One of the realities of working in litigation support is that there will come a time when a single litigation matter will literally take over your life. Hopefully it happens infrequently at your firm or organization, as in once every few years. It can be difficult to sustain this level of commitment for more than about 6 weeks without a break.
I recently worked 116 hours of overtime in a 4 week period. Let me share with you what that looks like and some advice for surviving it.
That much overtime involves working 7 days a week. It means that I worked all day and stayed at the office into the evening or I worked all day, took a break to commute home and then I worked again well into the night. There were several all-nighters.
The email communications are non-stop from 7:00am to 1:30am. The overall legal team will consist of both “morning people” and “night owls”.
One of the keys to success is setting up an email distribution group to communicate as a team so that everyone is in the loop, however there will always be that one person who doesn't understand the need for “efficient communication”. This is the person that will fire off email responses one right after the other to the entire team. It looks like this: I would return to Outlook on my computer and my Inbox would have 20 emails with the same subject line. Or I would be driving to or from the office and my phone would be vibrating over and over as this person “blew up my phone”. Know anyone like that in your office?
Decisions are being made on-the-fly on an hourly basis. If you miss out on the conversation, you are immediately behind on the latest information. There are impromptu meetings all day long with various subsets of the overall legal team. Speaking of which, you should carry a notebook and pen with you everywhere you go.
I literally had a line outside my office door several times. It can be difficult to remember everything you're being asked to do. Your to-do list grows quickly and some of the expected turnaround times can be short.
In other scenarios, you are inserting yourself into the equation because you can offer a more efficient way to accomplish a particular task the legal team needs to accomplish. After several times of inserting myself in a non-threatening and non-condescending manner, I was able to prove that I could help improve the outcome, the accuracy and/or the turnaround time by applying technical solutions. The attorneys sometimes think they know best and it can be tricky getting buy-in from them. It helps to have someone on the legal team who believes in your services.
For a large matter like this, the first thing the lead partner does is divide up the work. I have seen this done many times in my career. This means that several partners are assigned particular areas of work and each of the partners in turn pull together a team of associates and assign them different tasks. Imagine an organizational chart that expands downward. Now, here is the clincher — guess where all of the attorneys' requests filter down to — yup, the paralegal and litigation support.
One difficult part of the downward funnel is that each individual team or set of attorneys will need their requests met by you. Their timelines can overlap. One tip: As each request comes in, do not tell the attorney you have something due for another attorney — the attorney can get defensive and territorial. Instead, do your best to negotiate a turnaround time that gives you enough time to meet both deadlines. Delegate to others if you can.
This kind of fast paced, multi-track, long hours project will help you figure out very quickly (a) how well you can handle stress, (b) how good of a legal project manager you are, and (c) that perhaps litigation support is not for you.
Me? I thrive in this environment. Something in me gets triggered. I am crazy enough to say I love it. I love the challenge of being successful at it and not letting anyone down.
The goal is to keep your head above water and not get too far behind. I've learned over the years that there should be no complaining, no excuses and no over promising. I have also gotten really good at negotiating my deadlines — this can be a steep learning curve for a newbie. One tip: break down their “ask” into smaller chunks, ask the attorney to priorize them and promise each chunk at a different time.
One of the reasons for the all-nighters is that is the only time when the emails stop. I can focus on knocking out some deliverables and updating my tracking logs. Don't forget to create tracking logs for everything! They will come in handy constantly when the partner is asking you for high level information.
In this matter, I am coordinating requests between 3 partners, 6 associates, 5 discovery attorneys, one paralegal, 3 service providers and one co-counsel. That is a lot of communication. You have to be good at juggling your thought processes. You have to do an excellent job of setting expectations and managing others' expectations. It can require “managing up” if you have more experience in a certain area.
I can be very demanding of my service providers. I want everything to be as efficient as possible and I strive to be as self-sufficient as I can with using their technology platform. I ask extra of them during matters like this, but at the same time, I fight for them not to work all weekend or every night, if I can help it. I do well with an excellent project manager with good work ethic and a keen eye for detail. I rely on them to be my second set of eyes and to make suggestions that will facilitate efficiency.
Here is where I fall short when a project like this happens — I do not take good care of myself. I do not stop to eat all day while at the office. I sometimes go all day without visiting the ladies room (that is now an inside joke amongst some of our team). I will push myself because I can handle a lot of stress. If I get tired in the evening or on the weekend, I will take 90-minute power naps. I try to avoid staying up really late two nights in a row — for me, that translates to past 2:00am.
I haven't been able to attend the last few Women in eDiscovery meetings and I've had to cease scheduling networking lunches and dinners. My friends start asking “where is Amy?” My personal email communications come to a screeching halt because I don't have the time to login at work or to monitor them in the evenings. This matter started before my Spring semester of teaching ended, so I got behind on grading the students' projects and I hate that. Spouses and significant others have to be very understanding of a schedule like this. Mine is. He works in the same industry now and he had to work some long hours during the same timeframe.
If you work in litigation as an attorney, paralegal or litigation support, you will experience a litigation matter that takes over your life for a bit. It may scare you away. It may teach you a few new things. Hopefully you will have a good mentor if you're a newbie. If you're crazy like me and you thrive in a fast-paced long hours environment, leave a comment below so I know I'm not alone. Ha! If you have your own story to tell, even better!