Lawyers’ utilization rates and productivity measures have been hot topics since Clio announced it will release its first “Legal Trends Report” later this month. Among the most stunning revelations will be the finding that, on average, a mere 22 percent of solo attorneys’ time is billable each day. (That’s two hours!) And that number only begins to improve slightly as the firm size increases to five to seven lawyers.*
Where Does Your Time Go?
In anticipation of the report’s release, we asked four practice management experts for their best tech tips to boost productivity and ensure more of your time is profitable. Here’s good advice from Natalie Kelly, Courtney Kennaday, Erik Mazzone and Nora Regis — state and local bar advisors who assist solo and small firm lawyers every day.
Natalie R. Kelly: Tactics to Eliminate Wasted Time
Solo and small firm lawyers often struggle with productivity, so the utilization rate numbers being reported are not that surprising. Lawyers not seeing better utilization numbers, regardless of firm size, should maximize their use of technology tools to produce work more efficiently.
By dissecting work being done, you can determine where shortfalls lie. Determining if non-billable time being spent during the day is income-producing or not — sort of like identifying good fat and bad fat in our diet — and actively converting non-income-producing time to billable time is a start down the path toward increased productivity and higher utilization rates. Wasted time can be cut through better calendaring, better use of support staff, more efficient email management and faster document production.
Here are some standout tools and tips for each of those areas:
- Calendaring. Manage events with products like Doodle and WhenIsGood.net to help save time when working with groups; make sure phones and calendars are synced; and use advanced calendaring tools for getting items to the calendar. Try LawToolBox.com or products like JuraLaw to integrate court rules into your firm’s calendars.
- Staff utilization. Practice the rule of delegating to the lowest paid — but qualified — person when handing out assignments. Also, praise staff for a job well done, and if they are more organized than you, seek their help arranging the bigger-picture items for you. Don’t forget to introduce your staff and their role on the client’s new team to save time by reducing back-and-forth communication when answers are sought.
- Email management. Products like Unroll.me, SaneBox, The Email Game and Mailstrom all work to help with stuffed inboxes, but before the inboxes even get stuffed, you can use all of the sorting, searching, storing and archiving options in the program. Using Categories and Flags in Microsoft Outlook is a good example of effective email management.
- Document production. Document assembly is popular now, and so the tried-and-true systems for quickly generating documents while storing and reusing vital information move back to the forefront of legal productivity tools. Don’t forget to review templates and forms to see where this powerful technology can better assist with getting things done. Check out TheFormTool, Doxsera, HotDocs (Marketplace in some circles) and Pathagoras.
The process of monitoring and changing work habits toward more productivity need not be done in one day, but just getting started is a great first step!
Natalie R. Kelly (@NatalieRKelly) is Director of the Georgia State Bar’s Law Practice Management Program and a past ABA TECHSHOW chair. Natalie is a certified consultant for multiple legal software applications, and speaks and writes extensively on law office management and technology.
Erik Mazzone: “Boxed Time” Approach to Improving Productivity
I am surprised by the utilization rate. I know from my work as a practice management advisor at the North Carolina Bar Association that solo practitioners and small firms are being squeezed from all sides, but the numbers were lower than I would have guessed.
It’s not clear from the data at this point whether the utilization rate is due to the disproportionately heavy administrative burden on lawyers who practice in small firms or to a marketing shortfall of available work. I suspect the answer is both. Hopefully, the big brains at Clio will be able to parse the data further in future reports.
For this tip, I’m going to focus on the administrative efficiency and effectiveness side of the equation.
It’s easy to see how a busy lawyer practicing in a small firm would find less and less of her day available for billable work. Emails, phone calls, vendors stopping in, managing employees … the list goes on and on. It’s kind of amazing they have time to bill any hours at all.
