Time, Gentlemen (meant in a non-gender specific way, of course)

When I was a teenager, I had a hard time dragging myself out of bed in the morning. It wasn't that I stayed out late partying because I was always home and in bed by 10 o'clock. I simply couldn't get off the rack. I was elected president of a club and eventually ceded the position to the vice president because the meetings were at 7 a.m. and I rarely made it to school that early. I could get to the fishing hole or deer stand by 5 o'clock in the morning without a problem but meetings were a different story.

This got better when I was a young lawyer, but not by much. If I had a 9 a.m. hearing, you could set your watch by me walking into the court room at 9 a.m. If I showed up even a few minutes early, my friends would ask if something was wrong.

Middle-aged Lawyer Man runs on a different clock. I still go to bed at 10 p.m. most nights, but I wake up at six in the morning regardless. My alarm didn't go off when I had a 7 a.m. dentist appointment but I woke up on time anyway. I can't give all of the credit to my body's clock - our two dogs also told me it was time to get up.

My practice now involves a lot more trips to neighboring and rural counties than it did for young me. In those places, if you aren't fifteen minutes early, you are deemed ten minutes late.

I learned this when appearing for a friend's traffic ticket. I don't handle many traffic matters, but he was driving without a license and had spent the weekend in jail. I showed up at 6:05 p.m. for the 6:30 p.m. hearing and felt proud. That is, until I learned that my friend had already taken a plea and was being released. (I also found out that he had a long history of traffic offenses for the first time from the judge that night - that is a story for a different day.)

Now I am almost neurotic about being early. If I am running behind my "be early" plan, I start to sweat. My heart races. If a court is involved, I will call to let my opposing counsel know I am likely going to be tardy.

You can imagine my frustration, Gentle Reader, when I got a call on the way to court for an 8:30 a.m. hearing at 8:20 a.m. and I was still driving to court. It was my good friend Stuart Thomas, so I took a breath and answered the phone.

"Where are you off to on this fine Monday morning?" he asked.

"I have an 8:30 case management conference. Is there anything worse?"

"Perhaps being dragged behind the car to an 8:30 Monday morning case management conference, with your suit on fire and mismatched socks."

He was right. Case management conferences feel a lot like parent/teacher meetings where I am both the student and the parent. The judge sits behind a big desk or towers over the lawyers from the bench in full robes. Intentionally or not, they occasionally have the same disapproving look on their faces that I remember receiving from my high school Algebra teacher - things are behind schedule, one of the parties doesn't understand the procedure or the meeting wasn't the judge's idea in the first place and they have a stack of more pressing matters waiting.

My home state Supreme Court sets time limits on the expected duration for a civil case. For this reason, circuit judges in many of our courts have case management conferences to keep the dockets progressing on schedule. They are typically juggling heavy case loads and it takes a lot of effort and planning to keep cases on the prescribed track. The goal of a case management conference is often to "check in" with the lawyers and make sure we are being productive as well.

Apart from the times that a scheduling order and trial date are set, most case management conferences don't feel productive to me. Either they come too early in the case for the parties to have done the work necessary to know what the case is about and what to expect or they come late in the process when most of the pretrial work is either done or planned and there is nothing left to manage.

For a contingent fee lawyer, case management conferences work in opposition to the desired result - they keep us from getting things done while we wait in a packed courtroom for our turn instead of advancing the case, and we can't bill our clients for the time. We don't dare complain or skip out - unlike Congress, judges have no qualms about enforcing their orders to appear. I doubt that judges look forward to these hearings either - it is either a perfunctory event or involves unruly lawyers and looks more like an exercise in herding cats.

One of my favorite judges signed an order after a case management conference that read "Cause called, Case managed." The parties were out of his courtroom in five minutes and laughing to boot. It fell in line with my mantra that I only want to do things that are either fun or make for a good story. He gave me both.


©2019 under analysis llc. under analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St Louis, Missouri. He writes this column on deadline without a problem. Usually. Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent c/o this newspaper or directly to Under Analysis via email at farris@farrislaw.net.

Published: Fri, Oct 25, 2019