Chris Hadfield’s “Guide to Life on Earth”, whilst a compelling view into the life of an astronaut, contains many lessons for those of us who are more earth-bound.
He splits his space travels into three distinct phases. These can be applied to legal services as well as extra-terrestrial activities. Whether you are acting on the sale of a business, a bitter employment dispute, registering intellectual property rights, or agreeing contracts for the construction of a bridge, the transaction can be split into these phases:
- Pre-Launch: the preparation phase. His preparation phase lasted tens of years. This is often where the nitty-gritty of legal work is done: due diligence, searches, queries, sharing and exchanging documents, disclosure and so on.
- Lift-Off: the climax. This is when the exciting stuff really happens. So for disputes this is the court proceedings, for sale of a business or a house this is the completion meeting, or when the trademark is finally approved.
- Come Down to Earth: what you might call the anti-climax. This is when the ends are tidied up, paperwork filed, bills sent, and customer satisfaction monitored.
Chris Hadfield gives each phase equal importance. I suspect that’s not quite the way you see these phases of a client matter. Instead, your experience may consist of many hours of ‘churn’, process and admin, bookended by what you think of as ‘real legal work’.
From an astronaut’s perspective, the pre-launch phase ensures that lift-off is as risk-free as possible. Many hours of review, rehearsal, repetition and refinement guarantee that informed decisions can be made in a vital split second. With the pressure on fees, you rarely get the luxury of hours to prepare. But how many times have you attended court, or a client meeting, and realised a piece of paper, valuable information, or relevant people were missing, who could have made all the difference? Next time ‘sweat the small stuff’ – as he calls it – and the event will be more successful. Many years ago, following (unwarranted) murmurs of disapproval of my role as a junior on his beloved dispute, I went the extra mile before a hearing with an arbitrator. I planned, prepared, reviewed, and took summaries, maps and draft orders of every shade and hue. It turned potential disaster into a huge client success.
During lift-off, Chris recognises that even though it’s the astronauts in the rocket who get all the credit, going into space is a massive team effort. His recommends that everyone should try to help others and the project to succeed, not go for individual glory. Occasionally, legal teams can get hide-bound by status issues, doggedly pursue dead-ends, or fail to see the bigger picture. Your focus should be on achieving the best results for everyone involved. This produces better client satisfaction, and better work satisfaction too! Even as a progressed through the ranks of Eversheds, I never forgot that it was the paralegal working the copier or fax machine who helped us get the job completed and made sure they got credit too (not just the partners).
And just when you think your project is (basically) over, it is not the end. As Chris highlights, failing to return to earth safely can destroy years of evidence, data and experiments, as well as astronaut’s lives. How many times at the end of the matter, do you take your eye off the ball and create problems for the future? How about leases with pages missing? Maps incorrectly drawn? Wills misplaced? Agreements not signed by the authorised people or adequately witnessed? Keeping your focus until the very last task is properly finished can make all the difference to whether your project (or mission) is deemed a success – especially in the future. Many years ago as a paralegal, I was part of a team scheduling all the leases on all the UK sites for a huge retailer – it was incredibly rare that the paperwork was properly signed by all parties, dated, with the right map attached and put in the correct deeds packet. The client was not impressed!
Unlike an astronaut we rarely need to ask ‘what’s the next thing that could kill me?’ but we could spend more time thinking ‘what’s the next thing that could derail this matter?’ and plan for how we can avoid it. Taking an astronaut’s perspective on your next client matter or earth transaction could help you be more successful.
This article was first published in January 2016 on Charon QC blog.