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Most of us entered the new year with great intentions to make changes to boost productivity. And then we got smacked in the face by the unceasing demands and stressors that pummel modern-day professionals. Good intentions succumbed to urgency.
The problem with resolutions, goal setting, intentions — whatever you want to call the trigger for behavioral change — is that we typically focus on adding some new layer of complexity into our days. We zero in on efficiency gains, which involve getting more things done in less time, rather than effectiveness gains, which involve getting the right things done.
The downside of focusing on efficiency rather than effectiveness is that, even if you squeeze more time out of your day, you’re merely cracking the window open for more nonessential work to flow your way. For example, the better you get at processing email, the more email you’ll end up processing because every sent email almost always generates a reply that needs to be processed. And so on.
Almost every lawyer I’ve worked with has struggled with time management. The solution to this problem does not lie in trying to find more hours in the day. The key to real, meaningful productivity is identifying the most important, essential tasks that drive success, and working to de-prioritize or eliminate the rest.
Here are 10 things lawyers should stop doing in 2019.
1. Leaving the door open to requests. We all get well-meaning requests from friends, colleagues, family, even people we don’t know — like requests to “pick your brain” over coffee, or invitations to participate on an upcoming panel. Sometimes it makes sense to accept these requests, but often they are just wasteful distractions. Nonetheless, it can be hard to deliver a hard “no” because we don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. So we leave the door open by saying, “I’ll think about it” or “Let’s circle back on this next week.” We kick the can down the road and the request lingers, resulting in follow-up emails and calls that suck up more time. Start closing the door on requests that pull you from your most important work. Deliver a firm, respectful “no” in the moment. As Greg McKeown wrote in his excellent book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
But what if the end isn’t different but merely more of the same? The present moment is all you’re guaranteed, so make the most of it.
2. Underestimating how long things take. One of the reasons we say “yes” too often is that we underestimate how long things can take. From an office renovation to writing an article, almost everything takes longer than anticipated. There’s a name for this — Hofstadter’s Law, which states: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law.” The problem with unforeseen circumstances that impede your ability to do something quickly is, of course, that you can’t foresee them, no matter how carefully you plan. So be wary of saying yes in the first place.
3. Waiting until the end of day to do your most important work. By the time many lawyers get to the office, the phone calls and emails are already pouring in. They never get a chance to get organized and get important work done when they should. They spend their days doing busywork and get to important work when they can — typically at the end of the day when things quiet down (or at least slow down). Stop working in this fashion. Flip your days. The fact that it’s better to do meaningful work at the beginning of the day is a no-brainer. If you’ve been working all day in a stressful profession such as the law, by evening your brain is fried, your productivity sags and you find it hard to your best work. Whether it’s writing a brief, practicing a presentation or strategizing a transaction, don’t save your most important work for the end of the day. Do it first thing, when your mind and body are fresh. (Related: “Why Are You Still Working at 10 p.m.”)
4. Working with difficult clients. Difficult clients can suck up all the oxygen in a room, consuming the energy and focus of a firm and its lawyers. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so to speak. Consequently, good clients may feel neglected and leave, or at least pull back. That’s why it’s critical to carefully, responsibly and judiciously part ways with difficult clients. It’s much better to prune difficult clients over time and marshal resources around quality, existing client relationships that hold future promise, and free up space and time to form new, beneficial ones.
5. Making marketing and business development more complicated than it should be. One of the challenges of business development is that the opportunities seem nearly infinite. It’s easy to think that everyone, or every business, is a potential client, and so we design elaborate, complex approaches to marketing and business development that are designed to reach mass markets. We never stop to think: How many new clients do I really need? If you ask yourself this question, you’ll often find that the number is far less than you think, and you can organize your marketing and business development around a minimum viable market rather than a mass market. This, in turn, will allow you to craft a more personalized, targeted and, ultimately, more effective strategy.
