By Allison C. Shields
Project, task, and matter management are not skills taught in most law schools. As a result, many lawyers struggle with these essential job functions, and young or new lawyers especially may have difficulty learning how to juggle their day-to-day activities as they navigate the landscape of law practice.1 This article reveals a few tips that may help young and new lawyers better handle the transition from law school to law practice.
The first step toward becoming more productive is to decide what you need to accomplish; only then can you determine how you are going to get there. Even if you have no control over your firm’s goals, you can (and should) set your own short- and long-term business goals. Following are some approaches to goal-setting.
Your goals should mean something to you. You are more likely to stay on track with goals that are important to you. Begin with something that is attainable but isn’t too easy to reach.
Some experts advise a focus on “SMART” goals.2 SMART is an acronym for the following:
S: Specific—Goals should be clear and concise; vague statements about “improving” or “increasing” are not enough.
M: Measurable—It should be easy to tell whether the goal has been reached and, if not, how far off you were and by how much.
A: Actionable/Achievable—Goals cannot be dependent on the actions of others, on market forces, or on anything you cannot control.
R: Relevant—Goals, if achieved, should make a real impact on something important to you personally or professionally. Focus on the benefits.
T: Timed—Set deadlines or benchmarks you must meet or a time by which the goal must be achieved. Without deadlines or time expectations, it’s too easy to put goals on the back burner.
Keep in mind that not all goals need to focus on performance. New lawyers may wish to set goals that focus more on learning and mastery than on performance.
Make Goals Concrete
Writing down goals helps to clarify, reinforce, and make the goal more concrete. Studies have shown that writing down goals and sharing them with a third person leads to significant increases in levels of accomplishment. The success rate increases when people have regular progress reports to measure how they are doing against their goals.
Goals mean nothing without execution; they need to be paired with actions. Once SMART goals are formulated, documented, and shared, it’s time to choose the right activities to pursue to reach those goals. Begin by setting priorities to determine what is most important.
Productivity often requires focus on the day-to-day or week-to-week activities that must be performed to keep a law firm running, get the work done, and provide excellent service to clients. Unfortunately, too many lawyers fail to plan their days or weeks in advance; instead, they simply react to what is in front of them. Working this way makes it less likely that the most important tasks will get done.
Purpose + Result = Priority
Prioritizing tasks helps lawyers get out of the reactive mode by determining in advance where to focus the majority of their time and energy. Ensuring that each task has a legitimate purpose—that is, it helps to advance the individual lawyer’s goals or the goals of the client—is one way to prioritize. Another way is to focus on the outcome or anticipated result of the task rather than on the task itself. When unpalatable tasks cannot be delegated, focusing on the outcome can be all the motivation you need to get them done. If the task has an important purpose and a high-value result, make it a priority.
Stephen Covey’s “Importance vs. Urgency” Matrix
Readers of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People3 know that urgent tasks tend to get done. For example, when you have a scheduled meeting with a client or a hearing date for a motion, somehow the preparation work gets finished on time. Those deadlines create urgency and provide a framework within which to structure your activities.
The tasks that Covey calls “important but not urgent,” as shown in the accompanying graphic,4 are the ones that often get carried over onto a never-ending to-do list. Even though they are the activities that likely would make the biggest difference to your practice—for example, they will save you time and money or generate more revenue in the long run—they are often neglected because they do not have concrete deadlines.
Focus on the Activities That Bring the Highest Return
High-value activities are those that make the biggest impact, often while using the fewest resources. Many times, these are the same “important but not urgent” tasks that are ignored in the course of the day-to-day work of the practice.
Here are some questions to help identify high-value (and thus high-priority) activities or tasks:
- How important is this task to my practice, career, or client?
- Is this task related to one of my goals? How?
- What is the anticipated emotional, productive, financial, or organizational impact of this activity?
- Is this a “need” or a “want”?
- Am I truly the only one who can perform this task?
- Does this project require my unique skills and expertise?
- Can this activity help strengthen my relationship with an existing client?
- Will this task help me gain a larger share of my client’s business?
- Is this endeavor likely to introduce me to new prospects?
Answering these questions can help you balance your activities. If the task isn’t high value, consider whether it should take precedence over other tasks because of impending deadlines, its age, or the amount of time and energy available to devote to it. Also consider whether a task can be delegated to someone else—especially someone who may be able to accomplish it better, cheaper, or faster than you can.
Another important aspect of good time and matter management is planning. Having a plan in place makes it much easier to say no to interruptions. If those interruptions aren’t actually urgent and more important than the tasks already planned, the interruption shouldn’t be permitted.
The Power of Three
Lists can be helpful to keep track of tasks that need to be accomplished, but most to-do lists are of limited use because they’re never-ending; tasks are carried over and repeated from one day to the next. Instead of helping you focus and be more productive, to-do lists can be frustrating, exhausting, and, ultimately, completely unproductive. Priority lists and plans should not become a source of anxiety themselves.
The mind can only focus on a limited number of priorities at a time. Instead of focusing on an entire to-do list at once, use the “Power of Three” concept as a prioritizing tool.
The Power of Three can be used for both macro-level (goal setting and big-picture items) and micro-level (action steps and daily to-do lists) planning. Choose only three big goals for your practice at a time. For each big goal, there will be a lot of objectives to reach and many action steps to perform to get there, so there will be plenty to do with three goals.
Use the Power of Three to create daily and weekly plans. Identify the three most important tasks that need to be accomplished in a given day, and focus on those first. Complete all three of those items before moving on to something else. The resulting sense of accomplishment will improve your motivation and energy.
