Learning to Manage Your Time

By Mark Powers & Shawn McNalis

Originally  published in the Missouri Bar Journal

In today’s competitive marketplace, it is no surprise that you are working longer hours for fewer returns. You may find yourself with too many demands on your time, helping everyone else and leaving no time for yourself. The unfortunate result of this trend is high levels of stress and less time to spend with your family, on community interests or on personal health.

This life course is stressful for anyone, but especially for lawyers, who are trained to provide comprehensive, well thought-out work. It is not unusual for many attorneys to wake up one day and have an overwhelming feeling that their lives have careened out of control, and they did not even know it was happening.

For some, the ultimate cost is returning home one day to find their children have grown, left home and that they have missed out on the best years of their lives. For others, it is the daunting reality that they have sacrificed their health for a practice that is no longer as profitable or fulfilling.

Balancing these pressures is difficult, but smart attorneys have made the decision to take control of their practices, their lives and their futures. Effective time-management is the first step in this balancing act.

Taking Control of Your Practice

There are two base time-management categories and we all fit into one or the other. These two categories are reactive and proactive. A reactive time manager works IN his practice. A proactive time manager works ON his practice.

If you have a reactive style:

  • You are constantly handling client crises and doing damage control.
  • You are overwhelmed by present day circumstances – not looking ahead, or at the competition.
  • You are working harder to generate income, but you are not sure if your practice is profitable.
  • You are practicing “threshold” law, often working with anyone who crosses the threshold, regardless of profitability or your areas of expertise.
  • You have high accounts receivable. You are not sending invoices or collecting in a timely manner.
  • You are multi-tasking and it seems like you are doing all the work yourself.
  • You are a $150/hour attorney and you find yourself doing legal, paralegal and clerical work.
  • You have high staff burnout and turnover.

As an attorney in reactive mode, you will notice that you are deeply involved in day-to-day client activities, often reacting to crises rather than planning strategically. Sometimes it might feel like you are operating under a survival mentality. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to have a vision for your practice. The sum total equals burnout!

Obviously, good time managers must be proactive. To do this, you must eliminate crisis, prioritize and schedule and manage interruptions.

Creating a Crisis-Free Zone

Become selective. Give your client base a rating from A to D. “A” clients listen to your advice, trust you, pay bills on time, send referrals and have high growth potential. “D” clients consistently do not pay or resist paying their bills and do not send referrals. By upgrading or eliminating your “C” and “D” level clients, you can free up valuable hours for you and your staff. This time can be used to develop your practice.

In becoming selective, refrain from accepting clients who fit the characteristics of low-level “C or D” clients. Start focusing energies on high-level “A or B” clients. This has to become a standard of doing business. Keep a description of “C and D” clients on your desk and educate your staff. There will be exceptions, but as a rule do not accept “C and D” clients into your practice. Use the time you spent on these clients to market to higher-end clients and referral sources, to work on the systems to improve service to “A and B” clients or to relax with hobbies and family.

Alternatively, keep descriptions of “A and B” clients on your desk. If a client does not fit the profile, ask yourself why you are accepting him into your practice.

Bring in the “Designated Hitter.” Early on in the client relationship, introduce your client to your “designated hitter,” a key person (an associate, paralegal, personal assistant or secretary) who can be available to answer non-substantive questions (80 percent of your clients’ concerns are non-substantive) when you are unavailable. Make sure that person is included in important meetings (especially the initial client meetings) and ensure that he has access to information that can support the client. At the very least the designated hitter can schedule a brief telephone appointment for you to handle the client’s concerns. Ultimately you want designated hitters who are customer-service oriented and can get clients what they need. If necessary, give clients a pager number for emergencies that you or your designated hitter can respond to immediately. Provide personalized voice-mail and e-mail that you or your designated hitter can check regularly.

Educate. The vast majority of your client-generated calls are due to their concerns about the process and feeling uncertain about how things are going. Provide clients with clear and conservative expectations of what will happen to them and their matter. Diagram the process (diagrams can be made in advance to explain each legal process), timeline the process and explain clearly what will happen at each junction. If there are points in which the client is likely to have low activity or low interaction with your office, point out and circle those points on the diagram. Do the same for high activity. Point out risks along the way and various types of activities that will effect the outcome or the bill. You or the designated hitter should personally explain the diagrams or process. It should be considered an education tool, not another handout.

Make pre-emptive strikes. Clients often have high communication needs. Create a system of affirmative or proactive contacts with clients by copying them on various types of documentation and sending status reports to keep them informed. Use your designated hitter to call high-level clients or problem clients (weekly if possible) to let them know the status of their matter or just to ensure that they have everything they need. Not only does this lead to great client service, but often the client will initiate new matters with your office just from these calls. Ensure that your designated hitter is forwarding your name on each and every call. For example, “Mr. Harris (the attorney), asked me to call and let you know…” or “Mr. Harris asked me to check in on you to see if…”

Learning to Schedule and Prioritize

In the planning process you decide what you will do. In the scheduling process, you decide when you will do it. The two terms are often considered synonymous, but in fact refer to two different types of action. Scheduling means you are actually carving out the time to make something happen.

