Lawyers are intelligent, capable human beings who sometimes find it almost impossible to manage their time well. The reason could be that too much is expected of them; that they like to do things very well before moving on and that takes time; that they under-estimated how long an activity will take; that when activities involve dealing with others, time becomes a variable; that they have to spend valuable time cleaning up someone else’s work; that they have other people’s work dumped on them…the list goes on.
These are reasons but not excuses. Productivity is usually tied to efficiency and efficiency is about planning and preparing. As I’m fond of saying, it’s far more efficient to get the vaccine beforehand than to have to deal with the illness later.
The best way to prepare is to create a documented plan: determine your goals, then decide how you will achieve them. The best planning has lots of detail including precisely what needs to be done, and a deadline for when you will do it. More on that below, but for those who started sweating as soon as they heard the “p” word, you might want to start with a more immediate way to improve your efficiency.
One of the best tools I’ve discovered for teaching lawyers how to become more efficient is Stephen Covey’s four quadrants. Stephen Covey was an efficiency expert. You might remember his most famous book: “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. Spoiler alert: facing life as it hits you is not one of those habits. Stephen was all about deep thinking, personal goal setting, and planning how you’ll get there. To help people who weren’t planners but clearly needed help, he developed the four quadrants.
Quadrant #1: Urgent and Important: For lawyers, this is the stuff that must be done right now. An injunction, dealing with a client in trouble, or doing some client work for a meeting that will happen in an hour and that you’ve known about for over a month but didn’t start to work on until ten minutes ago. This quadrant would also include the work that another lawyer dumps on you at the last minute (provided it’s important to your career to help them out of this pinch). Lawyers spend far too much of their time in this quadrant. Some even force themselves into this quadrant because they feel that the accompanying adrenalin will help them to produce a superior product. This is not true, as dealing with issues through adrenalin cuts off access to the part of the brain that can do creative problem solving and has empathy. Aim to spend 10% or less of your time here.
Quadrant #2: Not Urgent and Important: This is where we want to spend 80% of our time because time spent here will make us more efficient in all areas of a practice. This is where we develop systems and processes, create great precedents, build good relationships, learn important skills, and do planning and careful implementation. We can also create outstanding legal work in this quadrant, because we take the time to think deeply and broadly about an issue or process. This is where creative solutions and strategy really happen. Spending time here should significantly reduce the amount of time we spend in quadrants 1 and 3. Quadrant 2 activities make us more efficient and productive, and ultimately make us feel the best, in the long-run.
Quadrant #3: Urgent and Not Important: This quadrant usually holds lesser-important activities that could have been done sooner – probably should have been done sooner – but weren’t and now they are on fire. A classic example is a tooth ache. Or a report that you promised for today but didn’t get to yet. Lawyers spend far too much time here. Unfortunately, that can jeopardize important relationships. I’m referring to things you promised to do, but waited until the last possible second to do (and then did poorly). Items in this category are often related to family members, which may help to explain the high divorce rate in the profession. This quadrant also holds activities that are forced on you by a higher-up who left it too long and now needs you to clean up their mess. You’ll have to spend some time here but try to keep it to within 10%.
Quadrant # 4: Not Urgent and Not Important: It’s difficult for me to list law firm activities in this quadrant because if they aren’t urgent or important, why are you doing them? Some lawyers have suggested that time keeping and billing are in this quadrant but I believe those are too important to a practice to be quadrant 4 activities. Possibly after-hours socializing could come under this category if it’s quite frequent. Or internet surfing at lunch. But in my mind, downtime (like a walk around the block) has value in a work day. Whatever you consider to be quadrant 4 activities, try to avoid them at work if at all possible. Another option is to delegate those tasks (both at home and at work). For example, one of my quadrant 4 activities is cleaning, so I have a cleaning service.
I encourage coaching clients to do a quadrant assessment about twice a year to increase their self-awareness about how they are spending their time. I find that this exercise also increases their sensitivity to when they can take on more quadrant two activities. Whereas before they might not have considered “how” to improve their efficiency, once they understand the quadrants they start to look for ways to undertake those types of activities and thus, increase their efficiency. They also find that they can use quadrant 2 activities to stop people from dumping a quadrant 1 or 3 activity on them. For example, they might develop a better communication process with their assistant; hold regular project or file touchpoint meetings with a partner or client; establish goals, plans, budgets and timelines and share those with team members; advise their working teams of their capacity (to take on more work – or not) on a more regular basis, etc.
For more information on this time management tool and to access a grid you can complete, click here:
Once the quadrants have been explored and a lawyer has a better handle on where and how they are spending their time, the real planning can begin.
Start by developing a list of goals. They must be specific, so that it is clear when they’ve been achieved. “Improve my business development” is not a clear goal. “Bring in $100k of new work” is clear. “Cross-sell to other departments” is not clear. “Cross-sell $10k of work to the employment group” is clear.
Once you have your clear list of goals, determine how they will be achieved. It’s probable that each goal will require more than one action item in order to achieve the goal, so consider the many ways in which you can work toward each goal and develop a list of action items accordingly.
Beside each action item, include a due date. Ensure that your due dates are spread throughout the year. It is unsustainable for a plan to have all action items in the month of September. You want to ensure that at the end of each quarter, you’ve accomplished a healthy list of action items toward your goals.
Track your successes. That which gets measured gets done. Celebrate your accomplishments by marking off what you’ve done and note any results. This has the additional benefit of enabling you to determine which actions are working, and which are not. If your plan needs tweaking, then make those changes. Plans are not etched in stone. They are living documents that are constantly adjusted as needed.
Review your plan regularly (at least once a month but ideally, once a week) to ensure you are reminded of your goals and the action items that are due. That’s the best way to ensure that that action items in your plan get done, and that you work steadily toward your goals. In fact, research shows that having and regularly reviewing a documented plan increases its chance of success by 80%.
Staying on top of a plan also helps to filter out requests and opportunities that don’t align with your intended goals. In the absence of a constant reminder of what we want to accomplish, we can have a tendency to believe that any work (or marketing) is good for us. It’s not, and it’s often simply a distraction and waste of energy. Having and regularly reviewing a plan keeps us focused and ultimately, far more productive.
It’s not that hard to be productive when you control your actions. I find it ironic that lawyers – members of a profession so focussed on autonomy and control – spend so much time reacting to the world around them rather than taking charge of their time and actions. This isn’t that difficult, but it does require a bit of discipline. It also requires that we rid ourselves of the notion that we do better work when we’re out of control.