Ethics Counsel on www.OKbar.org

The Power of Procrastination

By Travis Pickens

Rule 1.3 of the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct states: “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”

An informal ethics opinion from the ABA has defined “neglect” as follows: “[n]eglect involves indifference and consistent failure to carry out the obligations which the lawyer has assumed to the client or a conscious disregard for the responsibility owed to the client.”1 Arguably therefore, according to this opinion, a violation of this rule should typically not be found for a one-time instance, but rather when there is a pattern of neglected work. As always, however, the circumstances and individual facts make all the difference and could dictate a different conclusion. However, procrastination is an issue that generally means repetitive behavior. 

Procrastination is a powerful adversary in that it affects so many of us. Statistics reported from the Office of the General Counsel tell us that this leads to more complaints than perhaps any other cause. It is especially powerful, again negatively, because of its insidiousness. It is an issue that we do not take all that seriously, a view that fosters the continuation of the problem. Finally, procrastination is a powerful enemy because it not only leads us to avoid doing what we should, but to expend time, talent and money on doing what we should not. The harm is doubled.

Reading disciplinary cases identifies a host of ethics violations that can be caused by procrastination: simple unnecessary delay in moving forward with work for a client as promised, unnecessary delay coupled with prejudice to the client’s position (missed deadlines and statutes of limitation), related cover-up misrepresentations to clients, third-parties, other lawyers and/or the court, for example. All of this is obvious. What is more interesting is why we procrastinate.

Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, and Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada have identified 10 things we should know about procrastination.2

1) 20 percent of us are hard-wired to procrastinate. Procrastination is a life-style for this group. It affects every aspect of their lives.

2) As a culture, we do not take this problem of self-regulation seriously. We often do not call each other on this. We tolerate tardiness and flimsy excuses for missed deadlines with the thought “that’s just the way they are.”

3) Procrastination is not a problem of time management or of planning. “Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up,” according to Dr. Ferrari.

4) Procrastinators learn to dally; they typically are not born to delay. One apparent cause is an authoritarian parent who dictates everything and keeps a child from developing the ability to regulate themselves. It can also be a form of rebellion.

5) Procrastination often indicates higher levels of consumption of alcohol. Again, self-regulation is a problem. Also, substances are one form of “disengagement.”

6) Procrastinators lie to themselves. They say things like “I work better in the morning” (the next morning).

7) Procrastinators look hard for distractions, like smartphones, e-mail, television and anything else.

8) Procrastinators come in three basic types: “thrill seekers” (who like the rush of adrenaline), “avoiders” (worried about what others think and fearing failure or even success) and “decisional” procrastinators (not making a decision gets them off the hook).

9) There are costs to procrastination. Two obvious costs are to your client and your legal career. Others include your health, your immunity to disease and
your sleep.

10) A serious procrastination issue can be treated, usually with highly structured cognitive behavioral therapy. Of course, the seriousness of the problem is a matter of degree and the treatment
relative to that.

For lawyers, specifically, we often delay in doing things that are boring, unprofitable or uncomfortable. It is important, urgent, that you address a serious issue with procrastination. Through the Lawyers Helping Lawyers Assistance Program Committee you are provided up to six sessions with a licensed counselor at no cost. Also, check out the paper “Overcoming Procrastination [How to Break the Habit]” by Irwin Karp with Productive Time (Sacramento, Calif.). Mr. Karp’s paper was presented at the OBA’s 2009 Solo and Small Firm Conference and can be found on the OBA’s website.

Have an ethics question? It’s a member benefit, and all inquiries are confidential. Contact Mr. Pickens at travisp@okbar.org or (405) 416-7055; (800) 522-8065.

1. ABA Informal Opinion 1273, “Neglect”—Definition (Nov. 20, 1973).
2. “Procrastination: Ten Things To Know,” Psychology Today magazine, by Hara Estroff Marano, first published on Aug. 23, 2003, but available online at www.psychologytoday.com.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Feb.12, 2011 -- Vol. 82 No. 5 

Travis Pickens is the OBA Ethics Counsel. He can be reached at ethics@okbar.org