Time Management Tips to Increase
Law Firm Productivity and Profitability
It is difficult to find a profession where the old expression “time is money” is more relevant than in the practice of law. Whether you bill by the hour or on a contingency basis, your ability to deliver quality legal work in a timely fashion is paramount to revenue generation and profitability. If you bill by the hour, your revenue is capped by the number of hours you are able to bill. If you bill on contingency, revenue is dependent upon moving cases to conclusion as quickly as possible, and the number of cases you can handle is directly related to your efficiency at getting the work done.
One of the greatest challenges lawyers face in billing productivity is time management. This is especially true among small firms and solo practices where lawyers have to wear many hats and deal with numerous non-billable activities that divert them from client matters. At the end of the day, it is common to hear lawyers say, “I don’t know where the day went. I’ve been working hard all day, but I didn’t seem to get anything done.” To help improve the use of your time, let’s examine common causes of lost productivity and some solutions that will help you improve it.
How Inefficiency is Hurting Your Practice
While it seems obvious that inefficiency is bad for your practice, often lawyers don’t realize how many areas this touches.
Revenue – Naturally, if we are inefficient, we will bill fewer hours simply because the time we would otherwise be billing is consumed with non-billable activities. The fewer hours we bill, the less revenue we have to collect. Additionally, constant distractions and interruptions can cause us to lose billable hours that we actually produced, but didn’t write down. When we get interrupted, unless we are meticulous about stopping the clock and noting the time of the interruption (which we almost never do), we tend to lose track of the amount of time we spent on the interruption. This problem compounds when we get successive interruptions that lead to diversions into other projects. Suddenly, we can have four projects going simultaneously and have no idea how much time we put in on each of them. The natural tendency is to give clients the benefit of the doubt and underestimate our time. Start-stop inefficiency can cost lawyers who bill by the hour up to an hour a day of billable time. If we lose one-tenth in each interruption, and we get interrupted ten times, we’ve lost an hour. Most lawyers get interrupted at least that many times each day.
For contingency lawyers, revenue is dependent on how many files one can handle effectively. Also, we don’t get paid until the cases conclude, so every minute we delay will delay the receipt of fees. Thus, inefficiency can have a serious impact on cash flow.
Work Quality – Excellent work product requires sustained concentration. Whenever we get interrupted, and then come back to what we were working on, we get the “Where was I?” effect. We were in the middle of an idea or analysis, and now we need to trace our thought process to pick up where we left off. This makes projects take longer than they should, and it sometimes causes us to lose our train of thought, as a brilliant idea slips away.
Stress – Inefficiency slows the progress of workflow. This has a tendency to push projects back, often dangerously close to deadlines. As we move closer to the deadline, the pace at which we work becomes more frantic. We may find it necessary to take shortcuts that compromise our work product. All of these factors increase our stress levels, as we begin to fear we won’t be done in time, we won’t be fully prepared, or that the work is incomplete or below our standards.
Marketing – Good marketing is essential to maintain a vibrant practice. However, for most lawyers, marketing takes a back seat to the work on their desks. If they are pressed for time, they forgo marketing activities to meet their deadlines. Inefficiency causes marketing time to disappear under the crush of imminent deadlines that become urgent due to distractions that keep pushing the work back. Thus, marketing suffers. Then suddenly the work dries up and panic ensues. Good marketing requires consistent effort. Inefficient work flow makes it very difficult to devote the time necessary to keep a steady flow of matters coming through the door.
Causes of Lost Productivity
In a perfectly efficient billable day, if you worked for eight hours you would bill eight hours, or if you are a contingency attorney, you would work eight hours on client matters. Of course, everyone knows this is next to impossible. Each day there will be numerous interruptions that will divert you from your quest for efficiency.
Staff Interruptions – Throughout the day, your staff will likely be asking you questions about client calls, workflow priorities, or how to proceed on client matters. These interruptions are often essential for the staff to be effective. However, the interruptions themselves, while helping to increase staff productivity, reduce the attorney’s productivity. The key to good time management is the timing of when you handle these interactions.
Firm Administration – If you are the managing partner, a solo practitioner, or have assigned administrative tasks, these tasks can divert a significant amount of time away from work on client matters. While necessary, if you don’t manage these tasks effectively, they can usurp your day. It is important to weave these activities into your daily priority list, and not get sucked into a vortex of administrative tasks.