One of the most critical factors in achieving your goals is scheduling. A goal without action is a pipe dream, just another good idea. If you want to determine if someone is committed to his goals, look not at the goals, but at the actions. Here is how to make scheduling and prioritizing work for you:

Master your schedule. When you master your schedule, you begin to master your time. Once you determine your goals, give yourself a structure of support. The most advanced structure of support is a fully-automated, integrated and networked calendar system. The most basic structure of support is the to-do list. In between there are various software calendars, docket systems, paper-based time management systems and levels of to-do lists.

Block-and-tackle. Time and motion studies reveal that grouping like tasks together, and doing them in the same time period, results in increased efficiency. The same rule applies to the production of legal work in your practice. You can block out time for production, returning calls, client visits and planning.

Be effective and efficient. Especially when there is increased complexity, batching the work will boost your effectiveness and your efficiency. When your brain is allowed time to focus on the task at hand, you can accomplish results four times faster than when you are either continually switching the types of tasks you do, or being constantly interrupted.

Build in flexibility. Do not make the mistake of scheduling every microsecond of time on your calendar. Build in time for unexpected tasks that will occur. Perhaps you build slack time into the end of your day, or even at the beginning.

Under-promise and over-deliver. Pay attention for the next week to how accurately or inaccurately you estimate your time. Look to see if you are guilty of grossly underestimating how long it takes you to accomplish a task. Most attorneys, and in fact most people, are guilty of this, and it can give rise to numerous problems. Most attorneys will believe they can accomplish much more than they can and schedule themselves accordingly. This is a recipe for great frustration. Better to under-promise and over-deliver!

Managing Interruptions

As long as you work with other people there will be a certain amount of interruptions that are beyond your control.

In your office, about 20 percent of the interruptions you experience may be valid, time-sensitive and important enough to displace whatever you were working on. If you can embrace the truly valid interruptions, and see that they are part of your job, you can reduce the frustration associated with them.

You do not, however, have to be at the mercy of the remaining 80 percent of the interruptions that occur. You can practice preventative measures and techniques to reduce the impact they have on your workday. If you practice the time-blocking techniques that are suggested in the scheduling section, much of this will be handled.

Create critical criteria. Devise standards for what truly constitutes a valid interruption. Perhaps you have a list of important clients who will get your attention whenever they call. Perhaps you create a list of emergency scenarios that when they occur, you will drop what you are doing to attend to them. These will be different for each practice. This list should not be a broad one. It should be small and select.

Calculate the cost of interruptions. When you consistently sacrifice time with your family in the evenings because you experienced so many interruptions during the day (many of them social), it is time for dramatic action. Interruptions often eat up time you would otherwise spend on production. Many attorneys do not start serious production work until after 4:00 or 5:00 p.m., because that is when the office quiets down and they can concentrate. So they work from 5:00 p.m. until 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. or later to get their production work done. All the while, they are feeling badly about not spending time with the family or pursuing life outside their practice.

The “Weekend Syndrome.” Most lawyers view Saturdays and even Sundays as a real haven, not for rest and relaxation, but an opportunity to concentrate and get work done – no interruptions to deal with! But also no life. Lawyers who operate this way must squeeze their so-called life into the few hours that remain of the weekend… if they have the energy.

There are several solutions to managing the number of interruptions you receive. You are the first line of defense in managing interruptions. It is up to you to initiate your defense systems. The second line of defense is your staff. Train them to support you. In many cases, your staff is also often the biggest source of random interruptions. Talk to them about the idea of quiet time, or blocked-off production time. Give them access to you at established check-in times: first thing every morning, before lunch or a meeting at the end of the day. The need for staff’s access will vary according to your individual practice. Install e-mail so the staff can e-mail you with questions during the day – it is still obtrusive, but less so than a face-to-face conversation, and it can be answered at your convenience.

Your next line of defense is a closed-door policy. Enroll your staff in the idea that when you shut your door, it means you are not to be disturbed by anyone. If the rest of the office does not respect this, send out a memo saying that you are committed to managing the level of interruptions during your day so that you can accomplish more production. Mention that your secretary can help them or that they can return to your office later. If you begin to take your time seriously, so will they.

Summary

Employing the proper time-management techniques forces you to keep a consistent focus on the business aspect of your practice in order to attract the kind of clients you want. To build your practice, you need to consider these techniques, use them and benefit from them. Only then will you begin to enjoy all aspects of your life – both professionally and personally.

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