by Michael McLeod, Guest Writer

Originally published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly

Jeffrey Loeb used to feel obliged to divide his attention on a daily basis. Even in the midst of a demanding trial, he had to look ahead to other cases, return phone calls, handle administrative and staff issues and manage his office.

Carol A.G. DiMento routinely found herself fielding an assortment of interruptions instead of focusing primarily on interrogatories and other casework. Everything seemed to keep her from crucial legal work: phone calls from clients, questions from colleagues and staff, and even the appearance of the morning mail.

Like most attorneys, Loeb and DiMento had learned to be expert jugglers. The profession seems to demand it. But, in the process, they had become frustrated with their practices. Today, they are among a group of Massachusetts lawyers who are working to transform how their practices work, so they can be more efficient and productive, and less stressed.

Loeb and DiMento are two participants in The Forum, a year-long training program offered by Atticus® and the Massachusetts Bar Association. The program consists of quarterly workshops and weekly telephone conferences meant to provide focus and enhance time management and marketing skills, helping Massachusetts lawyers to build more successful practices and regain more personal time.
The program has already had positive effects for both Loeb and DiMento, two attorneys with distinctly different backgrounds and practices.

Jeff Loeb remembers simple strategies that his father, an attorney, used to help balance the demands of a law practice with his desire to spend as much time as possible with his family. Loeb was hoping to emulate his father’s time efficiencies by taking The Forum. His secretary just laughed when he told her he was going to get more organized. “Yeah, right,” she said.

But in the weeks since beginning The Forum, Loeb thinks he has taken a turn toward being more methodical and relying less on last-minute adrenaline. At 38, he is the managing director of the Danvers firm of Ardiff & Morse, P.C., practicing commercial litigation, personal injury and criminal law. He usually spends 50-60 hours a week at work.

“Getting the work done has never been an issue for me,” he says. “But I probably wasn’t doing it in as organized a fashion as I should have.” So he set out to improve his time management skills. “I wanted to be proactive instead of reactive,” he says. On his first week back from the Forum, he blocked out a schedule for himself, using a template recommended by the program leader. He was careful to block out time to work without interruptions. “I knew I had a difficult week,” says Loeb. “I was looking at a Monday trial, another trial on the following Tuesday that required a lot of preparation, several other cases that were going to take some level of attention. So I tried blocking my time very specifically instead of using a generalized approach. “It made a huge difference,” says Loeb. “I’m not saying the work would not have gotten done otherwise. But by the time the end of the week rolled around, I wasn’t nearly as stressed out as I would normally have been after a week like that.”

Loeb also likes another organizational tool he has picked up at The Forum: a case log with deadlines for preparatory work. That way he has a clear picture in his head not only of what’s directly in front of him, but what lies ahead. Again, it makes him more efficient and reduces stress.

Carol DiMento can relate. The setting for her law practice couldn’t be any more idyllic. Her office is on a quiet residential street in the small town of Swampscott, just north of Boston. Her home overlooks a harbor. Her hobby is photographing seascapes. But there are times when the scenery gets lost in the stress. DiMento’s goal of getting out of the office by 6:00 p.m. every day is consistently sabotaged by unexpected interruptions and last-minute crises.

She and her husband, William, have practiced law together since 1977 as the firm of DiMento and DiMento. They pride themselves on keeping their business partnership from affecting their marriage, and vice-versa. She is the managing partner, focusing on family law and estate planning, while from the other end of the building he specializes in zoning and land use.

DiMento, who is also vice president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, relishes her familiarity and strong relationships with her small-town clients. But this year, she decided to see if she could streamline some of stress out of her life by taking The Forum. “I saw it as an opportunity to grow, not just professionally but personally,” she says. After the first session, she has made significant strides. Over the years she had taken if for granted that her work would be interrupted by questions from co-workers and phone calls. It seemed efficient enough over the years, as a way of keeping the work moving along and staying in touch with other members of the firm.

But there was a hidden cost. Each interruption took her away from her task just long enough to require refocusing. Her efficiency, her attention, was chronically diluted. Now, she says, she blocks out time and is religious about sticking to the schedule she sets. “My time is precious, and now that I realize that I am a lot more efficient about protecting it.”

As part of her new routine, she meets with her secretary and other associates at a set time each day to handle their questions – instead of dealing with them separately and laboriously. She establishes “time blocks,” long stretches of time in both the morning and the afternoon during which she is not to be interrupted. Though this requires her secretary to take on more responsibility in terms of interacting with clients, the payoff has been a more efficient use of DiMento’s time. And now that she works straight through for each client, her billing is easier, and she’s actually seen her billable hours go up. Another long-term time management technique she has embraced is the case status manager, which provides a system for heading off last-minute deadline crunches.

Already DiMento has turned to the marketing aspect of the Atticus® training. Not too long ago she sent a letter to a former client, congratulating him for a promotion.
He called and told her there was a business matter he wanted to ask her about. “He had something on his mind,” DiMento says. “But then, so did I.”

Though their practices and lifestyles differ significantly, several common threads run between the two attorneys. Both discovered that it’s crucial to take initiative in self-management, instead of simply reacting to the pressures that are inherent in a busy law practice.

“Beginning with law school, attorneys tend to be reactive and not proactive,” says Forum Director Dustin Cole. “Attorneys get into a vicious cycle. They develop an adrenaline addiction and can only work efficiently when there is a fire burning.”

The two attorneys have also benefited from the peer-group team conference calls that are part of The Forum. Attorneys who take the program are divided into working groups who meet together via weekly conference calls to discuss their progress and problems, and encourage each other to stay on track.

Loeb says that four of the five people in his peer group have managerial responsibilities in their respective firm, and many of their phone discussions have revolved around “fitting in that piece of the pie” into a daily schedule. DiMento has gone in another direction with her peer group, using it to bounce around experiments in marketing her practice, which has been inspired by some of the Atticus® strategies suggested in the program.

Both attorneys have co-workers who are taking the program or plan to do so soon, including two fellow shareholders in Loeb’s firm and DiMento’s husband.

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