Client Phone Calls – Client calls are usually essential to your ability to make progress on their matters, but sometimes they are more about client anxiety and hand-holding. Being effective at knowing when to take client phone calls, and when not to, is an essential part of good time management.
Emails –Emails can be a black hole of time consumption, because they are so numerous and can create incessant distractions, since many of them are junk. Still, for many lawyers, every ping causes them to reflexively look up at the screen to see what just came in. Proper email management can add hours to your productivity and continuity of workflow.
Outside Distraction – These are non-billable, non-business related activities that are better left to be done after business hours. We are constantly inundated with temptations to wander from our important business tasks and follow the siren call of seemingly urgent, but unproductive activities. These must be resisted at all costs.
Production Line Processing – Many people fall into a production line mentality as their default strategy for processing work. This involves taking tasks sequentially as they present themselves instead of filtering them through a system of priorities before working on them. When you use production line processing, your priority is simply to handle the next item in line regardless of its actual importance. You are reacting to your work rather than organizing the most important items to give them your most immediate attention. By default, you are creating a false sense of urgency (it calls to me, because it is in front of me) regardless of importance. This can lead to crises when important tasks get delayed by trivial ones that happened to present themselves first. This creates stress as well as inefficiency.
Taking Control of Your Time
The first thing to remember in becoming more efficient is that your current level of productivity is the result of your work habits. Often, we develop these habits organically, without thinking much about how we handle our work. However, once entrenched, they can be difficult to change, because your methodology for work is mostly programmed. Your response to distractions, as well as the way you prioritize work, have inadvertently been locked in, based on years of repetition. To take control of your time, you must first acknowledge that your work habits are not as efficient as you would like, and then make a commitment to change them. It will require discipline, self-awareness and persistence, but any habit can eventually be reshaped if you are determined to do so. Below are some tips for improving your productivity.
Track Your Time – The first step in making a change is to fully understand what needs to be changed. The best way to become mindful of your current work habits is to track the time you spend on everything you do for a week. You can do this in your billing software by creating non-billable categories (naturally, billable work will be posted as always), or you can create a spreadsheet for non-billable time in various categories. It is important while establishing this baseline that you meticulously log everything, including the things you might be embarrassed to admit you actually do at work. This never fails to be an eye opening experience. In all likelihood, this will reveal more than an hour a day where you inadvertently contribute to your own inefficiency. It will also give you a sense of the challenge ahead.
Setting Priorities – One of the most important skills to learn to improve work efficiency is to set clear priorities for the work to be done each day, and to keep those projects on the front burner. Without having these priorities established in your mind, it is far too easy to fall into production line processing. Each morning should begin with ten minutes of planning, creating a daily to-do list. Most people have to-do lists, either written or in their minds, but these are generally mid to long-term lists, so they don’t forget to do things they have been meaning to do for a while. The list you need to make each morning is a list of the most important things you need to get done that day, in order of priority. That list should be the focus of your day. Interruptions to the work on that list should be minimized.
Responsiveness vs. Accessibility – Lawyers really struggle with this concept. When their phones ring, be it cell phones or office phones, it is like an electric current shooting through their spines. They reflexively answer, as if something bad will happen if they don’t. Most lawyers feel it is important to be accessible to their clients, not realizing the incredible toll this takes on their productivity. This can become a source of constant interruptions, many of which come at inopportune times. An attorney’s work flow is full of ticking clocks. They have numerous concurrent deadlines, some imposed on them, and some based on commitments they have made. To work most efficiently, it is important to be working on the matters with the most imminent deadlines. However, clients imposing themselves with non-imminent issues inject delays into the flow of work on imminent matters. Invariably, such spontaneous client conversations make attorneys feel compelled to spend time on the calls, and perhaps spend time on the issues the clients mentioned, diverting them from the imminent matters on their desks. This leads to delay, which increases stress and reduces both efficiency and effectiveness.
When you allow clients immediate access, they can easily take over your day and scramble your workflow priorities. Remember that being accessible to one client pushes back the work you are doing for another client, and it may be doing the latter a disservice, especially if a deadline is looming. For this reason, focus on being responsive rather than accessible. Responsiveness means getting back to clients within a reasonable amount of time, or having an associate or paralegal call them back. Perhaps, rather than returning their calls right away, email them with quick answers, or tell them you are temporarily unavailable and give them a choice of times when you can speak with them. This shows them that you are responsive, and it also puts the call in a place that is appropriate based on your workflow priorities.
