by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

In the practice of law it is difficult to know where to draw the line. A good deal of what we as lawyers do involves other people, whether as sources of information (when conducting “due diligence” or settling an estate, for example), as other Parties to a commercial agreement, as co-operating or opposing Counsel, as the object of a claim, or as our own Client. While communicating with other people is greatly facilitated by telecopiers and email, there remains the problem of getting a response to those immediate appeals, for communication is by definition a two-way street. Getting a response is furthermore the lubrication to the wheels of commerce, without which things quickly deteriorate. Additionally, the failure to obtain a timely response can precipitate some very unwelcome last-minute attendances, corollary amendments and in certain instances the equivalent of professional negligence (where a loss may have been suffered as a result). The difficulty, as I say, is to know where to draw the line; when, that is, does one become perturbed enough to begin pestering the other person for an answer?

As repugnant as it is to my own nature, I fully suspect that there are some who actively thrive on leaving things to the last minute, whether as a matter of procrastination generally or to appease some perverse delight they derive from urgency. I on the other hand favour the more complacent dénouement to a business transaction, following the initial charge and climax of activity. Surely, more civilized. If nothing else, my feeble brain behaves far more capably when not confronted by surprises and panic. I accept nonetheless that while I might label procrastination as an illness, those same people consider my anxiety as equally malignant. Just one more reason why it is difficult to know where to draw the line, assuming one gives a damn about what others think of oneself.

In the clerical world (upon which lawyers depend so enormously), it is undoubtedly true that many of the clerks are being regularly pushed beyond the threshold of value which they are expected to impart. Like the worker bees, the clerks are expected to perform relentlessly and satisfactorily. In spite of their servient position, they are oddly enough the keepers of the keys to the compound of knowledge. Consider for example the vast and important amounts of information housed by banks, governments, insurance companies and municipalities, to all of which information the only access is through a clerk. Regrettably, many of these clerks have, either intentionally or by default or neglect, built an empire around themselves, making it near impossible to obtain the information through anyone other than themselves. No doubt the recognition of this status by the clerk can become quite empowering, and – as you might expect me to say – abusive. During holiday periods, the extraction of information from these bureaucracies can become a monumental task, thwarted at every step as though there were a sign over the door proclaiming “You can’t get there from here!”. Even when one finally breaks through the shielding veil of bureaucracy and obtains a response, one is never assured that the information provided in the first instance is either correct or complete, thus further compounding the dilemma, necessitating at times an entire re-run of the same defeating process.

One is dissuaded to make an over-heated attempt to get things moving by the not infrequent occurrence that, just as you make the call to press someone for something, they tell you the letter was mailed last week, or they just completed the task today. Less desirable is the retort that they are waiting for some other contingency to occur, but hadn’t bothered to inform you. Whatever the case, those experiences tend rather to dampen one’s enthusiasm for knowledge, though for someone like myself, it only exasperates me more to withhold doing anything about it. I can at least say that I have learned not to adopt a threatening or aggressive tact when calling to encourage a response. That is only good business sense. In fact it is only good sense under any circumstances, as much as one might prefer to let the words fly!

Not everyone has the same internal clock, the one which signals when the time has come to get some answers. Yet while it is easy to criticize seemingly impatient people as being obsessive or “anal” (an expression I have never fully understood), my experience is that those who leave things to the last minute are never quite as clever as they may have thought. It must, however, be nature’s way of compensation to relieve these same people of any consuming concern about the resulting delays or shortfalls, something which admittedly would drive me to distraction. It also happens often enough that the party upon whom I am waiting turns out never to have received my initial communication. At least that is the way it is regularly worded, though as many times I consider they are merely pushing the matter back, supplemented with a request to re-fax the letter or re-send the email.

As with most large institutions nowadays, the local branches which once maintained the personal knowledge being sought have been stripped of that information, which has been relegated to their “Whatever Department”. That new contact routinely has an “800” number which ensures that you will never know where they are nor to whom to write. This merely adds another layer of bureaucracy to the enquiry process, often duplicating what has been done through the branch levels. Discovering that one’s small bit of information is now part of a mountain of data from offices all over the country does nothing to pacify one’s hope for a timely response, and in fact pretty much guarantees that you will start to hear things like, “We take 21 business days to respond from the date of receipt of your request”.

Finally, there are those who dismiss the need for anything by saying, “Don’t worry, it will get done!”. This philosophical approach comes nowhere near to satisfying me, even though it is frequently a self-fulfilling prophesy. In the end, each of us must rely solely upon our own intuition, at which I shall draw the line.