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Thursday Thinkpiece: The Productivity Pivot

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The Productivity Pivot: Building a Profitable Legal Practice by Selling Yourself One Hour Every Day

Jay Harrington is an attorney, author, coach and consultant to lawyers and law firms. Prior to starting his consulting firm, Harrington Communications, Jay practiced law at large law firms Skadden and Foley & Lardner, and also co-founded a boutique corporate restructuring firm. Jay also wrote The Essential Associate and One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Legal Practice.

ISBN: 978-0-9995545-5-5
Publisher: Harrington Communications LLC
Page Count: 167
Publication Date: July 22, 2020

Regular Price: $18.99 (paperback)

Excerpt: From Chapter 4–Sell Yourself One Hour Every Day

“Never leave ’till tomorrow which you can do today.”
—Benjamin Franklin

While Charlie would go on to become one of the richest people on earth, he started his career the way most lawyers do, with one eye on the clock making sure he recorded each minute he spent toiling away for his clients.

Charlie grew up in Nebraska and studied math at the University of Michigan before dropping out to join the U.S. Army Air Corps following the attacks at Pearl Harbor. Following his military service during World War II, he turned his attention to his career.

His father was a lawyer, as was his grandfather, so he decided to follow in their footsteps. He applied to Harvard Law School, his father’s alma mater, and was initially rejected because he had not completed his undergraduate degree. After some cajoling by a family friend named Roscoe Pound (who happened to be a former dean of Harvard Law School), Charlie was admitted and later graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1948.

After graduation, he moved to California with his family and began practicing law as an associate at a law firm. Early in his legal career, Charlie came to an important realization that would help set him on a path toward massive success—as a lawyer and then as an investor. He recognized that he was spending all of his time working on behalf of his clients. As a result, he was doing little to serve the person he came to realize was his most important client: himself.

For Charlie Munger, who went on to co-found powerhouse law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, and later became a billionaire businessman as Warren Buffett’s partner in Berkshire Hathaway, the realization that he was his own most important client led him to adopt a daily practice as a young lawyer that became critical to his long-term success. He began “selling” himself the most important hour of his day—every day, first thing in the morning—and he used the time to work on personal and professional development. He wasn’t satisfied with his circumstances, so he decided to work for himself—one hour every day—to improve them.

In an interview he gave for his authorized biography, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, Buffett recounts Munger’s approach: “Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, ‘Who’s my most valuable client?’ And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this, be the client, and then work for other people, too, and sell yourself an hour a day.”

Most lawyers think the path to success lies in devoting as much time as possible to working for paying clients. However, as Munger learned and Buffett observed, the best investment you’ll ever make is selling yourself one hour of your time every day.

Massive long-term success comes from making daily, incremental progress. As Munger advised in his book, Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger, “Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Day by day, and at the end of the day—if you live long enough—like most people, you will get out of life what you deserve.”

If you find the idea of carving out an hour every day to engage in business development activities unrealistic, you’re not alone. Despite the fact that one hour constitutes merely ten percent of most lawyers’ time each workday, they view an hour-per-day approach as unsustainable. What’s unsustainable, however, is the sporadic, frenetic alternative.

Many lawyers treat business development the same way most of us think about bathing suit season—we work hard at it when we need to. When spring break approaches, we hit the gym. When October rolls around, we start raiding our kids’ Halloween candy.

In the case of business development, when lawyers are slow at work, they ramp up their business development efforts, and then tamp things down when business picks up. Legal business development becomes a rollercoaster; a cycle of ups and downs that creates stress and uncertainty. Action is driven by urgency, not strategic planning.

The problem with a sporadic approach to business development is that lawyers often overreact and overcorrect when times get slow. They engage in a bluster of business development activity that brings in work—often more work than they can handle from clients who are a poor fit. Then they stop all business development activity to focus on the work they have. Then… you guessed it. The cycle repeats.

Lawyers who find themselves riding this up-and-down cycle typically lack an understanding of the sustained level of business development activity that is required to keep themselves, and others in their firm, busy on a consistent basis.

The key to business development success is to do the right thing, the right way, at the right time by forming a business development habit and investing in yourself every day. By forming a business development habit, you will ward off the procrastination that tends to creep in when client work gets busy. You’ll avoid the temptation to put off business development until it becomes imperative when things slow down.

It takes discipline to spend an hour connecting with prospects or writing a thought-leadership article when a brief is due at the end of the day. However, having the discipline to act when you have the urge to defer is what separates rain-makers from order-takers. It’s also what leads to a long-term business development habit. The more you do something, the more success you’ll have at it, and the more success you have, the more you’ll want to do the thing that led to it. By selling yourself an hour every day, you’ll create a positive cycle of business development activity that will continue to build momentum. By engaging in thoughtful and strategic business development activities, done at a specific time every day, it will become automatic and won’t require large expenditures of energy and willpower.

Consistent procrastination, on the other hand, may feel good in the short term, but is detrimental over the long term. In a study published in Psychological Science in 1997, researchers rated college students on a predefined scale of procrastination and then tracked their academic performance, stress, and general health throughout the semester. In the short term, students who were prone to procrastination realized some benefits. They had lower levels of stress compared to others, as they put off their work to pursue more enjoyable activities. Over the long term, the costs of procrastination significantly outweighed the temporary benefits. Procrastinators earned lower grades than more proactive students and experienced higher cumulative amounts of stress and illness.

Billing endless hours while procrastinating when it comes to business development activities is a short-term pitfall. A big billable day may give you a satisfying rush fueled by a release of dopamine. Because you like the way that feels, you’ll do your best to replicate the experience. Assuming there is plenty of work to do at your firm, clocking more billables is simple. You just have to do the work that’s in front of you. While legal work isn’t easy, its deadline-driven nature eliminates, or at least reduces, the risk of procrastination.

If you’re just getting started with business development, it’s unlikely to be a satisfying experience at first. Let’s face it, it’s going to be a while before you’re bringing in clients, so you can’t count on neurotransmitters like dopamine to keep yourself going. What is required is discipline, at least at the beginning. By giving in to your short-term desires, such as by prioritizing billable hours over everything else, you’ll pay the long-term price of never achieving a sense of autonomy in the practice of law.

Yes, there are some short-term trade-offs that you may have to accept if you commit to daily business development. Don’t worry, they’re worth it. As Charlie Munger said, “I have always wanted to improve what I do, even if it reduces my income in any given year.” By carving out an hour of time every day for business development activities, you may earn less this year, but you’ll gain much more in the end.

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