We decide too fast. We should take more time to think through the timing of our decisions. We should pause when faced with what seem like pressing, urgent questions. Indeed, the most pressing questions paradoxically require us to slow down the most. Wait. Time is more flexible than we think.

Always pressed for time in a profession that defines itself by the clock’s dollar, the client’s urgent needs, and the court’s deadlines, we lawyers can learn from the art and science of decision timing.

To begin, two broad questions frame the issue:

1. How long should we take to react or decide in a specific situation?

2. How then should we spend our time leading up to moment of decision?

The short answer: in most situations we should take more time than we do to decide. The longer we wait the better. And once we sense the proper time to make our decision, we should wait until that last possible instant. In other words, if we have two days, we should wait until the last minute of the second day to decide. If we have a year, we should wait until day 364. Even if we only have seconds, we should stretch it as long as we can before deciding. As contrary as this advice appears, years of cognitive and neuroscientific research have confirmed that waiting until the last possible moment to act or decide results in the best outcome. This is as true for athletes swinging baseball bats as for stock brokers deciding retirement investments. And it is true for us lawyers.

It is, in fact, the essence of professional judgment for lawyers – when to make a decision. Timing is everything for us. How do we weigh the immediate versus distant consequences? The best lawyers know how to manage time. They are “masters of delay,” as Frank Partnoy puts it in his new book, Wait: the Art and Science of Delay. Able lawyers can, of course, act quickly. But the most able go slow. They use both intuition and analysis to wait for the ideal time to make their move. These lawyers, using our 2-step decision framework above, “understand how long they have available to make a decision, and then, given that time frame, they wait as long as they possibly can.”

Before we turn our attention back to the legal profession, let’s look at test cases from the worlds of finance and medicine, two arenas where decision making means the difference between health and disaster. First, take Mad Money’s wild man Jim Cramer. He frenetically, theatrically renders ad hoc investment decisions to his eager audience. What results? Study after study has shown that people who followed Cramer’s snap decisions lost almost 1/3 of their money in less than two months. The same result over the long term: Cramer’s investors underperformed the market. Fast decisions led to losses.

Now compare Cramer to Warren Buffet. He studies the market, reads financial statements, and prepares all the time. But what he doesn’t do is act quickly. He delays his decisions as much as possible. He takes the long view. And he steadily out-performs the competition. His disciplined delay creates the best financial decisions.

We see this same phenomenon in medicine. Complex medical decisions, including diagnosis and treatment, require “pause points,” during which the doctor must stop to check his procedure, thinking, and instincts. These pause points slow down the tempo of decision making and lead to better medical outcomes, especially during surgery. As a twist on the old saying goes, “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”

Back to us lawyers. How might waiting, slowing down, and managing time improve our performance? Consider how often we question and interview witnesses and clients and other lawyers. Does the way we manage the timing of our questions matter? Most definitely. Partnoy provides an illuminating example. He captures the fascinating timing of 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft interviewing President Obama about the killing of Bin Laden.

Kroft was only given a few mintues to interview Obama.  The reporter had to manage his time very carefully. This required intense preparation up to last minute before Kroft sat down with the President. As the interview begins, Kroft asks a closed-ended question about how Obama feels, which invites a short but emotive response from the President. And it gets one. It slows things down and seemingly sets the tone for an open, inviting conversation on a difficult subject.

But, then, by keeping his follow-up questions closed-ended and short, Kroft elicits two additional kinds of answers: medium length answers with a mix of emotion and fact, and also short length answers with just facts. These are meticulously prepared questions combined with an experienced questioner’s sense of tempo and control. Kroft further manages time, and thus control, by effective use of silence following a short, powerful answer to a close-ended question. By drawing out the silence between them, the questioner solidifies the impact of the answer.

More fascinating still is the way Obama, a master of timing himself, orients to Kroft’s short questions by offering even shorter answers, at one point simply answering with one word declarations, e.g., “Yes.”

Kroft, not to be outsmarted, resorts to shorter questions himself. Here again, silence – the ultimate delay in conversation – works to the questioner’s advantage. He lets the last short answer hang for devastating effect, filled with connotation and atmosphere for the audience while simultaneously allowing the questioner to reclaim control of the dialogue. The back and forth becomes a mini-battle, each man attempting to get inside the other’s decision making loop.

We see that sometimes being slower than your opponent is better. For instance, by appearing slow to your opponent, you may lead them to believe that fast, short answers will gain advantage. But not always, as this exchange between Kroft and Obama reveals:

Trying to set Obama up for a quick “yes-no” response, Kroft asks close-endedly: “Is this the first time that you’ve ever ordered someone killed?”

But Obama sees the timing ploy. Recognizing that a quick response might open the door to inquiries about illegal assassinations, Obama retreats to the longer, slower (more evasive?) answer: “Well, keep in mind that, you know, every time I make a decision about launching a missile, every time I make a decision about sending troops into battle, you know, . . .” and on and on he goes for what amounts to more than a 50-word answer. Slower was better.

For a telling peek at the two master communicators skillfully using time – and the art of delay in particular – watch the entire sequence at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuYFhbkwMyI (part 1) and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZtVDGRCMHU&feature=relmfu (part 2). Equally interesting is Al Tompkins’ dissection of Steve Kroft’s interview methods at http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/als-morning-meeting/131544/dissecting-the-kroftobama-60-minutes-interview/. Tompkins gives a crash course in how and why to break all the rules of interviewing by skillfully deploying open, closed, and “non-question” questions, among other techniques. Tompkins’ piece highlights the essence of timing in decision making.

For us lawyers the Kroft-Obama interview serves as a wonderful, instructive reminder that tempo rules, that good timing is more than just technique, and that slow moves often work better than fast ones.

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