by Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis

Originally published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly

Q: Now that I have taken your advice about spending less time in the office, I find that I don’t have enough time for professional reading. As a result, I have stacks of unread journals and magazines in my office. Do you have any ideas on how to handle the volume of reading material that I have to deal with month after month?

A: If you apply Pareto’s principle, more commonly known as the 80/20 rule, to the legal journals, newspapers and magazines that come to your door, you will probably discover that you reap 80 percent of the value from 20 percent of the available material. Your job is to rapidly identify the 20 percent that is worth your time and energy to read.
We offer the following advice:

Drill Down

First review the different publications that you receive. This probably won’t be difficult because, if you are like most attorneys, they are all in a pile somewhere in your office. You should automatically toss publications that you consider either fluff, or generally not useful to your practice. Notice which ones you never read and have your secretary cancel those subscriptions.

For the future, focus on the few publications that you always find useful. Even then you can refine your search further by looking for articles that are written by people who you respect, or columns that you always find valuable.

Learn the Fine Art of Scanning

Most busy attorneys are experts at scanning through documents, but may not use those same skills in their business reading. Set your brain to scan when faced with an article that looks interesting. Pay particular attention to the article summary or any highlighted quotes; the first and last sentence in each paragraph; the first and last paragraph in the article; and key words and phrases in between. If you find yourself getting interested during the scanning process, the article probably has relevance to you and warrants a closer look. Be a discriminating reader and look for issues that are truly applicable to you and your practice.

You can also train a staff person to pre-scan the publications that come in and mark articles of interest. You will have to spend some time familiarizing the staff person with the types of articles you are looking for, but, considering your hourly rate, pre-scanning publications is not the best use of your time.

Whoever pre-scans the material should be ruthless about the task. This person can scan through, tear out articles of interest, and throw out the rest of the publication. If you prefer not to discard the bulk of the publication, at least mark the articles you plan to read with a post-it note. The articles, or the tabbed publications, can then be dropped into your briefcase for reading outside the office.

Make Good Use of Time

Some people, in anticipation of long airplane flights or delays at the courthouse, will load up their briefcase with articles they have accumulated. This allows them to use the flight time or wait time to power through their reading. Another option is to incorporate your reading into a workout routine such as walking on a treadmill or using the Stairmaster (it is a little bumpy, but it takes your mind off the pain!)

A designated “reading lunch” or a “reading breakfast” can also be valuable. Whether you read in the office or in a corner of your favorite restaurant, this time should be dedicated to business reading and nothing else. You can also institute a reading block into your weekly time template. Use a block of time that is not peak performance time for you, rather than the time you would normally devote to seeing clients.

By the way, if you’ve found the time to read this — there is hope for you yet!

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