6. Reacting instead of planning. In my book “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Law Practice,” I emphasize the importance of establishing a niche if you want to build a practice. I discuss the difference between a “Master Craftsman” lawyer who defines a niche focus and a “Jack of All Trades” lawyer who doesn’t. The mark of a Jack of All Trades is that he is reactive to opportunities. A client contacts him to handle a family law matter, and despite having little to no experience in this area, he takes on the matter. He spends a great deal of time getting up to speed on family law issues, learns the rules, navigates his way through, and then decides that he’d like to pursue more work in this area. So he adds a new service area to his website, and a new element to his elevator pitch. Then an estate planning matter comes his way and he changes his focus again. And so on. You’ll never get anywhere if you just keep spinning your wheels.
It’s easy to get caught up in the inertia of the status quo. The only way to break free is to embrace the possibility of failure.
7. Believing that “sell” is a dirty word. In legal circles, “selling” is a dirty word that connotes sleaziness and pushiness. But in most cases, it’s not that salespeople do something underhanded or aggressive that turns us off, it’s just that they hit us up with something we don’t need or at a time we don’t need it. But if you’re good at what you do and know who you serve, I would argue that marketing and selling — defined as “informing potential clients of the types of problems you solve and offering to solve their problems for an exchange of value” — is not only inoffensive, it’s practically your duty. There are people out there who have a problem and need what you can provide. Most prospective clients don’t know where to turn to for a solution. If you don’t sell to them, someone else — who may be far less-equipped than you — will.
8. Fearing failure. As Robert F. Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Failing is a skill to be learned and refined, not feared. And as with any skill, practice makes perfect. This gets to the core of what makes the practice of law both frustrating and exhilarating. To get better at it you need to stretch yourself. To grow you need to change, and to change your need to grow. Growth involves a great deal of discomfort at times. It’s not comfortable to be the one in charge, to take responsibility, to go out on a limb. Indeed, it takes courage to face the fear and move toward it. But the more you face it, the more it becomes a habit. It’s easy to get caught up in the inertia of the status quo. The only way to break free is to embrace the possibility of failure.
9. Neglecting your health and well-being. Let’s face it, for most lawyers work is not fun. It can and should be satisfying, but it’s not a hobby. However, it is a myth that the only way to build a successful legal practice is to give everything. In fact, as we’ve been reminded often lately, that is the path to burnout and dissatisfaction and, even worse, serious physical and mental health problems. The practice of law can be intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding. But it shouldn’t be everything in a lawyer’s life. Outside the office there are other interests to pursue. But you need to make having new experiences and meeting new people a priority. “Parkinson’s Law” stands for the proposition that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. This means that if you believe it takes 2,500 billable hours to achieve success as a lawyer, it will. Bottom line: If you don’t get intentional about planning time for pursuits and people that support your health and well-being, work will fill the vacuum.
10. Fixating on the future instead of the present moment. Many lawyers fall into the trap of fixating on the future. They’re hyperfocused on achieving future milestones like making partner and making enough money to retire. They believe that by reaching these milestones they’ll become more content. In his book “Happier,” Tal Ben-Shahar calls this dynamic the “arrival fallacy.” It relates to the belief, which often proves false, that when you arrive at a destination or obtain something tangible, you’ll be happier.
The problem is that in the process of trying to reach these milestones, many trade present happiness for uncertain future happiness. Because they are unhappy in their journey, they tend to increase their spending along the way in hopes of numbing the pain. They then find themselves sprinting on a hedonic treadmill, which robs them of the safety, security and freedom down the road that they thought their present pain and suffering would afford them in retirement. But what if the end isn’t different but merely more of the same? The present moment is all you’re guaranteed, so make the most of it.
There are many things you can and should be doing to become a more successful lawyer. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that there may be even more things you should stop doing. Every day presents myriad choices that you must grapple with. Your success and happiness is contingent on having a clear-minded view of what will bring you closer to the outcomes you desire, and what will take you farther away. Choose wisely.
Almost every lawyer wants to command higher rates and attract more clients. But many are stuck perusing ineffective strategies. Others don’t even know where to start. In his popular book, lawyer-turned-legal marketer Jay Harrington lays out a path for building a one of a kind, profitable niche practice.
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