Autumn is here, the time to get “back to business.” For lawyers no issue of business is more important than the management of what Lincoln called our “stock in trade” – time. Lawyers don’t really sell time, but time, in the form of billable hours, typically measures our effort. In the fall, with billable hour targets looming for the year and the press of completing and billing projects before December 31, the need to manage time better is clear. Then come the urgent voicemails, unread emails and text messages, overloaded inbox, year-end holidays … and we fall back into the routine, short of time as always. Now is the time to change, time management is possible, and committing to it for the rest of this year prepares you for a better 2011.
Time goals for your practice
There are two types of “law time:” the hours necessary to develop and provide legal advice, and those necessary to run the practice. Managing either type of time requires setting and regularly reviewing priorities. Most lawyers who claim they have too little time, or are overwhelmed by time demands, generally either fail to make a list of priorities, hop around any list they do make, or allow themselves to be distracted by too many other tasks. This defines procrastination, and the root cause typically is that lawyers simply do not prioritize.
For client billable time, lawyers too often put off or even ignore completing daily time records. These records should be prepared as the work is done. A survey showed that lawyers who fail to record time while in the office lose up to 30 minutes per day, and lose up 60 minutes when not recording out of the office. This is expensive: multiply 30 minutes per day times a $200 per hour billing rate times 50 weeks per year – it equals $25,000 in lost annual revenue that is never billed. The best practice is to keep a running log of time (software-based or otherwise) on everything you do as you do it. Complete it before leaving the office that day, then review the full summary of time information, looking at it as a whole rather than as individual items. This is the best way to recall something that might otherwise be missed.
For the other side of time management, involving “The Business of Law.®,” the way to set priorities is to define the self-consequences if business goals are not achieved. Start with daily prioritizing: if you have a practice management goal to realize, break it down into smaller tasks that are performable and achievable within smaller timeframes. Sit down today and create a list of priorities for tomorrow based on your overall business goals. When you come in tomorrow morning, address the number one thing for the day, then two, then three. At the end of the day, assess the priorities that were left undone and reprioritize them for tomorrow. By doing this you are always at least accomplishing the first priority and moving the ball forward
A prioritizing system for billable work is usually effective because there are always ways to address important client priorities. In marketing or similar non-billable issues, priorities are harder to set because they typically are approached only after the billable work is done. Unlike with client matters, there are no ethical or financial consequences for not meeting business priorities. But if they languish, both your practice and your sense of life control will suffer.
Time goals for your life
Several years ago I participated in a discussion where sole practitioners expressed reluctance about marketing their practices and getting more business. Some feared loss of time to meet professional and personal obligations, others feared loss of flexibility to pursue a schedule and pace that they control. All believed in setting limits on how much they could and wanted to do. Such work/life balance is a long-term assessment that every lawyer must make. In the short term there is really no such day to day phenomenon as balance – at any given moment the lawyer is doing just one thing, either working or engaging in personal pursuits. The broader perspective is how much cumulative time you devote to each, and what you value more.
All successful people work long hours and are focused and passionate about what they do. In the effort to excel, made more intense by the pressure of economics, trying too much to succeed can cause problems for lawyers. Generally, we're successful because we're competitive. But, if we don't know when to stop, and have to come out on top and in control even for little things, our striving for success can be counterproductive.
Having 2,000 or 2,500 or more billable hours indicates hard work, but this is only a method of accounting. We work long hours because we love what we do; we love helping people; and we want to earn more money to better take care of our loved ones. Billable hours are merely a way of showing clients what they have bought. Lawyers wanting to maximize their billable hours, while maintaining a sense of balance in their lives should take a deep breath and really assess their time and money wants (desirable but not necessary) and needs (fundamental requirements). If you love being a lawyer, remember what Confucius said, “Pursue a job you love and you never have to work a day in your life.” Get past the distractions and stress, define what matters, then put your focus on what you value most.
Check out Ed on YouTube
Follow Ed on Twitter
Join the LawBiz Forum
Become a fan of Ed's on Facebook
Ed's Latest Book, Published by WEST ®
Growing Your Law Practice in Tough Times
By Edward Poll
Following the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and facing a sea change in clients' demands and expectations, law firms must respond and adapt quickly and effectively. Law firms must choose the kind of law practice they will be; the marketing and business development tactics they will use; the overhead that is critical to their functioning; how to price, bill and collect for services; and how to manage the cash flow cycle. Success lies in identifying and capturing the right kinds of clients, providing the services those clients need in ways that add value, and ensuring prompt payment and the ability to grow profits. This book, based on the experiences of the author and his clients over 20 years of coaching and consulting, provides the keys to successfully thriving in the new era.
Special New Release Price: $79
Regular Price: $120
Call or Order Online at:
1-800-837-5880 or www.lawbiz.com
2011 LawBiz® Management. All rights reserved.