Consider whether that spontaneous conversation has the same level of priority as other tasks from your to-do list, which you need to accomplish that day. When you delay your response to low priority calls, you maintain control of your workflow, rather than ceding it to whichever client decides to call you at that moment. Being responsive instead of accessible allows you to focus on the most imminent and important work on your desk rather than allowing interruptions that delay that work and disrupt your focus.
Cell Phones – A large factor that invites client accessibility is giving clients your cell phone number. This is something I strongly recommend against. While many lawyers feel that this indicates that they are there for their clients, and that they are giving them superior personal service, usually the opposite is true. When people have your cell phone number, they expect instantaneous access, and if they don’t get it they expect immediate response. If response if not immediately forthcoming, they get impatient, feeling that you are ignoring them, because obviously you had your phone with you and knew they were calling. Additionally, as noted above, when you allow access to everyone, everyone suffers, because each client who reaches you pushes back the work of all the rest of your clients without regard to imminence. Force clients to go through the switchboard. It provides a layer of insulation that helps you better manage your day.
Work Zones –Work zones refer to sequestered time slots where you work exclusively on one project to the exclusion of all else. During this period, you do not allow any interruptions. You treat this time as if you were in court. You are incommunicado. Work zones will be one of the most powerful concepts in your time management arsenal. During a work zone, you do the following:
- Select a project that you will work on to the exclusion of all else
- Set a start and end time for the work zone
- Set your phone to “Do Not Disturb”
- Inform whoever answers your phone to tell callers that you will not be available until the time you set as the end of the work zone
- Turn off your cell phone
- Turn off you email
- Close the door to your office
- Work exclusively on the assigned project
During this time, discipline yourself not to stray from the assigned task. Imagine that as you are working, the client whose work you are doing is sitting in the room. Under these circumstances, you would not likely be taking phone calls, looking at text messages, surfing the internet or randomly flitting from file to file. You would be working on the matter that this specific client brought you. This should be your frame of mind.
For optimal efficiency, I recommend you schedule two work zones per day, ideally, 90 minutes to two hours in duration. So, you might schedule one from 9:30 AM to 11:30 AM and a second from 2:00 PM to 4:00PM. If you do this every day, you will be assured of no less than four hours uninterrupted time on legal matters each day.
Upon emerging from the work zone, check your email, voice mail, and cell phone for any contacts you may have missed, and respond as appropriate. When outside your work zones, you will work as you have always done, responding to your workflow as usual, but still prioritizing your responses based on your to-do list for the day.
The benefits of work zones are as follows:
- You will capture all your time if you are billing hourly
- You will have better concentration and produce better work product
- You will get though projects in minimal time
- You will reduce stress from falling behind or feeling overwhelmed
- Your work will stay more organized, since only one file will be open on your desk at a time.
- You will work according to your priorities instead of being buffeted from distraction to distraction.
- You will have more time for important non billable work like marketing and leadership or perhaps more personal time for your child’s sporting event or recital.
Calendaring your Work Zones – Once you get used to using work zones, the next step is to begin calendaring your work zones in advance Select projects based upon timing considerations and make appointments with yourself to do those projects at specific times on specific days. This will assure you that urgent and important work does not get pushed back and turn into a 3 AM crisis. Staying ahead of the curve by using work zones will help you do your best work and reduce the stress of being pressed against deadlines at the last minute.
Effective time management is essential in the practice of law. There are so many time sensitive matters that can impact both profitability and the quality of your representation, that loss of productivity can hamper your success and dramatically increase your stress. Take charge of your day. Reduce distractions and work to your own priorities. This will greatly increase both the quality of your practice and the enjoyment of your work life.
Copyright © Art Italo, 2018. All Rights Reserved
Other Articles by Art Italo:
Starting a Small Firm or Solo Practice
How to Set Your Retainers and Fees
Marketing for the Small Firm and Solo Practitioner
Art Italo is a consultant working exclusively with attorneys in the areas of legal marketing, strategic planning, law practice management and success coaching since 1992.
He has developed and refined the concept of Leveraged Networking after over 15,000 hours of individual consultations with attorneys. He has personally consulted with over 500 attorneys in Atlanta and across the U.S. with practices ranging from solo practitioners to partners with major firms. Art has more than 35 years of marketing and management experience and holds an A.B. from Brown University and an M.B.A. from Pace University.
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