Even if your practice is not (yet) feeling the effects of the terrible financial situation facing many businesses, it does not mean that you should act as though it is “business” as usual. The best business and financial advice I ever heard was that you should manage your practice or business as if times are bad.
This month, I suggest we start our business review by examining how we manage or use our time, which is really what we “sell.” It is really important that we maximize the use of our time to make certain that we are doing all we can to protect our professional and personal lives. Carl Sandburg said, “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin that you have and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”
In order to make this a serious effort at managing our time, I recommend the book Time Management for Attorneys: A Lawyer’s Guide to Decreasing Stress, Eliminating Interruptions & Getting Home on Time, by Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis of Atticus, Inc. (www.atticusonline.net). Not only do I recommend the book, I plan to use the book to help me be more effective in my work here at the Maryland State Bar Association, so I can provide more and better services to our members. I plan on following the activities in the book and reporting on them monthly.
It is not possible to control our time, but it is possible to create habits and actions to help us use our time more effectively. This will allow us to get more work done with less stress and be more profitable.
I have read (and reported) on many time and stress-management books throughout the years. I have picked up many helpful tips which I have used. What I like about this book is that it is written specifically for attorneys and even more so for attorneys in small firms. It understands that the practice of law is a relationship business and meeting the needs of clients is critical to the success (or failure) of a practice. It also understands that there will be times when the “system” that you create may have to take a back seat. It is a flexible and workable system for those who really want to use their time more effectively and efficiently. Atticus is a legal consulting business founded in 1989 to teach attorneys how to get business. What they discovered was that even though they could teach attorneys how to get business, many complained that there was no time to use what they learned. So this book is designed to help attorneys learn to make time to get more clients.
The book’s introduction talks about the two approaches to time management: reactive and proactive. Reactive is when you feel that you are at the “mercy of circumstances”, whereas proactive is when you are the “designer” of your circumstances and not the “victim” of those circumstances.
The book gives a reactive and proactive style checklist. The reactive checklist includes many behaviors I hear from practitioners on many occasions, such as not having a long-range plan, not marketing your practice consistently, having many client crises, “generating income but not producing a real profit,” working with bad clients, poor delegation and feeling burned out.
The proactive style checklist is the complete opposite and says that in order to go from reactive to proactive, you must set personal “boundaries” and that these personal parameters are “designed not to limit your behaviors in a negative way but to create a healthier way of operating for the long term.” And, let’s face it, practicing law is a marathon and not a sprint. You are in this for the long haul, so planning is critical and managing your time is the number one step on that road to success. (NOTE: This is just as important whether you are new to the practice of law or in the middle or even near the end of your career. It is never too late to improve our skills. See: “Thinking Better in 2009”)
The book goes on to discuss in detail nine proactive strategies. Within each of these strategies there are exercises that must be completed which will be used to create “your plan” for getting the time that you need to improve your practice and ultimately your life. Being a somewhat impatient person, I have never liked these types of exercises, but I now believe that they are critical if we want to really create habits and strategies to improve our future.
The first strategy asks you to create a personal vision statement. The idea of a personal mission statement is not a new one, but Powers says it is necessary because “you must ensure that your career is serving your personal vision and not the other way around.” He believes that continuing to build your practice will be difficult if you do not see how it affects your personal life and vision.
The exercises are simple, but it helps a great deal to put them into writing, which I have begun doing. Although I thought it would be easy, I was surprised to discover I am not even sure what I always want my personal mission to be. The book includes a CD with the forms on it to make it easier (and quicker) to complete these exercises. The chapters also have examples of some strategies.
The exercises ask you to rank those items that matter most to you and how you spend your time on these items. It then asks a series of questions to help you actually write your mission statement. Chapter 2 then asks you to create your professional mission statement using the same technique.
The exercises are easy and worth doing. The only criticism I had was being asked to “rank” some of the actions, especially with the professional mission statement. It asks you to rank delivering high-quality work, working with clients you like and being profitable, among other goals. I think that many of the goals are equally important and had a difficulty ranking some of the items, but that is really a minor point and I have chosen to not rank the goals.
The remainder of the 135-page book walks you through techniques to meet your goals. The strategies include: how to set strategic goals; selecting clients wisely; how to schedule tasks to maximize your time; how to improve your office management; how to manage and handle interruptions; how to delegate and how to take a vacation, which is my personal favorite.
As previously indicated, I will be using the book to help me manage my time. I will be reporting back in the next issue and will hopefully have enough time to be able to begin bringing you my actual progress as I go through the process.