A Modest Definition of “Now”

The email from a young colleague seemed sufficiently emphatic:

I really need to speak with you now. When are you available for a call?

I made myself available, and responded immediately.

I’m here. Call me now.

As I spent the next ten minutes twiddling my thumbs, one eye on the silent phone, I started to burn. I had things to do, but when there’s an emergency, I do what I have to do to help. I sat there. I sat there some more. Finally the phone rang, and I grabbed it. It was some guy’s robo voice congratulating me for having been selected to get a business loan. Well, that was sure worth my having blown ten minutes of my life.

About an hour later, I got another email from the same colleague:

Sorry, just saw your email. Will call now.

As it happened, I was able to take his call, but I wasn’t in the mood to chat. It mattered to me that a point be made, that when he reached out to me seeking my immediate attention, there was a concomitant duty on his part to then be available for my response.  He “just saw” my email?  How exactly does that happen, that he emailed me with an immediate need, but felt no similar responsibility to await my response, to open it immediately, to act upon it.

It’s as if I was asking him for a favor rather than the other way around.  It was rude. It was offensive. It wasted my time. And it didn’t strike him as being a problem at all.

When he finally called me, and I add only tangentially that his immediate need to speak with me was hardly urgent from my perspective, but more a convenience for him as he desired to ask me a question and was busy with his own personal matters otherwise, I raised this problem.

“Why,” I asked, “would you ask me to drop whatever I’m doing to be there for you, and then not bother to read my response until you felt like it?”

Yeah, I know. I’m sorry.

It appears that the message that there’s no shame in offering an apology has gotten across. Too well.  It’s as if the problem isn’t the initial error, but in giving an apology for whatever went wrong.  The apology has become the catch-all for any problem that happens, as if someone says to themselves, “meh, screw it, I’ll just apologize later and the problem goes away.”

“What do you mean, ‘you’re sorry’?”  I’m sitting here, not doing what I need to do for my work, and all you’ve got to say is “you’re sorry”?

Well, stuff came up, and I got tied up and didn’t check my email.

“So your ‘stuff’ is more important than my stuff?” I then laid into him: “You reached out to me, sought my immediate availability to help you with something you need, and then didn’t give a shit about me because you had something more important to do?” Now, he was getting annoyed.

I don’t appreciate the lecture. Sometimes, something comes up. It happens. Get over it.

Clearly, we had a failure of communication.  But worse, we had a disconnect of what it means to ask for, and receive, another person’s time and attention.  He sought something from me, but in his mind, it was within the paradigm of his worldview where he was the center of the universe and everyone else, myself very much included, were supporting characters in a play all about him.

I closed out this part of the conversation, what he called my “lecture,” with, “when you seek my attention, you are asking me to do you a favor, and you better damn well respect my time by putting whatever you’re doing aside. I really don’t give a damn about whatever else is happening in your life, short of you’ve just been run down by a truck. If you can’t be bothered respecting my time, do not ask me again.”

He failed to see why I was making a big deal of all this.  When I responded to him that I was available “now,” that “now” was interpreted through whatever exists between his ears as his “now,” not my “now.”  Now was when he saw it, not when I sent it. Now was on his time frame. My availability now didn’t exist in his world.

In law, urgency happens.  All the time. I always warn new lawyers to get their work done as soon as possible, rather than plan to do it at some point in the future, because unanticipated urgent matters constantly arise that demand attention and screw up the best laid plans. Then, boom, there is no time to get that work done, and you’ve blown it.

Had this young colleague responded that he had a call in the interim, from chambers, a prosecutor, a new client, that trumped my call, I would have understood. Those are all good reasons to deal with the urgency in front of him and me as soon as he could.  We have priorities in law, and I am well aware that other things on the list will knock me off the number one spot.  And I’m fine with that.

But to be left hanging, to be relegated to bit player in some young lawyer’s fantasy of entitlement to my time and narcissism of his being the center of the universe chafes my ass to no end.  I will not forget that he did this, he wasted my time thoughtlessly.

Yet, if he does it again, I will again make myself available because his “now” may be real and may involve a client’s life, and not even his selfishness will prevent my making myself available to help a defendant.  I add, he happens to be a damn fine lawyer, aside from being a selfish jerk. And by allowing myself to potentially get put on ignore again, I enable the conduct that I find so disturbing.

It would be really helpful, all around, if we could agree that the word “now” means now, in real time.  And then we can all get on with our own, very important lives without burning someone else’s time for no reason.  Is this too much to ask of a young colleague?  I suspect it is. Sorry.

 

 

21 thoughts on “A Modest Definition of “Now”

  1. DDJ

    ….best laugh I’ve had reading your blog. Not because I don’t agree with you; I do.

    It’s just that “…chafes my ass to no end”…

    I’m sitting here laughing at the extent of chafe that might be. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall while you expressed your chaff-ness to your young colleague.

    Everything is subject to re-definition, it seems. Especially where personal convenience is involved. Like ‘rape’. Seems like apology should work similarly. “Oh, did my willie slip in there? Sorry.”

  2. Bartleby the Scrivener

    I’m not sure I can really say anything to mitigate the frustration you (quite rightly) experienced, but I hope you take satisfaction in being a very good man.

    I appreciate your intelligence, work, time, character, and commitment.

    Thank you, sir.

    1. SHG Post author

      You know, I kinda think I just do what anyone would do. That you think it’s worth a thank you is less a reflection on me, and more a reflecting on how low our general expectations have dropped.

        1. SHG Post author

          If that’s true, then everybody needs to step up their game and try to do right by others. Seriously, I do not think I’m special, but that our world has become one where people are so selfish and self-serving that even the tiniest bit of help seems like a bigger deal than it is.

