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.