JW Way Fundamental #7: Honor your commitments.
“Do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it. If a commitment can’t be fulfilled, tell others early and agree on a new commitment.”
I vividly remember my first day of law school. All the 1Ls were gathered in an auditorium listening to professors talk about what was in store for us. What has stuck with me is one particular professor’s words – he told us that our greatest asset as future lawyers is our reputation, which would be built by our actions and inactions. The idea that your reputation is valuable isn’t particularly novel. Dr. Matthew Loop, who has built a multi-million-dollar consulting business, articulated it this way, “In a world filled with flaky people, those that honor commitments and do what they say stand out. Integrity is currency.”
Mastering the art of both making and honoring commitments is a lifelong process, but here are a few tips that I’ve learned along the way:
Learn when/how to say no. As a recovering serial over-committer, this lesson has been particularly important for me. We live in a culture that values “busyness.” Think how many times you asked someone how he/she is doing and he/she responded, “busy” and then began rattling off everything he/she has been doing. Alternatively, think of how many conversations you’ve had that started by someone asking you if you were staying busy. Although most will agree that being busy is better than being bored, I suspect that even more would agree that there is more value in busily contributing to a select few activities/projects of your choosing than in being stretched so thin that you can barely contribute much to any one thing. Honoring a commitment is different than simply satisfying it. Honoring a commitment requires more than just checking off a box.
Set realistic deadlines. In my experience, when a client says he/she has a question that will take “two minutes” to answer, the project is typically more complex than he/she may have originally anticipated. When setting a deadline to respond to a client, consider giving yourself a little more time than you anticipate it may take you to complete the project. If you tell a client you will respond in two weeks and get back to him/her in ten days, you are likely perceived as hero. Conversely, if you tell the client it will take a week and then ask for an extra three days, you may be perceived as not fully invested in the project. The irony is that in both situations, it took you the exact amount of time to respond to the client, but you managed the client’s expectations differently, which led to different responses.
Be willing to ask for help. Sometimes, we simply bite off more than we can chew. Rather than beating ourselves up, we should be willing to ask others for help when we really need it. Conversely, when we find a colleague in a bind and have time to help, we should volunteer ourselves to do so. Running a successful law firm, much like raising a child, takes a village.