By all means, keep a master list that contains other items as well as a “wish list” of projects, but use it to simply capture ideas, not as a daily working list. When an opportunity, project, or task arises, evaluate whether it’s worth the time and effort required by determining if it advances one of the three main goals, or if it “trumps” one or more of the three tasks already planned for the day or week. If not, put that item on the master list for the future.
The Power of One
Sometimes, even accomplishing three tasks in one day is overly ambitious, particularly in a busy law practice. This can happen as a result of a real client crisis or simply because some tasks are so time-consuming or complicated that they overtake everything else.
To avoid feeling helpless or out of control, use this daily question as a guide: “What one thing, if I accomplished it today, would make me feel as if my day had been productive?” Then, focus on that task first. That one task may be only a small part of a larger activity—for example, completing the statement of facts for a brief or gathering the documents and information required to prepare a contract. If all else fails, knowing that you have made some progress toward reaching your goals will give you a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
Your calendar—whether paper or electronic—is the best tool you have for both organizing your activities and organizing your space. If something is important enough to put on a to-do list, it’s important enough to make it an appointment in your calendar, just like you would for a court appearance, a closing, a client meeting, or a doctor’s appointment. If the appointment needs to change, so be it—but at least you’ll be choosing another specific time to get it done and it won’t languish on a list.
Create a Daily Plan
Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed or paralyzed by the amount of work you need to accomplish. Follow these steps:
1. Every day, decide which actions or tasks are most important, and make sure they take center stage in your day. Don’t let smaller, urgent-but-not-important activities get in the way. If you are a perfectionist, don’t let your obsession with getting everything right overwhelm you or prevent you from accomplishing your goals.
2. Determine the approximate amount of time each activity will take to do. Don’t be stingy with your estimate; estimating too little time will add stress and confusion to your schedule.
3. Determine when you will perform that activity and physically schedule it on your calendar. Make sure you leave some empty space or down time on your calendar, in addition to the personal and family time you schedule.
4. Be flexible. Recognize that the schedule is not entirely set in stone. Leave room for the “chaos factor”—there will likely be last-minute emergencies, unforeseen circumstances, or client crises that must be addressed. That’s further evidence that what doesn’t get scheduled and isn’t urgent isn’t likely to get done.
Don’t leave your schedule to chance. Schedule and block time to create a purpose or plan for every day.
Young lawyers who are associates in law firms may not have much control over billing policies and procedures; nevertheless, they should be fully versed in those policies and procedures and grasp how their activities affect the firm’s billing and bottom line. Getting the work done—and done well—is important, but ensuring that the firm is paid for that work in a timely manner is also important.
Although hourly billing certainly isn’t the ideal, many young lawyers have no control over their firm’s billing methods and therefore have no choice but to bill hourly. The best productivity tip for hourly billers is to document tasks and hours contemporaneously. Don’t rely on memory to determine the amount of time devoted to a specific task; use timers built into billing or practice-management software programs, standalone apps, or programs that track time automatically as you work at your computer. You can also use a simple stopwatch to accurately track time.
Some of the best billing productivity tips have more to do with project and matter management and client communication than with billing itself, and apply regardless of the billing method being used. The best bills are those that clients actually pay.
Establish Good Billing Practices
Develop a consistent billing and collections procedure with a timeline for communication about fees. Don’t wait until your retainer is exhausted before securing additional funds from the client. Follow through and be meticulous.
Clearly Communicate Your Billing Practices
Every problem with fees, billing, or getting paid relates back to the initial meeting with the client. You set the tone. It is incumbent on you to ensure that your clients understand, acknowledge, and agree to your billing practices before any work is performed.5 If you appear to be hesitant, unsure, or unclear about your fees, or if the method or timing of payment or other terms are inexact, clients will not take your fees seriously. Educate your clients up front about:
- when to expect your bill
- what the bill will contain
- what the bill will look like
- when the client is expected to pay
- how the client is expected to pay.
Send Clients Bills They Will Understand
Even if you receive payment up front, send regular statements. Your bills should clearly state what was done, by whom and why, the fee charged, payment due date, outstanding previous balance, remaining retainer balance, and how payments can be made. Don’t use legal jargon. If the client can’t understand what your bill says, they will not want to pay for it. Include your contact information on every bill, along with the name of the person to contact about billing questions or discrepancies. A bill that communicates the value of the work you are performing and how it benefits the client or helps to advance the client’s main objectives is a bill the client will want to pay.
Billing is essential to the successful practice of law, but it is a skill foreign to most young lawyers. Acquiring good billing methods and skills early will serve lawyers well throughout their careers.
Developing good productivity skills and habits is an ongoing process. By setting goals, planning effectively to determine every day which tasks are most important, and ensuring that those tasks become priorities, young lawyers will be well on their way to a more rewarding and less stressful legal career.
1. See Shields, How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line (ABA, 2014), for strategies for managing daily activities to improve productivity and provide good client service. For a preview of the book, listen to the podcast interview at www.lawtechnologytoday.org/2015/01/how-to-do-more-in-less-time. The book is available at bit.ly/DoMoreinLessTime.
2. A paper by George T. Doran in the November 1981 issue of Management Review discussed SMART goals, but many other noted experts have adopted or slightly modified the concept.
3. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster, 1990).
4. The graphic is the author’s version of Covey’s quadrant.
5. See Shields, supra note 1, for additional tips about best billing practices and efficient project and time management.
Allison C. Shields, an attorney, is the President of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc., which provides productivity, practice management, marketing, business development and social media training, and coaching and consulting services for lawyers and law firms nationwide—Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com.
Previously published in The Colorado Lawyer.