Setting Deadlines for Outside Counsel

By William Vogeler, Esq. on March 24, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Einstein showed us that time is relative. For example, an astronaut on a rocketship will age slower than a pedestrian standing on Earth. Don't bother trying to figure it out, it's in the math.

Attorneys show us that time also expands. For example, a lawyer takes more time without a deadline to accomplish a task. Check your bill; that's in the math also.

As in-house counsel, it's important to make sure time is not so relative or expansive when it comes to outside counsel. Here are some tips:

The Floating Deadline

Telling someone to do to something "as soon as possible," or "when you can," or "at your earliest convenience," is called a floating deadline. It really isn't a deadline at all; it just floats out there.

It's not good business. Imagine if you worked for an airline, and pilots were allowed to say at critical times:

"We are encountering some turbulence, and we will be landing as soon as possible." Or how about, "You may put on your flotation device at your earliest convenience." Uh, no.

Billable Hour Deadlines

For hourly jobs, establish aggressive, near-term deadlines for outside counsel. Those deadlines compel hourly attorneys to be more efficient.

Law firms operate largely on billable hours. That financial model has a built-in component that turns more time into more money.

Deadlines for billable work can curb that potential for fees to expand over time. See how legal relativity works now?

Alternative Fee Agreements

Of course, not all legal tasks are the same and neither are fee agreements. When a law firm agrees to work on a flat fee, for example, it may not be helpful financially for in-house counsel to set hard deadlines.

Generally, legal work should be done carefully, thoroughly and with attention to detail. These things take time and the flexibility of a flat-fee agreement can allow for that, too.

However, deadlines can still be useful to ensure that the work is completed in a timely manner. For example, asking outside counsel to communicate its own deadlines is certainly a reasonable request in any time continuum.

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