Professional Liability Blog

Seize the Day – Diligence as the Hallmark of Good Ethics

09/12/2013 | by Sherin and Lodgen


Professional Liability Blog

Seize the Day – Diligence as the Hallmark of Good Ethics

By Sherin and Lodgen on September 12, 2013

In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, an idealistic high school teacher gives his students these words to live by: “Seize the Day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary!”  That is good advice for anyone, but lawyers have an extra incentive to make the most of each day.  When lawyers sit on their hands, not only is it impossible for them to do something extraordinary, they can run afoul of the Rules of dead poets societyProfessional Conduct.

Mass. R. Prof. C. 1.3 says that a “lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client. …”  The commentary pulls no punches with respect to how the rules view unnecessary delays:

“Perhaps no professional shortcoming is more widely resented than procrastination.  A client’s interests often can be adversely affected by the passage of time or the change of conditions; in extreme instances, as when a lawyer overlooks a statute of limitations, the client’s legal position may be destroyed.  Even when the client’s interests are not affected in substance however, unreasonable delay can cause a client needless anxiety and undermine confidence in the lawyer’s trustworthiness.”

Even the best-organized, most motivated, and zealous lawyers will sometimes shuffle off some unpleasant bit of business to the end of the day.  And from there, it is easy to put off to the day after, and then the week after, until the task is out of sight and out of mind.  However, when a lawyer puts off the little problems on his or her desk, those problems can sometimes blow up later, with nasty consequences.

Similarly, delaying the delivery of bad news to a client, or putting off conversations with difficult clients can also lead to trouble for a lawyer.  Rule 1.4(a) says a “lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.”

The Massachusetts Attorney Disciplinary Reports are replete with recent examples of attorneys who, by putting off dealing with clients or courts, or by simply failing to do what they were engaged to do, found themselves in disciplinary trouble.

For example:

  • In one recent case, a bankruptcy lawyer failed to file a suitable plan on behalf of his clients, and their petition was dismissed on two separate occasions.  The lawyer then failed to respond to requests for information from his clients.  In a separate matter, the same lawyer filed a personal injury suit but then abandoned the case, and the defendant obtained final judgment in its favor due to the failure to respond to discovery.  The lawyer also failed to inform this client of the dismissal, and subsequently lost a malpractice judgment.  Those delays led to an 18-month suspension from the practice of law.
  • In another case, a lawyer won a jury verdict and a fee award on behalf of his clients.  The lawyer told the clients that he would file an application for fees and costs, but never did so.  He then failed to respond to repeated inquiries from the clients.  The result: a 10-month suspension.
  • In yet a third disciplinary case, a client retained the lawyer for a potential claim against a former employer.  The lawyer investigated and concluded the client would be unlikely to prevail on the claim, but never told the client, notwithstanding their intermittent communications.  A filing deadline then passed.  The result: a 6-month suspension.

In all these cases, the lawyers could have helped themselves by simply getting down to business and doing what they were hired to do, as well as keeping their clients fully informed as to what was going on – for better or worse.  Having an uncomfortable conversation or performing an unpleasant task today, is almost always preferable to dealing with the consequences of delay down the road.

Who knows – if those lawyers had seized the day and gotten to work, they might even have pulled off “something extraordinary” for their clients and themselves.