One difference between successful, happy lawyers and frustrated, unhappy ones is time management.
The first group manages their time wisely. They prioritize, delegate and plan ahead.
The second group mismanages their time. They procrastinate, miss deadlines and are forever late for appointments.
Here are some tips on adding some timeliness in your practice:
- Start with yourself. “Time management is a misnomer. The challenge is not to manage time but to manage ourselves.” Stephen R. Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
- Take care of the important things. Concentrate on your health, your professional and personal relationships, and your work habits. If you do this, the clock will take care of itself.
- Record your time. Get in the habit of keeping time logs. Encourage your staff to do so as well, even in cases where time is not directly billed to clients. Review these logs periodically. Is your time being well spent? Are cases being handled efficiently? Do your rates need adjusting? Where is the most time going? Detailed records might also rebut a grievance or malpractice claim alleging you have not been working on the case.
- Budget your time. Malpractice claims occur because lawyers try to do too much in too little time. Does your office resemble a fire station or emergency ward? If so, brace for mistakes and stress. Avoid this by organizing your office, planning sensibly, training your staff and structuring your day.
- No salvation in systems. Computers and office management systems can make you more productive and efficient. But even the best calendaring software will not add a single minute to your day. Choose user-friendly systems. Don’t buy more than you need. Allot time for learning programs and getting up to speed.
- Prioritize. “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.” Goethe. Prioritize your day. Spend a few minutes each morning preparing a list of must-do items. Finish one task before moving on to another. A common time waster is trying to juggle several projects at once. Try the Charles Schwab method: tackle the most difficult project first thing in the morning. Once it is done you will feel a psychological lift and be ready to move on to more pleasant tasks. Before leaving the office each day, take a minute to prepare a list for the next day. When you come in the next morning, grab your list and get going.
- Just say no. Practice saying it until you are good at it. Before you accept a new case, check to see whether you are up-to-date on current ones. Don’t become overwhelmed by outside activities. Your first priority is to be a good lawyer. Limit yourself to one or two boards and committees. If you coach youth soccer, wait until the season ends before joining the library board.
- Delegate. Use all available resources. Do you find yourself sending out lots of similar letters? Delegate this task to a secretary or, better yet, to a Word template. Overwhelmed by phone calls? Ask your staff to help return them. Tackle projects as a team. Don’t reinvent the wheel. You could spend hours researching a specific point of law, or you could call a colleague and get the answer in five minutes.
- Develop a niche. Being a jack-of-all trades is not just a risk increaser, but also a time waster. Problems occur when lawyers enter uncharted areas. Stick to what you know and like. Associate co-counsel or refer the case out. Tell colleagues what sort of cases you want to handle, and then educate yourself to become the go-to lawyer in that area.
- Don’t procrastinate. Why wait until the day before the statute of limitation runs to begin work on an important complaint? Prepare in advance. Use your calendar system to keep cases on track. Procrastination upsets clients and leads to grievances and malpractice claims. Other time wasters: Paper shuffling, interruptions, drop-in visitors, sales calls, indecision, cluttered desks, too many meetings.
- Call Lawyers Mutual. If you find you have missed a deadline, call Lawyers Mutual. Perhaps their claims attorneys can repair the problem. The risk management department has lots of checklists and resources on time management. Above all, if you make a mistake don’t try to fix it on your own. It will not only take time but it might also jeopardize your coverage.
For more information, visit our website and click on “risk management resources.”
Ernest (Jay) Reeves Jr. is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. He has practiced in both states and was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He writes the Risk Man column of practice pointers and risk management tips. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 919-619-2441.