Practice Tips

by Dave Bilinsky, Practice Management Advisor

Management moment

About 20 years ago, I was told a story. This particular story was true. It was about a man who was otherwise rather unremarkable, except for one little matter. Early in his life, he had set down a list of all the things he wanted to do in his lifetime. By the time he reached his 70s, he had managed to cross off all but a few remaining items — and was eagerly anticipating accomplishing the ones left on his list.

Person at desk, pensiveHow many of us can look back and say that we have used our time accomplishing those goals that matter most to us? How many of us have even taken the time to identify those goals? To take up the lyrics of Beautiful Boy by John Lennon: "Life is just what happens to you, while you're busy making other plans." How often do our plans actually reflect our values as opposed to just distracting us from the more important things in life? How do you set priorities, cull the wheat from the chaff and set your own journey to reclaim your life? Here are some suggestions:

  • Steven Covey, in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said: "Begin with the end in mind." Vision is a gift that has been valued in all cultures; possessing a vision of what you wish to do with your life is indeed being gifted. Take a moment and reflect on your values — what matters to you over all else? Write these down. Consider the different aspects of these values, as well as the people, the goals, and the timelines involved, to gain a perspective on what you are aiming at. Goals can be related to career, family, sport, art, attitudes, finances, self (mind and body), community and other people. Consider what accomplishing your goals would look like. Hold on to that vision.
  • To free up time for the most important matters in your life and in your work, you have to know how you spend your time. So ask yourself, "How do I spend my day?" Start making a log of all the activities that you do now and the amount of time you spend on them. Also track your energy levels during the day. Now look at the tasks and ask yourself, "Am I necessarily the best person for each of these? Can some of these be delegated? Are some make- work? What would happen if I stopped doing some of them? How much time is spent taking care of interruptions? Am I using my best time during the day on the most important tasks?"
  • Tasks can be divided into five categories, according to Edwin Bliss, author of Getting Things Done. These are Important and Urgent, Important but not Urgent, Urgent but not Important, Busy Work and Wasted Time. Go through your daily log and categorize your tasks. Tasks that are Important and Urgent are just that - it is rare that time is ever wasted on these matters. However, the last three categories tend to rob time from Important but not Urgent — the "stuff" that holds the most meaning for our lives but is pushed aside by the time-robbers. Gaining control over our lives, our goals and our priorities means having to corral the last three categories and get them out of our lives in order to give room to the matters that have meaning to us. What follows is further tips and techniques to do just this.

Making time for what matters most

  • Learn to say "no." People will try to encroach on your time for good and not so good reasons. Each time this happens, ask yourself, "Is this taking me closer to or away from my vision?" Put that way, saying no, politely but firmly, becomes easier.
  • Don't be a perfectionist. Achieving perfection is usually impossible, and setting too high a standard for yourself can result in procrastinating on matters because of the time and energy required to complete the task.
  • Recognize the danger of doing someone else's work. While it may be easier to do a task than to show someone else how to do it, in the long run, this means that you will end up doing it over and over again. Let the appropriate person try, and take time to correct the work knowing that, once this is done, you may never have to spend time on this again. As well, watch out for "Could you please do this? You are so much better at this than I am." While we all have to balance requests for our time, be vigilant for the well-meaning person who should be honing his or her skills rather than using yours. When assistants come to you with partly completed work, don't finish it for them - give them the information they require to do the job.
  • Make the people around you more efficient. While all of us have to deal with others, some of us have to deal with supervisors — be they partners, department heads or practice group leaders. When you spend time dealing with tasks that are ill-defined by others, whether in poorly run meetings or in striving for last-minute deadlines - your own schedule and deadlines will be adversely affected. Take time at the outset to clearly outline what is required from you. Establish a system to identify upcoming priorities early enough to avoid the deadly impact of deadlines. Furthermore, when people come to you with "urgent" requests, ask them to prioritize those requests in light of your existing deadlines. Chances are they will not want to incur someone else's displeasure by vaulting their request to the top of the pile.
  • Sharpen the saw. Covey recommends taking time to reflect. In other words, evaluate your own performance and reflect on whether you are so busy working that you have not taken a moment to see if there is a better way of proceeding. Build in time for training, development and "group thinking." Encourage people to come forward with ideas on how to make incremental improvements in how you go about your work.
  • Delegate, delegate, delegate. One of the best time-saving techniques is to give work to others — especially if that work would empower a delegate and allow you to supervise rather than doing the work directly. In a law firm setting, this translates to pushing work down to associates and paralegals - who can learn and, in turn, complete the task at a lower overall cost to the client. This allows you to have time to think and create strategy while the troops carry out the tactics. As for what to delegate, look at your activity log and start by delegating those busy-work and important but not urgent tasks. As you become comfortable with the new paradigm, you can start delegating urgent and important tasks.

    One added benefit: by becoming a mentor, you may find that associates start flocking to you, as they soon realize that you are passing out work that others horde - thereby allowing them to gain a wider range of experience. Be sure to set up a system to have the interim results brought to you early enough to allow you to make corrections mid-stream. Remember to support the associates while resisting the urge to do the work yourself. One other thing — shoulder the blame when something goes wrong and spread the credit when things go right - your associates will love you for it.
  • Make time for the right people. It is understood that, before you delegate anything, you must be comfortable with the delegate's ability to tackle the task. Take time to find and nurture the right people. Spend time on the Cs — communicating, checking and coaching — and not the Ds — despairing, digging in and doing.
  • Make time for yourself. Part of the reason for managing your time is to create time for the important but not urgent matters, such as getting in the exercise you need. Take the time to start new habits and feel good about yourself and you will be encouraged to continue along on this new path.
  • Follow Covey's remaining five habits: Be proactive, Put first things first, Think win/win, Seek first to be understanding, then to be understood, and Synergize. Putting first things first translates to ensuring that all the facets of a job are understood and communicated prior to starting on the work.

    In the context of a client file, it is equivalent to understanding the client's desired cost and outcome of a matter, rather than making an assumption that leads to a costly misunderstanding. Thinking win/win is searching for a way to solve a problem that meets everyone's needs. This technique is frequently used in alternative dispute resolution negotiations.

    Seek first to be understanding, then to be understood means truly listening and being empathetic prior to communicating. For lawyers who are trained advocates, this can be a bit of a leap, since we are paid to put forward a position rather than truly hear someone else's.

    Synergize means being comfortable being open and honest with people on the understanding that they are doing the same with you and both of you are looking for a "third alternative" that allows everyone to reach to a higher level.
  • Concentrate on results, not on process. Effective leaders do not care how a job is done — they only concentrate on the goal. Effectively managing a busy practice depends on working with and managing busy people and not on looking busy. In the final analysis, ask yourself: If I were the client, would I be happy paying my hourly rate to do this task or would I be just as happy if an associate were to do it? Use that yardstick to determine how to change and still keep your clients happy.

After all, just think about all the things you could do if you could just stop worrying about wasted time...