  3. David

    My sympathies, and empathizing with your frustration, though I would quibble re the shame aspect: if someone apologizes and appears to mean it rather than a mere perfunctory statement (unlike in the example you gave, where it was clearly not a real apology), I don’t think I’d consider saying sorry to be a mark of shame (especially since sometimes I’m the one apologizing). If anything it shows character to recognize an apology is owed and to give one.

    Re the inconvenience and self-importance aspect, I’m reminded of one more senior lawyer who I accompanied to a scheduled meeting at another lawyer’s office, only to be told that lawyer was on a call and he’d have to wait an unspecified amount of time; after a few minutes he told the assistant that if the lawyer was too busy to meet when he’d come over at his request he was leaving and wasn’t going to have his client paying for unnecessary waiting time (she was taken aback but interrupted the lawyer who ended his call in favor of the meeting because the meeting was genuinely much more important and urgent). Hopefully a one-sentence example albeit a lengthy one doesn’t run afoul of the posting principles – if it does, I will apologize…

    1. SHG Post author

      Not sure why you offer sympathies for my “frustration.” I neither seek nor want them. Nor am I sure why you see the perfunctory sorry as relating to shame. Maybe I was very unclear. This isn’t about my feelz.

      As for the sorry, it doesn’t really matter that the apology is sincere, but that we’ve achieved this mindset where an apology is the functional equivalent of actually doing something.

      Oh, yeah, I forgot to sew up his heart before closing his chest and he died. I’m really sorry about that.

      No, this is not good enough. No, an apology isn’t a substitute for, you know, killing someone. No, you can’t shrug off successfully performing a hard task because a sincere apology afterward is good enough to cover.

      1. David

        You wrote “It appears that the message that there’s no shame in offering an apology has gotten across. ” I thought you meant that it is shameful to offer an apology, which makes no sense to me (or perhaps you meant it is shameful to be in a position in which one needs to apologize, which makes more sense).

        I understand that you object to the mindset in which an apology is the functional equivalent of doing something, hence my reference to a sincere apology, which to me connotes the intention to remedy the wrong (insofar as may be possible) and to make a genuine effort not to repeat the wrong. Someone who makes such a genuine apology I don’t think could have the mindset you describe as being objectionable, because they recognize a mere apology is not the equivalent of actually doing something (or not doing the wrong thing again).

        I also don’t understand why you’re bringing up the example of killing someone when your post was about a far less serious matter, but it’s entertaining and it’s your blog…

        1. SHG Post author

          Either I’m becoming insufferably unclear or you’ve managed to misapprehend every thing I’ve written. I’ll give it one more try. Historically, people refused to apologize when they screwed up because it was a sign of shame to admit that one screwed up. It’s good that people have gotten beyond that, and admit mistakes rather than be defensive and deny they did wrong.

          Whether an apology is sincere or not, it’s now morphing into a generic alternative to doing something they know they should do because it’s become so easy and acceptable to apologize instead. It may connote an intention to remedy the problem to you, but I think otherwise. That’s my point. You can see things differently, though I don’t agree, which is why my point went elsewhere.

          And the analogy using death is a rhetorical device using hyperbole to make a point. It’s not “bringing up killing someone,” but a common rhetorical device with which most readers are familiar.

          1. David

            I understand your shame point now, I think you misunderstood me (e.g. that the hyperbole didn’t help support your point and my classifying insincere apologies as not being actual apologies) , but you don’t need to understand me, so I’ll drop it.

  4. Taco

    “I’ve scheduled this meeting so we can decide on a date and time for me to email you requesting an immediate phone call.”
    I thought normal people use a phone when they need to talk not write an email.

  5. Reed Hollander

    Doing legal work well often (but not always) requires significant concentration. When someone interrupts your work with a demand for immediate attention, there’s a break in that concentration and an unwillingness to re-engage the brain for that heavy level of thought until the risk of near-term interruption goes away. I hate sitting by waiting on someone when I have a brief or other thought-intensive project sitting interrupted, the streams and rivulets of thought flowing away in my brain as I wait on someone else’s pleasure.

    Some people genuinely fail to understand (or simply don’t care) how disruptive to legal practice an interruption like this can be, so when it’s pleaded as an urgent favor and left hanging, the annoyance factor increases exponentially. It’s fundamentally different than a “hey, can we talk at Xpm today?” that I can add to my calendar and immediately forget until that time.

  6. Ted Kelly

    I enjoy reading your posts very much, and though I’m a relative newcomer to your site, it’s the only one that I read daily. Your posts make me think about issues I’ve given little thought to, and make me better understand the ones I do think about (even though the takeaway from many of your posts is that most issues are more complex than we’d like to think). But it’s posts like this that I appreciate the most. I know that I’ve been careless with other people’s time. And I have had my time wasted by others, frequently, lately. As I’ve quietly grumbled to myself about how to deal with these time wasters I’ve recalled many instances where I’ve wasted other people’s valuable time, with much regret. Enough so to make me wince. Whether it be by not being on time or simply being unprepared to receive their assistance when they’re there to give it. Lately It’s as if some of that is being paid back to me by others. With this time wasting being on my mind, today’s post was timely. It’s given me some ideas on how to deal with people who waste my time. It’s also a firm reminder to be mindful of other people’s time.
    Also, the post was quite amusing.
    Thanks for that.

    1. SHG Post author

      The best compliment I get is that I made someone think. It’s more important than convincing anyone of anything. At least whatever their ultimate opinion may be, it comes from having thought about the issue.

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