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On Balance by Megan Zavieh
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On Balance

Distracted Lawyering

Better systems to the rescue.

By Megan Zavieh

We’re all aware of the dangers of distracted driving, especially as handheld devices have exploded in use. Well, just as we can’t safely and effectively multitask while behind the wheel, sometimes we can’t effectively manage multiple obligations while lawyering.

As hard as we try to stay focused on work at work, we are all human. Certain times of the year and certain realities — whether family vacation, back-to-school time, medical emergencies or holidays — are going to distract us. Some of these distractions are predictable while others jump out of nowhere. And, while work matters, sometimes personal life takes priority.

If you practice solo or in a small firm, the danger in being distracted is that, without good systems in place, there is no net to catch you when you slip.

Get Real

It is unrealistic to think you will never have a distracted period. So plan ahead to mitigate the risk that your distracted lawyering will lead to a professional crash.

The first step in preparing to be distracted is to acknowledge it is going to happen. Like a 12-step program that requires acknowledging the problem, here we must acknowledge the need and importance of planning. We are not superhuman.

Analyze Your Practice

Look at your work and consider which tasks are yours alone. If you aren’t paying attention, what won’t get done? How critical are these tasks? For example, are you the only one who prepares court filings? (Related: “A Pre Year-End Checklist.”)

Of the tasks for which you are solely responsible, look at the measures in place to ensure you do them.

For example, if you forget to prepare a filing, does an electronic system remind you? And does it remind you in time to do something about it? If you have to file court documents in paper form and you do not work near the filing location, will your system remind you early enough to prepare the documents and get them to FedEx? A reminder on the date they’re due is not going to help if you need to overnight physical documents to file.

Do you have people in place to remind you? If so, check their systems to make sure you are comfortable with how they’re reminded to remind you — and when they are prompted to do so.

Of course, every practice will have unique mission-critical items, but all can be identified in this analysis.

Create Systems

If your backup plan is lacking,  you must stop and create systems and procedures that will help keep you on task, no matter your state of mind. Sometimes these systems need to be loud and obnoxious to work. If your “system” is an electronic tickler on your calendar that can be canceled as easily as a teenager can hit a snooze button, then it won’t really serve you. A tickler that cannot be closed, or a person who will repeatedly remind you until the job is done, will be a lot more effective.

Common Issues You Can Fix

While every practice has its own nuances as to which tasks are most at risk for being missed during distracted times, there are some common issues to put at the top of your list to address.

Calendars. Calendaring encompasses several tasks. One is getting items on calendars in the first place. It is a horrible feeling to find out at the last moment that something is happening and you did not remember because it never made it onto the calendar. We all can relate to feeling like a deer in the headlights when someone asks “Are you coming?” — and you have no idea what that person is talking about. So, make sure there is a system in place for getting all events on your calendar.

One way to do this is to centralize your calendar and then create automated systems to get all events on it. For example, if you use a Google calendar and Clio, you can sync the calendar in Clio to your Google calendar. You can use integrations in Clio or use Zapier to bring dates from other systems into your Clio calendar, which will sync with your Google calendar. (This is just one hypothetical of how this process can be automated. Every firm is different but the concept is always the same – have a central calendar that houses all your obligations, and streamline the process by which items are placed on that calendar.)

When entering events on calendars, an often overlooked detail is whether your calendar is marked as busy or free during the event. If the “event” is a filing deadline, you likely do not need the whole day blocked off as busy. But if the event is a meeting or court appearance, the time you will spend there needs to be marked as busy. Why? Because you should be utilizing calendaring tools that allow others to schedule time with you, and those tools can only work effectively if they know whether or not you are available at specific times. Fail to properly identify time as busy or free, and you may end up double-booked.

Once dates are on the calendar, it is really important not to miss them. Reminders are critical. Basic ticklers can be customized in calendar apps themselves. You can also automate reminders in other apps, such as by syncing your Google calendar to your practice management platform so that it reminds you of the event as well.

How that reminder operates is as important as having it set. Ever hit the snooze button on the alarm clock, only to wake up later and swear the alarm never went off? Bottom line: You did not get up. You may have to play games with your reminders to make them effective. Multiple repeat reminders, reminders from different systems that are synced, and loud volume reminders are all possible methods.

Sharing a calendar is a way to get a human onboard to remind you of your key dates. This is particularly important during distracted periods where electronic reminders may be easy to dismiss.

Communication. Communications via phone and email also tend to suffer during distracted periods. It is so easy to forget to call someone back or reply to an email if you do not have a good system in place for ensuring these tasks are done.

Again, a human whose job it is to come through behind you and make sure everyone waiting to hear from you actually got a response is supremely useful.

Short of that, you can use automated tools to bring phone messages to your calendar. If you receive phone messages via email from an answering service, for example, you could use Zapier to create a calendar entry to return the call at a specific time. Then the calendar reminders take over to help make sure you do it.

Email can also be “snoozed” so you can come back to it later when you are less distracted. But that requires you telling it to come back. Cutting down on junk in your email box is one way to help make sure critical emails are not lost. You can use rules to file away no-longer-useful messages and archive immediately messages you want to keep but really don’t need to read (such as FedEx delivery confirmations).

Systems Know No Limits

The possibilities for creating systems to help you through distracted periods are limitless. You can apply the same concepts to your marketing and social media functions, client follow-ups and more. Once you put systems in place to help prevent critical errors during distracted periods, you can begin to minimize the workload by systematizing other processes.

The benefits to more systems during distracted times are tremendous. For one thing, if something in your personal life demands your attention, systems in place at work will reduce the number of work tasks competing for your time. This reduces stress and makes it possible to give your personal life the focus it needs without letting your business fall apart.

It also allows you to more effectively triage the work that needs to be done. If your personal life demands attention, systems will allow you to prioritize what truly needs your attention at work and what can be left or paused for a later date. For example, your calendar will alert you to a filing deadline and a call from a prospective client. If you are terribly short on time, you can easily see that the filing deadline needs to be handled, and the call can either be let go or delegated to someone else to return. Without a system, you might return the call, spend an hour on the phone, and forget about the filing deadline.

It is a fact of life that solos and small firm lawyers are going to have distractions. Make sure periods of distracted lawyering are not times when you drop the ball, but rather are times when your planning swoops in to prevent disaster.

For more tips on how to delegate and create systems so you can have a life, read “Finding Work-Life Balance as a Solo.”

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Megan Zavieh Megan Zavieh

Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of “The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide.” At Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action and guidance on questions of legal ethics. Megan is admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey, as well as in multiple federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. In On Balance, Megan writes about issues confronting lawyers in the new world of practicing law. She podcasts on Lawyers Gone Ethical, blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.

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