From the Multnomah Lawyer - The Corner Office | Professionalism : Punctuality

The OSB Statement of Professionalism (as adopted by the OSB House of Delegates and approved by the Supreme Court of Oregon effective December 12, 2011) includes the following proclamation – “I will be courteous and respectful to my clients, to adverse litigants and adverse counsel, and to the court.

In life, there are only some things we can control, and punctuality is one of them. Many lawyers struggle with punctuality; however, when we’re late for a meeting or a phone call, what percentage of the time is it genuinely an issue beyond our control? Certainly, it’s a very small percentage. If we take honest stock of how lawyers tend to behave, we find that almost always lawyers are late because we don’t plan well enough. We departed too late for our destination, we didn’t enforce time boundaries earlier in the day, we tried to squeeze too many tasks into a single day, or we failed to set realistic expectations. Because punctuality is one of the most basic tenets of professionalism and social etiquette, effective lawyers must make it a priority.

In the legal world, the quality of promptitude is arguably more important for courteousness than the use of the correct prefixes and surname pronunciations. Aside from the lost (and perhaps most basic) opportunity to exhibit courtesy and respect by arriving on time for any lawyerly act, tardiness may be perceived as incompetence, disorganization, a lack of discipline, and insecurity.

Lateness may also reflect fluster and a compromised ability to manage stress and prioritize time, people, pressures, and commitments. Lateness creates a negative external impression in people outside of your office, and it lowers morale among your colleagues and staff when they can’t trust your word about when you’ll be somewhere, or when a meeting will start. As the saying goes: “Time is a precious gift we give, but too often waste.” Tardiness breeds wasted precious operational capital. It could place an unnecessary strain on a professional’s negotiating power, or cause a lost opportunity to shine. (The most obvious example may be a late reply brief rejected for consideration by the court, or a delayed return call to a potential new client who finds her counsel elsewhere.) More fundamentally, lateness is often perceived as just plain rude.

While some lawyers (litigators in particular) may enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from cutting it close, and struggle to complete a task unless there’s a mini crisis looming on the horizon, the late lawyer is almost never the most prepared or conscientious lawyer. To honor our commitment to professionalism, experienced lawyers should exhibit and mentor others to keep these punctuality tips in mind:

1. Know Why You Want to Be Punctual.
Consider your reasons and motivation to build a habit of punctuality. Like any good lawyer often does, create a list of action items. Write down the risks of lateness and the benefits of punctuality. Your list may include:

  • Punctuality reduces stress and friction with your adversaries, staff and partners. None among us enjoys waiting for others.
  • Punctuality builds trust. Clients will feel their counsel is more competent to handle competing deadlines and pressures, and decisionmakers will view you as more credible.
  • Punctuality signals to others, as well as to yourself, that you are reliable and organized.
2. Make it a Priority to Be Prompt, and Early.
If you tend to be chronically late, own it and perhaps recognize it as your own Achilles’ heel. Strive to be always early. Realize that lateness is not a cute or quirky character trait. Instead, it’s an unprofessional habit that negatively impacts your career, business, and other relationships. Commit to kick the habit and become more reliably punctual.

3. Promote a Punctual Culture.
Recognize punctuality as a right and obligation. Avoid hypocrisy by requiring of your staff only the level of punctuality that you consistently demonstrate. Surround yourself with colleagues and staff that share your respect for promptness. Start and end meetings on time. Hold your staff and committee members accountable when they demonstrate tardiness and invite them to do the same for you.

Simply thinking about punctuality will inspire us to recognize that we have better control of our time. Professionalism includes the gracious exercise of that control - whether by the simple act of reliably returning calls to opposing counsel, meeting client or courtimposed deadlines, or arriving punctually to court proceedings. In doing so, you serve your professional obligation to “be courteous and respectful to … clients, to adverse litigants and adverse counsel, and to the court.
The Corner Office is a recurring feature of the Multnomah Lawyer and is intended to promote the discussion of professionalism taking place among lawyers in our community and elsewhere. While The Corner Office cannot promise to answer every question submitted, its intent is to respond to questions that raise interesting professionalism concerns and issues. Please send your questions to and indicate that you would like The Corner Office to answer your question. Questions may be submitted anonymously.

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