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» Clients, Courts » Punctuality

Punctuality

When I was a little kid, one of my teachers loved to say this to the class: “to be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, to be late is to be dead.” Awfully melodramatic, especially for someone talking to a room full of ten-year-olds, but it must have sunk in for me at some point. I still remember it, obviously, and I’m compulsively early for anything work-related.

Starting out in law, a mentor told me one secret to success in criminal defense was showing up on time. Making it to every hearing before it’s supposed to start, he said, would already put me one big step ahead of all but a select few of my colleagues. He told me fellow members of the bar set the standard quite low. Was he right?

On one hand, showing up on time really is pretty unusual for criminal defense attorneys. You know there’s something wrong when courts have to post signs telling lawyers their 8:15 a.m. hearings will be reset if they don’t show up by 10:00 a.m. Courts actually do notice when you’re punctual, and it makes a good impression. On the other hand, showing up on time has probably caused me more headache than good overall.

In most Arizona courts, the defense lawyers call their own cases during regular law and motion calendars. The lawyers line up in the well, like cattle awaiting slaughter, or they check in with the bailiff and sit around until they hear their number. Regardless, most courts will not try to hear a case without the defense lawyer present unless the docket is almost over and every other lawyer who is actually present has had their case called. In courts with long dockets, you might have all morning to swing by and do your hearing.

I don’t mind the system, but it becomes burdensome when you have a habitually tardy client. Imagine you have an 8:00 a.m. hearing and show up right on time. The client, unfortunately, is nowhere to be found. When you call, he says he’s running three hours late.

You can call the case, and the client will get a bench warrant. When he shows up, the court usually won’t take him into custody. The court will set it that afternoon or some other day for another hearing. You’ll have to attend, and your decision to call the case and get out quick earlier will have ended up killing another big chunk of your time. Your client will probably be late to that too, and you may waste three or four more big chunks of time before the court realizes these hearings are punishing everyone except for your client.

If the court does take your client into custody or tells him the bench warrant stands until he’s arrested, you may have even more work to do. You will have to file a motion to quash or a motion to modify release conditions. You may have to fill out a detailed information sheet or go through the hassle of setting it for a hearing on your own. Courts often get irritated when lawyers don’t wait for their clients, as it makes more work for them as well.

In reality, the only thing a lawyer can do is to wait for the client. When he rolls in hours late, you call the case, the court hears it, and it gets set for another hearing for which the client will almost certainly be late. The court has no clue that you waited hours for him, and unless you’re a petty, unethical jerk, you’re not going to make a record about how you were there on time but your client was late.

Clients know this, especially in Maricopa County. Every morning, I hear frustrated lawyers standing in the hallway and yelling into their cellphone about how they have a 10:00 a.m. trial and they told the client to be on time. Threats are pointless, though, as clients know as well as anyone that they can show up as late as they want and only the defense attorney is going to suffer. Threatening a bench warrant isn’t exactly the most professional thing to do, though it may be the only effective way to make a chronically late client show up anywhere close to on time. After they realize the threats are empty, they revert back to being late.

So what’s the solution? As far as I can tell, there isn’t one. I will keep showing up on time, and certain clients will keep showing up at their leisure. I can convert my fee arrangements to hourly billing, but it’ll still needlessly waste a lot of my time. I’ll just get paid for wasting it. When the options involving screwing the client and making more work on one hand versus grinning and bearing the brunt of the client’s discourteousness on the other, it’s pretty clear which option I have to choose.

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3 Responses to "Punctuality"

  1. shg says:

    Since this interests you, a few more details. The same rule applied to appointments, where clients are expected to be there on time if they haven’t advised me of a problem at least 1 hour in advance. Word spread among clients and referrals, so that new clients were aware of my rules when they came to me, and knew to be on time from the outset.

    The amount of the fine, $500, turned out to be the perfect number, not so high as to be beyond the reach of clients or force them to suffer a significant detriment, but sufficient to make it painful. They could do it, but hated to do it. It’s critical that it make them bleed a little or the lesson wasn’t learned. Even those clients for whom it was pocket change felt that throwing $500 away was too painful to ignore. Of course, this suited my clientele. Yours may differ.

    Part of my discussion about it with clients is that I give every client all the time needed to work their matter, but when they used my time unnecessarily, the took it away from their case or someone else’s. Time was limited, and the only commodity that, once lost, was gone forever. By wasting it by making me wait, it was time that would be wasted from defending someone. Did they want to go to prison, or have someone else go to prison, because I lacked the time to do the work necessary to beat the case?

    This point also extended to client management of excessive telephone calls, where I explained that I could either sit on the phone with them or work on their cases. Which would they prefer?

    By constructing a reputation where clients knew that I was not tolerant of irresponsibility or waste, they understood that was part of the deal when they retained me and accepted it. My clients may not have been the most innocent in the courthouse, but they were definitely the most responsible. And it allowed me to provide them with the best possible representation.

  2. Matt Brown says:

    That’s a fantastic idea. Unless there’s some weird AZ-specific rule preventing it (and I doubt there is), I think it’ll be going in my fee agreements from now on.

  3. shg says:

    Early in my career, I experienced the same problems you are experiencing. I began a fine system, where I informed clients that they were to be seated in the courtroom by a specific time or they would have to pay me a $500 fine. There were no excuses; either they were in the seat or dead. Otherwise, they pay.

    The first few times, they thought it was funny, until they learned I meant it. I explained it was my time they were wasting, and if they wasted it, they had to pay for it. And I refused to have anything further to do with them until the fine was paid. I explained it was their life, and if they wanted to blow it and end up in jail because they were irresponsible, that was their choice. They hated paying the fine, but they paid.

    Only one client ever had to pay a fine a second time, and my clients were the most punctual in the courthouse. We were always the first case called in the morning.

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