Building Good Practice Management Habits

It’s that time of year again – articling students in Manitoba are wrapping up their year and looking ahead to their Call to the Bar and beginning their careers as lawyers. Some will continue to practice in the firms where they received their articles, while others will move to new firms or set out on their own. Regardless the setting, all will need to develop good practice and time management habits.

I’ve spoken with articling students in the past about the relevance of learning time management techniques at a point in their career when they have so little control over how their time is spent. While the students agreed that time management skills would be useful for lawyers who control the flow of their own work, the general feeling expressed was that for articling students or junior associates, the standard techniques (e.g. setting priorities, delegating, managing interruptions or scheduling “do not disturb” times) could not be effectively used.

In delving further into the subject, the basis for their lack of enthusiasm for the topic becomes apparent. Junior lawyers and articling students are frequently pulled in multiple directions at once. They are concurrently learning their craft, serving the needs of the lawyers who feed them work, and seeking to win the favour of firm management, all the while trying to balance getting the work done with doing it well. While the necessity of juggling these competing demands confirms the need for new lawyers to develop strong personal practice management habits, it is easy to see how, from their perspective, learning such skills becomes just another “neither urgent nor important” item on their already very long to-do lists.

Yet we know that developing personal practice management skills at an early stage of practice is both “urgent and important.” Some of the obvious benefits include:

  • Risk management – We know that calendaring errors, poor communications and missed limitation periods lead to claims of professional negligence. Keeping the malpractice claims at bay is one of the key reasons to ensure newly called lawyers are properly trained in effective practice management techniques.
  • Complaint prevention – Reinforcing good communication habits can eliminate one of the most common bases for client complaints to law societies. A lack of or poor communication between a lawyer and their own client frequently leads to quality of service complaints.
  • Maintaining balance – Developing strong practice management, and in particular, time management skills helps lawyers to balance their professional, volunteer and home or personal interests, thereby contributing to their personal well-being.
  • Personal satisfaction – Good practice management skills ease the stresses often associated with legal practice, making it possible to both enjoy and thrive in the practice of law.

Outlining these benefits may help new lawyers to appreciate the need to give greater priority to developing their practice management muscles, but likely won’t go far enough. A more effective technique is through mentoring and modelling these skills. Working as a junior lawyer on a file typically provides opportunities to learn both by doing and by watching and listening to experienced lawyers. It is trite, but true that actions speak louder than words. Where effective time and practice management techniques are modelled by senior lawyers, junior lawyers will learn these skills and develop good work habits.

Of course, the converse is also true. Bad habits learned early are hard to break and can be costly to a firm in the long run. For this reason, training junior lawyers to work efficiently and effectively while meeting (or exceeding) professional obligations in respect of client service and communications should be a priority for firms of all shapes and sizes, and especially for those mentoring and acting as principals.

(Based on The Importance of Managing Your Practice When You Don’t Yet Control It, published in CLIA Loss Prevention Bulletin No. 50, Fall 2010)

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