but you must be prepared to roll up your sleeves and mix it up when the circumstances demand it.

A truth-teller. Fortunately, some clients not only expect, but demand, the unvarnished truth. Others, often implicitly but sometimes explicitly, demand that you tell them what they want to hear. The latter course is a disservice to your profession and, most importantly, to your client. An attorney must faithfully represent his or her client’s interests, and this sometimes means expressing uncomfortable truths. Never abandon this responsibility, even if it may seem that your client might prefer you do.

A master of tact. Telling a client the hard truth is not always easy, especially if it is something the client quite obviously does not want to hear. While you should never shield your client from the truth, there’s nothing wrong with approaching a delicate truth—well—delicately. Be mindful of your clients’ vulnerabilities, be sensitive to their emotions, and accommodate their needs. Honesty and tact go hand in hand. Tell the truth and be up front with your client, but do so sensibly.

A negotiator. Even the most seemingly intractable problems can often be solved by clear-headed thinking and crafty negotiation. Sometimes it’s your job to move your client closer to the realm of reasonableness, and other times it’s your job to convince your adversary that it is they who must move. The disputes we handle as lawyers are often contentious, but negotiation is just as much collaborative as it is adversarial. Prepare your client for the likelihood that they will not get everything they want, and make sure they understand that there is very seldom a clear “winner” in any successful negotiation.

A problem avoider. A lawyer should strive to keep his or her client out of trouble, and that means anticipating and avoiding or resolving problems before they arise. Check in with your clients every so often to see how things are going, and if something sounds like it could lead to trouble down the road, raise the issue then . . . you might save your client a major headache.

A problem solver. Sometimes problems simply cannot be avoided. Lawyers should always be in “problem solver” mode. When clients call with a problem, they are calling on your expertise and judgment. Gather as much information as you need to make an informed judgment about how to proceed, and then see your client through the next steps. At the end of the day, you are their last line of defense. They are counting on you to get the job done right.

A businessperson. The practice of law is a business. Performing one small task for a prospective client can lead to a mountain of work and business later on. A client might refer you to a friend or colleague in need. This is why it is so important, even as you wear these other hats and juggle these competing responsibilities and roles, to tend to the business side of your practice. Good work leads to good business. Whether you are a solo practitioner or working in a large firm, business development is essential to your success. Always be thinking about how you can better serve your existing clients and how you can attract new ones.

A creative thinker. There is no handbook for how to deal with whatever unexpected crises might blow up your day. Each case, each client, each situation is different. This arena is where the lawyer’s skills as a creative thinker become so important. If clients call you, given how expensive lawyers can be, it is a safe bet that they are expecting you to pull a rabbit out of your hat and make things all better. You might not be able to pull out a rabbit, but thinking creatively and coming up with possible resolutions to thorny problems is what our clients expect from us. Never be afraid to think outside of the box. It’s what you’re being paid to do.

At the end of any given day, you might have fulfilled a myriad of these roles for multiple clients. You’re exhausted. But the phone still rings, the email notifications keep going off, and the work keeps piling on. The senior partner still wants that memo in the morning, the court expects that brief in the afternoon, and your family expects you home for dinner in the evening. Sometimes it seems like too much, but you’ll wake up tomorrow ready to go at it again because, for all of the frustrations, challenges, and complexities of practicing law, it is one of the most exhilarating and rewarding professions around.

Sarah C. Jewell and Edward M. O’Brien

Sarah C. Jewell is a trial lawyer at Hare, Wynn, Newell and Newton in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Edward M. O’Brien is an associate attorney with Wilson Elser in Louisville, Kentucky.