Billable Hours, In-House Counsel, Practice Pointers

Moonlighting: Low-Value Work (or, How to Catch Up on Glee)

Are your in-house working hours recently rivaling the billable hours you thought you had permanently discarded? Is your workload getting way too heavy — i.e., it’s really getting difficult to watch Glee on a timely basis? Do you find yourself working on pretty much the same form of contract over and over and over and over and over and over and over, ad infinitum?

It may be time to take a break and evaluate the problem of Low-Value Work.

What’s Low-Value Work? It’s work that has three main characteristics….

First, it has low financial value, i.e., it’s not going to bring in megabucks for the company. Megabucks being relative, of course, depending on the size of your company. Second, even if you don’t work on Low-Value Work, chances are low that something will go wrong (e.g., losing a lot of money or somebody ending up in jail). Third, it’s not appropriately sophisticated or complex for your level — if you’re starting to find a particular task mind-numbingly repetitive and boring, it may be a Low-Value Work problem. (Of course, if you’re starting to find ALL of your work mind-numbingly boring, you may instead have a Just Put Yourself Out of Your Misery, Dude, and Get Another Job problem.)

If you’re not sure whether a particular task is Low-Value Work, you can run the question by more senior attorneys or business people. But use some common sense here. Asking your boss whether the project that the CEO highlighted at last week’s town hall is Low-Value Work just may not your brightest step. May as well also ask him if he’s noticed that his face warts make it look like his chin is birthing a baby alien. Work with me, people.

Be sure to distinguish low value from low priority. There may be a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that’s high priority at the moment because it needs to be completed in order for everyone to work on the larger deal that’s actually high value. But the fact that the NDA is a fire drill doesn’t change the fact that it’s Low-Value Work. It just means that it’s Low-Value Work that somebody has to do quickly.

Spending a lot of time on Low-Value Work causes plenty of increasing problems. For one thing, it’s inefficient: senior people doing junior work is not the best allocation of resources.

It’s also less profitable: the company’s paying higher salaries for simpler work. Even a lawyer can see that the math doesn’t quite work out here (in a way that means you should keep an updated LinkedIn profile and résumé handy in case anyone upstairs figures it out, too).

And if you’re trying to juggle all of the work that is appropriate for your position, together with all of the Low-Value Work you probably shouldn’t be doing, that workload will lead to longer and longer hours, and will eventually end up in big, bad burnout. Plus, all that time you’ve used on Low-Value Work will mean time that you could have spent focusing on more important skills or developing your career. Or other important life goals, like tweeting The Voice.

Meanwhile, junior staff don’t receive the responsibilities and training opportunities they should be getting for their career development. Morale decreases and your underlings see doors above them that appear to be permanently bolted (by you). They start to fantasize about ways that you’re no longer in the picture due to an unfortunate “accident.” Not a good situation.

So what are some ways to deal with Low-Value Work? One is to just stop doing it. Scheduling periodic meetings where, as a team, you can identify which work has the lowest value per level and then brainstorm solutions on how to deal with it. Bring lots of sweet treats and “creative” toys like Play-Doh to trick your colleagues into thinking it’s a fun, team-building exercise. (Or at least bring the candy to help keep them awake during the meeting — lots of sugar is KEY — we’ve all still got truckloads of leftover Halloween candy, right? Despite what you keep telling yourself each time you pass by the candy stash, it’s seriously not a good plan to eat all of those mini Mars bars on a daily basis through next Halloween.)

For simple form agreements, you may be able to come up with a process so that business clients can complete them on their own. Or devise a set of standard contractual terms and conditions that can be attached to simpler proposals, estimates, invoices, etc. Here’s a hint: if you put the final version in microscopic font, double-columned on the page, they’ll look short and official and no one will want to ruin their vision by trying to read them! You can also create training guides or cheat sheets for the business clients to use to prep documents and info before they send them to you. The key here is to keep them short and pretty (i.e., not like a legal document); otherwise, they’ll never get used.

You can also delegate the work. Figure out whether junior lawyers (or maybe even paralegals or administrative assistants) can be trained to handle what is Lower-Value Work for you, but maybe not for them. As you know, the classic problem with delegation is that it takes time and effort to train someone. For any discrete task, it’s quicker and easier to just do it ourselves. Scheduling periodic training sessions can at least help you not to have to worry about spending extra hours training someone for a particular project under a looming deadline.

You can also determine whether the work can be delegated externally. Since there are already a lot of other articles out there on this topic, I won’t elaborate here. (I’ll save it for the day I run out of blog topics.)

If none of these suggestions work for you, there could be other reasons why you’re stuck doing Low-Value Work. Maybe you just don’t have the budget to pay for additional resources. Or, for whatever reason, you don’t trust those around you enough to delegate that work to them. Whatever the case, it can still be helpful to schedule periodic evaluations to figure out how to solve a Low-Value Work situation. Brainstorm and talk to others for ideas. Get creative. And if there are strategies that have worked for you, please let me know. I’m really behind on The Mentalist.

Ed. note: Moonlighting usually appears on Fridays, but due to the Thanksgiving holiday, we’re publishing it today (as we did for Job of the Week as well).

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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