I recommend boxing out time each day on the calendar time for billable work. Put the phone on “do not disturb” mode and temporarily disable email notifications. Notify your staff that this is a don’t-interrupt-me-unless-the-office-is-on-fire block of time. Then sit down and knock it.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. At first, just box out time equivalent each day to what you are currently billing. The idea is to establish a discipline of blocking time and using it for billable work. Once you have the pattern established, then take the slow and steady approach to increasing it. Don’t try to go from boxing two hours to 10 hours a day overnight. Add 10 percent of boxed time per week. You’ll be at three hours by the end of the first month and four hours by the end of the second month. Even if you stop there for the year, you’ll have doubled your billable time.
Erik Mazzone (@ErikMazzone) is a practice management advisor and Director of the Center for Practice Management for the North Carolina Bar Association. He writes and speaks widely on legal technology and practice management, in North Carolina and throughout the country.
Courtney T. Kennaday: Find a Better Way to Recharge
I’m not surprised that solos are billing too little. I’ve spent time visiting a lot of small law firms and one thing in particular stands out: Lawyers like to talk. It’s true, we do.
When you’re a solo, you can easily fall into the trap of straying from the original work-related purpose of a conversation and take a 60-minute side trip down Raconteur Road. I’ve heard many a frustrated secretary or paralegal mutter, “He’s talking again!” as they wait to ask a question.
It’s a conundrum. Lawyers generally need to talk to do their jobs, but too much talk can result in wasted time and lost billable hours. I believe at least part of the reason for chattiness is boredom. The same goes for idle internet surfing. It’s understandable: You need to recharge your brain’s batteries.
Instead of over-talking, try to incorporate other ways to stay “charged.”
- If you get a charge from talking to friends in the profession, make sure you leave your office and have lunch with a colleague on a regular basis.
- It isn’t for everyone, but try a standing desk. An adjustable one that allows you to both sit and stand while you use the computer is ideal. If standing turns out well, take it a step further with a treadmill desk.
- Think of all the ways you can recharge your batteries: working out, taking a walk, listening to an e-book, and even practicing yoga.
Switch things up and keep these little “battery charging” breaks fresh. By introducing variety in your life, you won’t feel so bored and inclined to goof off, surf the internet or chat someone’s ear off.
You might even do some work.
Courtney Troutman Kennaday (@SCBar_PMAP) is Director of the South Carolina Bar Practice Management Assistance Program, which she founded in 2002. A former practicing attorney, she is a frequent author on technology topics, including numerous articles for ABA publications. In 2014, she was inducted as a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and was also named a recipient of the 2014 Fastcase 50 Award.
Nora Regis: Speed Up Your Computer
Clio announced the release of the Legal Trends Report at the 2016 Clio Cloud Conference, but one of the coolest things from founder Jack Newton’s opening keynote wasn’t even in the report — it was in the new Clio update. Clio’s software now runs faster than their old version, simply because they improved the load time. In two side-by-side videos of an attorney performing the same task in Clio, the new version clocked three seconds less — three seconds the attorney saved (and multiplied) and can apply to something billable.
That said, you can find time and improve your utilization rate, even without using Clio, by speeding up your computer as follows:
- Uninstall programs you don’t use.
- Run the Disk Cleanup tool included with Windows to create more free space on your hard drive.
- Determine which programs really must begin at startup and disable those that don’t. We often have these programs running in the background all day, slowing us down, even though we only use them for five minutes.
Saving little bits of time may not seem like much but it can add up to something big, and it’s something you can do right now.
Nora Regis (@NoraRegisCBA) is Trainer & Coordinator, Law Practice Management and Technology, for the Chicago Bar Association. Nora is a former paralegal, specializing in litigation and bankruptcy. Prior to working in legal, she was a technology help desk agent at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
*The Legal Trends Report’s findings are based on actual (aggregate, anonymized) raw billing data collected from the activities of some 40,000 Clio users in the U.S. Utilization rates were based on an eight-hour day.
- Nine Vital Numbers for Your Law Firm’s Health by Larry Port
- Make What You’re Worth: Utility of the Fee Schedule by Jared Correia
- How Can Our Law Firm Recoup More of Its Costs?