Career Center, Career Files, Lawyers

A New Paradigm for Attorney Time Management

Attorneys have a strongly-held belief that if we are getting behind and we need to get caught up, we must work faster, do more things at once, work into the night, skip the gym, eat lunch at our desks, and (once again) miss dinner with the family. In the old paradigm, we focus on time—how much time we have, how much time we spend, how much we can get done in a particular amount of time. We try to “squeeze things in.” We work faster, more and harder. Yet we still feel behind.

This paradigm does not work very well for most attorneys. It is what has resulted in so much of the burnout and dissatisfaction with the practice. In this old paradigm, we may get “caught up” in the short run—the brief is filed on time—but in the long run we are never caught up, leading to repeated late nights at the office and more frustration.

A New Paradigm

What is the new paradigm? For starters, it is not one in which you work faster, but where you make better and smarter choices. You will look at where you spend your time in a whole new way. Let’s illustrate with a common example. If you are like many attorneys, you stop every 20 to 30 minutes (or every four to five minutes) to check your email. You can do this all day long and still not get that inbox cleaned out. We suggest you check your email less frequently. For most people, this sounds absurd. How can I catch up if I check it less frequently?

Calendar a certain amount of time—say thirty to forty-five minutes—in the morning and in the afternoon to check and respond to your email. Maybe you want to check it three times per day. Experiment with the frequency. What is important is that you have specific times and an amount of time that you devote to your email, and for the rest of the day you ignore it. Surprisingly, this frees up a lot of time. Why?

First, when you check your email at a specific time, that is all you are doing; your brain is not distracted, but is focused solely on your email. By the same token, during other parts of the day, you are not distracted by your email and are more efficient at each task. Second, you are not wasting precious minutes throughout the day constantly transitioning from one thing to another.

The way you currently manage your time is probably mainly unconscious. We tend to manage our time based on patterns and habits we developed when we were younger—in school or in our first job, by observing our parents or our first bosses—and we never consciously thought much about it. Now is the time to change all that.

Because so many attorneys spend their time “putting out fires,” in explaining the New Paradigm, we use the metaphor of the firefighter. In this paradigm, we do the following:

1. Move away from “fire fighting.”

Most attorneys spend a great deal of time “putting out fires,” rushing, hurrying and dealing with emergencies. Most attorneys operate at a high level of stress. When we are highly stressed, we cannot see anything other than what is right in front of us. So when you get an emergency deadline—one you must spend all your time on for fear you won’t meet it—you focus all of your time and energy on that one thing. And yet there are many other important tasks that need your attention, which have not yet become emergencies, that you are ignoring while you are fighting that fire. And when you have met that deadline and the smoke has cleared, you find other items that have become emergencies onto which you now have to put all your attention, to the exclusion of still other important tasks that have not yet become emergencies. And so on. Such is the life of the firefighter. What you may notice is that these tasks become emergencies largely because of where you place your attention, energy and focus, and what you consequently ignore.

The emergency cycle is largely reactive and short-term in nature. When we work only on emergencies, we focus only on what is right in front of us. We do not see how this work connects to our larger mission; we usually see only how doing this work will keep us from getting in trouble. Attorneys who operate this way do not believe they can effectuate change; they rarely, if ever, feel their heads are above water. And they often become addicted to the adrenaline rush of the emergency. As such they find themselves more and more in “emergency” mode. These attorneys tend to “crash” after a big project is completed and find no way to motivate themselves to the next project.

2. Spend more time “fireproofing.”

So what is the answer? If you are always fighting fires, you may benefit from some “fireproofing.” Fireproofing activities are those that keep fires from starting in the first place. As you notice from the above firefighting scenario, the firefighter’s behavior actually causes more and more fires to occur. So we recommend a different behavior that consists of four basic activities:

• Plan
• Pay attention to relationships
• Take care of yourself
• Know and choose from your values and purpose

In brief, you will change much if you step out of the unconscious constant reaction into a proactive decision to prepare and plan your projects and your days. This way you step out from behind the eight ball and you make and follow a plan, thereby taking back control of your days, weeks, months and years.

If you pay attention to relationships – listen to people who are important to you (clients, spouses, employees), make time for them – you will reduce resentment, confusion and miscommunication. You will increase rapport, trust and cooperation. This is a small investment of time that will pay dividends of saved time in the future.

Attorneys tend to run themselves until they can’t run anymore. Like the motor of a car, you will give out in the end, but last much longer if you engage in self-maintenance. Again, time invested in caring for your physical machine now will save you time down the road. When you sleep enough, you work better. When you exercise, you have more energy. The cause and effect may not be obvious, but it is there.

Finally, when you work from your values and purpose, you are more intentional. You make choices that lead toward a greater outcome and you make better decisions about what to work on at any given time. This will keep you looking to the greater goal rather than focusing on that one more thing in front of you.

In the end, fireproofing takes the long view and suggests that you make choices with the big picture in mind, that you ask “will this be important to me in the long run?” In this way, you take back control, you work more on what will make the biggest difference than on all the emergencies. And ultimately you have fewer fires.

3. Seek to eliminate “stray sparks” by reducing and eliminating distractions and interruptions

Distractions are the stray sparks that lead to additional fires. Track your time and see where you spend it. You may be surprised to learn how often you are distracted and derailed by things that do not need your immediate attention. We call these distractions and interruptions “stray sparks.” Often you will be faced with seeming “emergencies”, but when you look more closely at them, you realize they do not need your immediate attention. Generally speaking, we call these “other people’s urgencies.”

If you are very emergency-oriented, you might not see the difference between the following:

• A brief that is due tomorrow
• Preparing for a meeting that starts in an hour
• A client who wants to talk to you about her case right now
• An ex parte motion
• An associate who is standing in your doorway with an urgent question
• A ringing phone
• An email that just came in dinging on your computer

When you consciously assess these “urgencies,” though, you will probably notice that certain of them do not actually require your attention at that moment. These may include the following:

• The client who wants to talk to you right now
• The associate standing in your doorway
• The ringing phone
• The email dinging on your computer

Learning the difference between true emergencies and items that you can schedule for later requires practice. Start asking yourself if those things that just “came up” really require your immediate action.

4. Employ the “controlled burn” method of reducing and eliminating time-wasters.

What is ironic about time management is that we race around putting out fires and then “find ourselves” on Facebook or cruising the internet or watching television for hours at a time. Why would we do this? Simply: we are burnt out.

As such, we recommend that when you find yourself wasting time, you ask yourself what you need in this moment, honoring the fact that your “time wasting” indicates you need some sort of break. We call this the “controlled burn” because it recognizes that fire has its place: when controlled, it clears the underbrush and old dead trees to make room for new growth, as well as protecting against larger, more disastrous fires. In the same way, allowing yourself to “waste” time can be very nourishing for your psyche if done in a conscious manner and within certain limits.

Cami McLaren specializes in coaching attorneys individually and in law firms. Informed by her own experiences practicing law for 16 years, Cami teaches and coaches to improve communication skills, create more effective and positive relationships, develop better time management skills and increase productivity. Cami presents workshops on these topics to law firms, bar associations and the public. She has written articles for various legal publications. Her book Coaching for Attorneys: Improving Productivity and Achieving Balance will be published by the ABA in December 2013. Click here to learn more and to reserve your copy.

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