Time management tips for attorneys

By Ed Poll

Dolan Media Newswires

BOSTON, MA--For lawyers, no issue in their business is more important than the management of what Abraham Lincoln called their ''stock in trade'' - time.

Lawyers don't really sell time. But time, in the form of billable hours, typically measures our effort. With the press of completing and billing projects before Dec. 31, the need to manage time better is clear.

Then come the urgent voicemails, unread e-mails and text messages, overloaded inbox and 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 will prepare you for a more successful 2011.

Time goals for your practice

There are two types of ''law time'': the hours necessary to develop and provide legal advice, and the hours 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' daily time records should be prepared as the work is done. 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, to make sure you didn't miss anything.

For the other side of time management, involving the running of your firm, set priorities by defining the 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 of 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 hard 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 feel the need to come out on top even for little things, our striving for success can be counterproductive.

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 who want to maximize their billable hours, while maintaining a sense of balance in their lives, should take a deep breath and 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 and then put your focus on what you value most.

A coach, syndicated columnist and speaker on topics relating to The Business of Law,® Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC is a strategic law firm planner whose ideas have helped thousands of lawyers increase their revenue, improve their profitability and enhanced their satisfaction with the practice of law. Contact Ed at (800) 837-5880 and see more at www. lawbiz.com, www.lawbiz blog. com and www.lawbizforum. com.

Entire contents copyrighted © 2010 by Dolan Media Company.

Published: Thu, Dec 16, 2010

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